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How Does Alcohol Abuse Affect the Family?



Alcoholism is sometimes referred to as a “family disease” because the addiction puts a strain on the spouse or partner, children, and other family members. What are the most common ways that living with an alcoholic can impact loved ones? What support is available for the families of alcoholics?

Effects of Alcoholism On Children

The toll that alcoholism takes on children is immense. The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information estimates that there are 28.6 million children of alcoholics in the U.S. 6.6 million of these children are under the age of 18. Additionally, children of alcoholics are two to four times more likely than those without alcoholic parents to develop alcoholism.

Children of alcoholics are also at a greater risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experiencing other forms of mental health trauma. As they grow up, they may develop lasting feelings of anger, abandonment, and general mistrust. The combination of alcohol and anger often leads to incidents of domestic violence, which can have long-term effects on children as well.

Effects of Alcoholism On Spouses

The spouses and partners of alcoholics may fear for their own safety if their partner’s drinking leads to violence or emotional outbursts. It can be common for financial and job instability to accompany an addiction to alcohol, which may also have a negative impact on the alcoholic’s spouse. Alcoholism also erodes the trust that exists between family members, which leads to a breakdown in relationships. Heavy drinking is one of the top reasons cited in many divorces.

Often the partner of an alcoholic blames themselves for their spouse’s drinking problem. They may attempt to control the individual’s drinking or “cure” them. Spouses can be put in the position of having to cover up the person’s alcoholism to friends and relatives. Feelings of hopelessness, shame, and anxiety related to their partner’s addiction are common.

Support for Families of Alcoholics

There are several support groups available for family members of alcoholics. Al-Anon, Ala-Teen, and ACA/ACOA are just a few of the options available. These types of mutual support programs help individuals whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking. In the meetings, family members share their experiences of living with an alcoholic. In these groups, family members can find suggestions and support for how to bring positive change to their situation, even if their alcoholic loved one is not yet ready for change.

Signs of a Drinking Problem

In the United States, WebMD estimates that about 16 million people (adults and adolescents) suffer from alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD). Some of the signs a loved one has a drinking problem include:

  • An uncontrollable urge to drink
  • Lack of control over how much they drink
  • Negative thoughts or irritability when they’re not drinking alcohol
  • Drinking in risky situations
  • Drinking that interferes with things they enjoy
  • Continuing to drink even though doing so causes or worsens problems
  • Stopping important activities or doing them less often because of alcohol

Alcoholism exists in multiple forms, from mild Alcohol Use Disorder to moderate to a severe drinking problem. If a loved one fits any of the following statements, they may have AUD:

  • They can’t relax or fall asleep without drinking.
  • They need a drink in the morning to get going.
  • To be social, they must drink.
  • Alcohol serves as an escape from their feelings.
  • After drinking, they drive.
  • They mix alcohol and medications.
  • They drink while pregnant or caring for small children.
  • When loved ones ask how much they drink, they don’t tell the truth.
  • They hurt people or become angry when they drink.
  • It’s tough for them to remember what they did when they were drinking.
  • Their responsibilities suffer because of their drinking.
  • Drinking has caused them legal problems.
  • They tried to stop drinking but failed.
  • They can’t stop thinking about drinking.
  • To feel the effects of alcohol, they must drink more and more.
  • They have withdrawal symptoms after they stop drinking for too long, like shakiness, nausea, trouble sleeping, or seizures.

If the family member refuses to seek treatment, their loved ones shouldn’t give up. Spouses or partners should try to avoid enabling their loved one and set strong boundaries. They should also try not to become emotionally dependent on helping their loved one, such as providing them with “cover stories” or money. If a spouse believes they are codependent, they may need to distance themselves from their alcoholic partner. Once a loved one recognizes they have a problem with alcohol, family members can support them in their recovery by attending group support meetings.

There’s no doubt that the road to recovery can be long and challenging, but recovery from alcohol use disorder is possible. At Into Action Recovery, we help clients overcome addiction and substance use disorders through an evidence-based program led by master’s-level counselors. Find out how we can help you take the next step on your recovery today.

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