Loving an alcoholic brings unexpected challenges for the entire family including partners, parents, children, siblings and grandchildren. The pain alcoholism inflicts on those who love alcoholics or problem drinkers is immense, and it can have tragic consequences that are impossible to reverse.
More than 40 percent of Americans have experienced alcohol problems in their families, and nearly one-in-five grew up in homes with one or more alcoholic parent.1 Children who grow up in these environments are four times more likely than members of the general population to become alcoholics themselves, and they are also more likely to develop emotional and behavioral health disorders.2
In the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 18 percent of adolescents polled admitted to binge drinking within the previous 30 days.3 Each year, nearly 200,000 adolescents will be admitted to emergency rooms suffering from illnesses or injuries related to alcohol consumption, and approximately 4,300 teens will lose their lives because of heavy or irresponsible drinking.4
Meanwhile, half of all marriages between heavy drinkers and light or non-drinkers will end in divorce, as compared to 30 percent of marriages where neither partner abuses alcohol.5 Studies also show a clear link between domestic violence and alcohol consumption: 57 percent of men and 27 percent of women accused of domestic abuse were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the incident.6
Relationships with alcoholics are filled with stress, anxiety, disappointment, disillusionment and danger. Alcohol use disorder is toxic to relationships but it doesn’t kill the love of those who remember the alcoholic before they developed their chemical dependency, or of those who’ve seen or experienced the good side of the alcoholic and know they are deserving of a second chance.
Loving someone means standing by them during their darkest hours, and the people who care about alcoholics often go to extraordinary lengths to offer their support and assistance. Unfortunately, a sincere and compassionate desire to help often leads to enabling behavior. Some of the most common enabling behaviors include:
Enabling means protecting an alcoholic from feeling the full repercussions of their actions, and this will only make it easier for them to continue feeding an addiction that may ultimately destroy their lives.
Alcoholics don’t necessarily need to hit rock bottom to realize they need help. But they do need to understand the consequences of their actions, for themselves and for the people they love. Anyone who loves an alcoholic must learn to separate the person from their disease. The alcoholic will never realize how self-destructive and harmful their behavior is until they are forced to stop making excuses and face the truth about where their alcohol dependency is leading them.
When they realize no one is protecting them or covering for them anymore, and that without that protection they can’t function, they may finally be ready to ask for help, to admit they have a disease they can’t control. At that point the unconditional love and support of their partners, children, parents, close friends and extended family will dramatically increase their odds of finding sobriety.
If their denial is too strong, some alcoholics may not be able to take this important step on their own initiative, even if they’ve lost nearly everything. In that case, an intervention organized with the assistance of a trained intervention specialist may be necessary to convince them to seek help.
There is no guarantee that an intervention—or any other strategy, for that matter—will work, and the people who love alcoholics must be prepared to walk away if it doesn’t. In the end, alcoholics must be willing to embrace sobriety and recovery of their own free will, and no amount of love, empathy or compassion can protect them from that reality. In fact, giving them the freedom to finally stand up and take responsibility for their own health and wellness is the ultimate act of love.
Long-term recovery is possible for anyone who finds the strength and courage to reach out and ask for help. Treatment programs organized and administered by trained addiction specialists have helped untold numbers of alcoholics find lasting sobriety. At Transformations Treatment Center, our certified addiction specialists understand the many challenges involved in overcoming drug or alcohol addiction.
Caring and supportive family members can continue to provide invaluable support in the months and years following the end of formal inpatient treatment. Transformations provides guidance and support to all family members who want to contribute to the healing process through our Family Weekends, Family Outreach Services, Family Matters Community Group and Family Matters Facebook Group.