Alcohol Abuse and Family Relationships

Alcohol abuse or dependence is a family problem. A problem drinker's husband, wife or partner and children are invariably affected by it, as well as siblings, parents and friends. Anyone who grew up in a family with an alcoholic or is currently living with one knows the pain and suffering alcohol can cause.

Studies have shown that about one in four children in the U.S. is exposed to a family member's alcohol abuse before reaching the age of 18. This statistic includes many service members and military spouses who as adults are still dealing with the long-term effects of alcoholism in their families of origin, as well as children in military families who are currently being harmed by a parent's excessive drinking.

How alcohol affects relationships

Heavy drinkers can have the mistaken view that they are the only ones being hurt by their drinking. They often don't recognize the degree to which their abuse of alcohol can:

  • Deprive family members of their time and their financial resources. Excessive drinking can take hours out of a day — time that is not spent with family. And it is also expensive.
  • Cause inconsistent and confusing family interactions. Alcohol abusers can behave very differently when they're intoxicated. They may be kind and loving when sober yet hostile, withdrawn or unpredictable when intoxicated. This erratic behavior can be devastating to family members who need to depend on reliable and steady relationships.
  • Increase the isolation of family members. Shame and embarrassment about the drinking can alter a family's lifestyle, causing spouses and children to let go of their activities and social connections. They avoid healthy relationships in order to cope with an unhealthy relationship.
  • Distort the meaning and expression of love and concern within the family. Family members often become enablers out of a desire to help the alcohol abuser and protect the family's reputation. They may make excuses and lie to explain the drinking and its after effects, but this only prevents the alcohol abuser from experiencing the full consequences of his or her drinking and encourages continued or worsening abuse.
  • Lead to loss of their family's caring and support. When a person's alcohol dependence continues despite repeated efforts to get the person to seek help and change, family members' worry, concern and frustration can give way to loathing and contempt.

Spouses and partners of alcohol abusers

A person's alcohol abuse often has the effect of changing the non-drinking spouse or partner and the nature of their relationship. Initially the non-drinker tends to react with denial that there is a problem while attempting to protect children and others from exposure to it. As alcohol abuse or addiction progresses, the non-drinker's life is often dominated by efforts to get the person to stop drinking, to conceal the drinking from others or to take over responsibilities that the drinker is neglecting.

This naturally leads to feelings of resentment, self-pity and exhaustion. And the relationship is likely to suffer from poor communication, reduced intimacy and increased risk of domestic abuse. Eventually, the non-drinking spouse or partner may recognize that he or she is not responsible for the drinking and cannot control it. When family members stop enabling behaviors, the alcohol abuser may only then be able to accept responsibility and seek help. If not, the marriage or partnership is likely to end.

Children of alcohol abusers

Children who grow up in a home with an alcohol abuser typically suffer the greatest harm and have the longest lasting emotional scars of anyone in the family. This is because they have likely been deprived of consistent parenting and emotional support from the drinking parent at critical stages of development. And they may have also been overprotected, neglected or engaged in unhealthy coping strategies by the non-drinking parent. It's typical for children of alcoholics to:

  • Lack a sense of security or trust in others
  • Suffer from loneliness and feelings of being different from other children
  • Be overwhelmed by guilt, despair or fear of abandonment
  • Behave in inappropriate or destructive ways to deal with problems and get attention
  • Have a poor self-image and a low sense of self-worth

Young children may believe that their parent's drinking is their fault and cry, have nightmares or wet the bed. Older children may find it hard to make friends or avoid having friends over, have difficulties in school, develop phobias or become perfectionists as a way of coping.

Adult children of alcoholics

The effects of growing up with an alcoholic parent may not diminish when a child reaches adulthood. Adult children of alcoholics often have difficulty with trust and intimacy. A poor self-image carried over from childhood can lead them to make unhealthy choices in their lives and experience difficulties in their work and relationships. Many children of alcoholics have been able to overcome the long-term effects of a parent's addiction only after they gained insight and understanding as an adult through counseling or self-help programs.

Road to recovery

Family members often have the mistaken idea that if the alcohol abuser would just stop drinking, everything would be OK. In fact, addiction is a family disease and every member of the family may need to realize that they too are responsible for their own recovery, whether the alcoholic recovers or not. These are some of the first steps family members can take to begin the recovery process:

  • Join an education or support group for families of alcoholics. A good place to start is an Al-Anon or Alateen Family Group. Find the nearest location from the website or check local directories or your installation family support center for support programs in your area.
  • Stop protecting the alcohol abuser from the consequences of his or her behavior. This requires detaching emotionally from the person, while continuing to offer support for any positive recovery efforts, and refocusing on taking responsibility for one's own behavior.
  • Identify and stop ineffective coping behaviors. These may include lecturing, threatening, bribing, preaching or moralizing, lying or covering up for the addicted person, taking over his or her responsibilities and denying or minimizing the problem.
  • Find new activities individually and as a family. Getting out into the community helps adults and children overcome isolation and find individual and family fulfillment by focusing on other people, places and interests outside the home.
  • Engage children in the recovery process. At a minimum, this means working to have good communication, recognizing and building on existing individual and family strengths, and encouraging children to take responsibility for their own recovery.

If you're an adult child of an alcoholic, are in a home with an active problem drinker or are concerned about your own drinking and not sure where to turn for help, call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647. A consultant will work with you to assess your needs, review options for getting help and provide appropriate referrals.


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