Living With an Alcoholic

The effects of an individual’s alcoholism ripple far beyond them, impacting everyone in their life. Partners and children are particularly vulnerable: they may suffer from emotional harm and domestic abuse; neglect their own needs; and experience trauma and develop unhealthy attachment styles that impact them for decades to come.

Living with an alcoholic partner

Spouses and partners are often the most exposed to the damaging effects of someone’s drinking, experiencing psychological, physical, and social trauma. 

They frequently report guilt, anger, frustration, desperation, hostility, isolation, and grief as a result of their partner’s drinking. They may neglect their own health, suffer damage to their finances and careers, and display symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. They may also be subject to domestic violence.[1]

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Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

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Co-dependence and enabling

Each relationship dynamic is unique, but family theory researchers have found common patterns among addicts and their partners.

Frequently, the partner assumes the role of enabler, trying to shield the alcoholic and the wider family from the consequences of addiction. They assume all of the alcoholic’s responsibilities, from financially providing for the household to caring for the children. They also help to cover up the drinker’s drinking and excessively tend to them, even when it’s detrimental to themselves. For this caretaking, they often receive praise from people external to the family and are unaware that they are contributing to the household's toxic dynamics and facilitating the alcoholic's continued drinking.[2]

Ultimately, the partner isn’t able to protect the family from all of the consequences of addiction or to make the alcoholic stop drinking. They often experience anger, guilt, self-blame, and low self-esteem as a result. 

Describing the partner of the alcoholic as an enabler isn’t intended to blame or shame them. Rather, they themselves can be seen as ill—co-dependent with the alcoholic, “addicted to them,” as Al-Anon puts it. They’re obsessed with the alcoholic's drinking and with trying to manage and control it, to the detriment of their own mental and physical health, finances, social lives, and other relationships.

Living with an alcoholic family member

Al-Anon, the mutual aid society for people affected by someone else’s drinking, says alcoholism is a “family disease,” one that causes shame, self-blame, damaged self-esteem, guilt, sorrow, and co-dependence throughout the entire family unit.

Alcohol addiction in the family can contribute to:

  • strained relationships and lack of trust between family members

  • family arguments

  • physical and emotional abuse

  • financial instability

  • divorce and dissolution of the family unit

More people than you’d expect have been affected by proximity to alcoholism. In 1988, 43% of adults had been exposed to alcoholism in the family, having either grown up with or married an alcoholic or problem drinker and had a close blood relative who was ever an alcoholic or problem drinker.[3]

Children of alcoholics

Exposed to a parent’s addiction and family dysfunction at a crucial time in their development, the children of alcoholics display symptoms of trauma and maladaptive behaviors that often linger into adulthood.

Amid family instability and chaos, the children of alcoholics don’t receive adequate attention and emotional support. This leads to behavioral issues, stress, low self-esteem, approval-seeking, fear of abandonment, fear of authority, and victim complexes. [4] Children of alcoholics are also at increased risk of abuse, neglect, child welfare involvement, and their own substance abuse issues.[5]

They also often experience parentification, pushed to act as caretakers, protectors, and mediators in place of their alcoholic parents. They’re asked to take on the physical chores of the home, including cooking and caring for siblings, and also the subtler roles of adulthood: providing emotional support and advice to the parent, keeping family secrets, including about the adult’s drinking, and getting involved in family conflicts. In the absence of the alcoholic's partner, the eldest child also often assumes the role of enabler.

Parentified children put the alcoholic parent’s needs over their own and thus become accustomed to ignoring their own feelings and needs. They develop an insecure attachment style, leading to unhealthy future relationships, featuring fear of abandonment, excess caregiving, extreme self-reliance, difficulties setting boundaries, and people-pleasing.[6]

Around one in 10 U.S. children live in a household with a parent who’s experienced alcohol use disorder in the past year.[5]

Adult children of alcoholics

The effect of a parent’s alcoholism is so predictable that children of alcoholics often show common traits. Janet G. Woititz, a counselor and herself married to an alcoholic, outlined 13 of these traits in her seminal book Adult Children of Alcoholics. 

According to Woititz, adult children of alcoholics:

  • guess what normal is

  • have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end

  • lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth

  • judge themselves without mercy

  • have difficulty having fun

  • take themselves very seriously

  • have difficulty with intimate relationships

  • overreact to changes over which they have no control

  • constantly seek approval or affirmation

  • feel they’re different than others

  • are very responsible or, conversely, very irresponsible

  • are very loyal, even when evidence suggests that loyalty is undeserved

  • are impulsive. They lock themselves into a course of action without fully considering alternative paths or potential consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. They then spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.[7]

Adult children of alcoholics are also more likely to abuse alcohol and other substances. One study found that children of addicts are eight times more likely to develop an addiction themselves, although this elevated risk likely emerges from both genetic and environmental factors.[8][9]

What should you NOT do with an alcoholic?

