Families often experience repercussions from a loved one’s alcohol use disorder. One family member’s heavy alcohol use can destroy the fundamentals of the family, sparking feelings of shame, guilt, anger, fear, grief and loneliness.
Alcohol addiction can consume people, causing them to lose sight of their familial responsibilities. Spouses often pick up the slack and endure the psychological effects, including anxiety and depression, of living with someone with an alcohol addiction.
A 2016 study published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal explained that an obsession with drinking causes alcoholics to forget about their relationships and the needs of their loved ones. Laura Lander, assistant professor at West Virginia University’s Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychology, agrees.
Male alcoholics contribute to a stressful and traumatic home environment, plaguing their wives with anxiety disorders, depression, neuroticism and low self-confidence.
Earlier research showed that wives of alcoholics exhibited negative emotions because of their partner’s alcohol problems. These emotions are detrimental to the wives and the family unit by lowering self-esteem and reducing the overall quality of life.
Harmony Rose, author of “Married Under the Influence,” had common preconceived notions of what an alcoholic was before alcoholism devastated her marriage. Her husband had a stable career, and he never missed a day of work. He was a social drinker who got drunk mostly on weekends. When he occasionally drank too much during the week, she made excuses for it.
Rose’s marriage took a back seat to her husband’s disease. For the majority of their 17-year relationship, her husband was committed to alcohol. Before he attended rehab and overcame addiction, she said the drinking took over his life. Drinking beer escalated to drinking wine and beer at the same time. When that wasn’t enough, he turned to liquor and took shots.
“We would argue and fight; it was a broken record for many years,” Rose told DrugRehab.com. “Our family dynamic was sick and dysfunctional,” she said.
Lander described substance use disorders as progressive family disorders, explaining that the family progresses through the disease with the alcoholic.
She also says a parallel sickness can simultaneously develop between the alcoholic and family members. The family becomes tangled in their loved one’s alcoholism. Family members are negatively affected by the alcoholic’s compulsive behavior.
“Ten months into the relationship, he would go to the casino, gamble hundreds and lose,” said Rose. “Finally, he lost a whole paycheck — thousands of dollars. We could not make our mortgage. We had no food and three kids.”
But alcoholism isn’t an unbeatable disease. The psychological effects of alcohol abuse on families can be treated. As an alcoholic recovers from addiction, family members can learn to make amends, communicate effectively and rebuild damaged relationships.
Recovering from an alcohol use disorder is a lifelong process.
While alcoholics develop a tolerance to alcohol, family members build a tolerance to the unacceptable behaviors associated with problematic drinking, according to Lander. She emphasized that family members should understand alcoholism is the brain disorder behind the negative behaviors.
Rose said alcoholism is a disease that alters an individual’s brain chemistry and pushes a person to behave in ways that harm their families.
“When you look at an alcoholic, you have to separate the disease from the person,” Rose said. “Who they are is what the disease created them to be, it’s not the person they are underneath. It’s emotionally crippling — just as much for the family as for the alcoholic.”
These steps differ from an intervention. When a person’s alcoholism progresses and he or she refuses treatment, close friends and family may need to guide their loved one toward recovery.
In 2007, Leonard led a study that explored the role of marital therapy in treating alcoholism. He found that behavioral couples therapy helped reintegrate the alcoholic back into the family.
Involving both partners in treatment helped the alcoholic maintain sobriety and helped repair the relationship.
“Because relationships can create lots of stress and lots of emotional upheaval, repairing the relationship is critical to minimizing the emotional offset that can lead to a relapse,” Leonard said.
During the first 10 months of her husband’s rehab, Rose’s life was a nightmare. The abuse and the lies worsened, and he cheated on her. He was sober but not recovering.
“Rehab opens your eyes, and when you lose the alcohol glasses, it’s like coming out of a basement after a tornado hits,” Rose said. “You see all the damage and destruction around you. That’s what an alcoholic does to a family.”
The turning point came when her husband decided to focus on his recovery program and their marriage. They were able to rebuild the trust in their relationship and work on healing together.
Before he committed to recovery, Rose’s husband was oblivious to the family’s problems. After he committed to sobriety, her husband became more physically and emotionally present during family crises.
“It’s an amazing difference when you get sober and you recover,” Rose said. “You get your life back, you actually get to be present for the people that you love. You get to be there for everybody else, and you get to be there for yourself.”
Al-Anon Family Groups provides a platform for the friends and family of an alcoholic to share their experiences and connect with other people going through similar situations. Al-Anon meetings typically start with a reading of the 12 Steps of Al-Anon, which aim to help people heal from the effects of the alcoholics in their lives.
Friends and family can also support the alcoholic by taking on responsibilities that prevent the alcoholic from getting treatment, such as work, child care and chores.
The person in recovery will require additional support after treatment and therapy. Loved ones should remain invested in the alcoholic’s recovery by asking about coping strategies for avoiding triggers. Friends and family members should also consider abstaining from alcohol consumption around the person, even in social situations.
Living with an alcoholic is challenging, and only you know how much of the addicted behavior you can take. The important thing to remember is that recovery is possible. Your family can heal.
Take care of yourself, and get your partner into treatment. Your loved one’s addiction is not your fault. You can’t control the disease, but you can offer your love and support.
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