Living in close proximity to someone else’s destructive drinking can be difficult and damaging. Your instincts may also lead you astray and you can expose yourself to more harm and worsen the situation when you’re simply trying to help. 

Here’s what to avoid doing when dealing with a loved one’s alcoholism.

  • Don’t blame yourself. You aren’t responsible for their drinking.

  • Don’t make excuses for or cover up for the alcoholic. While you might wish to avoid embarrassment by concealing the alcoholic’s drinking from others, you’re not responsible for keeping their secrets, and doing so may be enabling.

  • Don’t try to control their drinking. Al-Anon stresses the three C’s: you didn’t cause the addiction, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. The decision to stop drinking must come from the alcoholic themselves. The help they need should come from professionals.

  • Don't assume all their responsibilities, especially at the expense of your well-being.

  • Don’t take their drinking personally. Their inability to stop drinking doesn't reflect your worth. 

  • Don’t accept that you’re the reason for their drinking. Alcoholics may push the blame onto you, saying you’re the reason they drink or promising to stop if you don’t nag them. Don't accept these excuses or assume the guilt that should be theirs.

  • Don’t try to discuss the alcoholic’s drinking when they’re drunk. They won’t be in the right frame of mind to hear you out and may become angry, defensive, or aggressive.

  • Don’t judge or blame them when discussing their drinking. Although you’ve likely been deeply hurt by the alcoholic’s drinking and behavior, you should try to be understanding and kind when discussing it with them. Judgment, blame, and anger can push them further into their addiction.

  • Don’t stay in an unsafe situation. If you feel you and others in your household are at risk of physical or emotional harm, you should distance yourself from the alcoholic. 

Alcoholism and domestic abuse

In many families, alcoholism is closely intertwined with domestic abuse, including violence and coercive behaviors, although there’s a dispute about why.

Certainly, intoxication increases the likelihood of violence from some people. It amplifies aggression, lowers inhibitions, and clouds judgment. In the United States, an estimated 30-40% of the men and 27-34% of the women who were violent towards their partners were intoxicated at the time of the incident.[10]

In general, people with substance abuse issues are more likely to be involved in domestic violence. One study found men who are dependent on alcohol or drugs are six to seven times more likely to perpetrate domestic abuse against women.[11] Similarly, parents with substance abuse disorders, including alcoholism, are three times as likely to abuse their children physically or sexually.[12] Sometimes violence can occur in the context of conflict over someone’s drinking.

However, researchers stress that alcoholism doesn’t cause or excuse domestic abuse. Many heavy drinkers don’t abuse their family members, while some teetotallers do. Alcoholism and domestic violence may simply be overlapping social problems, common in the same population. 

Additionally, domestic abuse encompasses other behaviors beyond violence, including economic control, sexual violence, and intimidation. Little or no relationship has been found between these forms of abuse and alcoholism.[13]

Related: Helping family and friends with addiction

Leaving an alcoholic

Alcoholism can put such strain on a relationship and family unit that it causes separation and divorce. Nearly half (48.3%) of those diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD) in their lifetimes will experience marital dissolution compared to 30% of those without AUD.[14]

However, the partners of alcoholics often find leaving very difficult. As with any relationship, there are emotional, financial, and practical barriers to walking away. But the partners of alcoholics are often deeply co-dependent with them, making leaving even more difficult. They worry about what will happen to the alcoholic when they’re no longer around to assume their responsibilities and cover up for them. Leaving may also feel like giving up on the person and any hope of their recovery.

While every situation is different, the following are signs that distancing yourself from the alcoholic might be the right decision.

  • You’re suffering harm as a result of their addiction. You may be anxious or depressed, neglecting your own needs and self-care, prioritizing the alcoholic over family and work obligations, experiencing financial problems, and developing your own substance abuse issues.

  • They’re unwilling to get help. Overcoming alcohol dependence is very difficult and often involves relapse and years of vigilance. However, if your loved one makes no effort to stop or has given up trying to quit, you may need to accept that they’ll never recover and remove yourself from the situation.

  • You and your family are unsafe. If the alcoholic is physically or emotionally abusive or engaging in other dangerous behaviors, such as drunk driving or exposing children to alcohol and drugs, you should consider leaving to protect yourself and other family members.

How can I help them?

You can’t cure a loved one’s alcoholism, but you can urge them toward recovery and support them in their journey.

The best things you can do for an alcoholic are:

  • Educate yourself about alcohol use disorder (AUD)

  • Open up a conversation about their drinking: Wait until they’re sober and tell them that their drinking is concerning you. List the ways that their drinking is negatively impacting them and the wider family. Try to speak with compassion and understanding but don’t accept their excuses. Emphasize that you’ll be by their side as they tackle their drinking.

  • Hold an intervention or family meeting: If you want a backup, hold a meeting where other family members can express their concerns and offer the alcoholic their help.

  • Encourage them to seek out professional help: Professionals are much better equipped to help the alcoholic stop drinking than you are. Offer to help them find a suitable treatment path, drive them to appointments and meetings, and participate in family therapy sessions.