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A drug or alcohol addiction is like a ripple on a lake. As the concentric circles get wider and wider, they dissipate. In the same way for a person who is struggling with alcohol addiction, those in the outermost social circles of the person’s life might not be aware of the issue. It’s the people who are closest to the person who receive the full brunt of the problem. Family members, the people who have to wake up and coexist with the person, do not have the luxury of ignorance or distance; these people are fully aware of the difficulties and dangers of living with an alcoholic.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry writes that 20 percent of Americans live (or have lived) with a relative who is (or was) an alcoholic. Alcoholism, explains the Academy, runs in families; there is a strong genetic component to the disorder.
But as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says, genetics make up only one piece of a very complex puzzle. Having a parent or grandparent who was (or is) a drinker does not determine whether the person’s offspring will also struggle with alcoholism. A combination of dozens of other risk factors, such as stress at home, gender, individual psychological traits, mental health, availability and access to alcohol, and interpersonal relationships all have a say in whether or not alcoholism will truly run in a family.
Nonetheless, the presence of an alcoholic in the home has a direct impact on the person’s spouse, children, and extended family members, in ways that are both obvious and unexpected. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration writes of children who not only are visually exposed to one of their parents (or both parents) consuming alcohol to dangerous and excessive amounts, but also being forced (or coerced) into a position where they have to lie about the effects of their parents’ drinking, such as making up excuses for missed social engagements. An alcoholic parent may also lie to children about drinking (a sober partner may do the same), and a study in the journal of Developmental Science found that children who are lied to by their parents grow up to habitually lie themselves.
The effect of having an alcoholic in a household with children has been widely studied. According to CNN, more than 3 million children see instances of a parent physically or verbally assaulting the other parent, or both parents engaging in abusive behavior against each other. At young ages, children — psychologically vulnerable and incapable of defending themselves or an abused parent – do not know how to process what they see in household where violence or neglect is fueled by alcohol, but they nonetheless worry and fear for their parents and themselves. For this reason, CNN calls children “the silent victims of domestic violence,” because what they see, hear, and feel can create mental health conditions that lead to an anxiety or stress disorder. The Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice warns that children in abusive households experience such heightened levels of tension and stress that certain neurons in their brain are permanently damaged, so much so that their brains are effectively “wired differently” when compared to those of children who grow up in safer, more stable environments.
Extended family members may be subject to shame and ostracization if their loved one’s drinking habits become well known. In certain cultures (especially those with traditionally strong family values), bringing disrepute and dishonor to the family unit can have grave consequences, as much for relatives as for those struggling with alcoholism themselves.
Of course, it is often the spouse or romantic partner who is the direct recipient of the tolls of living with an alcoholic. Considering the relationship dynamics involved, the tolls take on multiple forms:
Alcohol can render some men incapable of achieving an erection, because drinking decreases blood flow to the sexual organs. In the long-term, men who drink too much have a 60-70 percent risk of erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and diminished libido.
Physical abuse may be the most blatant sign of a dysfunctional relationship due to an alcoholic partner, but the U.S. Department of Justice warns that any form of dominance or force over an unwilling partner is abuse. While that certainly covers violence (or threats of violence), living with an alcoholic partner can also entail:
Obviously, the effects of living with an alcoholic partner run far deeper than sexual problems. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism writes that chronic drinking in a relationship brings about conflict, risks infidelity (and, with it, the danger of promiscuous and unprotected sexual contact), and raises the possibility of separation or divorce.
The changes occur because of how deeply an alcohol problem sinks into the person’s psyche. Any addiction fundamentally changes the way individuals think and look at the world and relationships, even the important people in their lives. To that end, a romantic partner might become simply a means by which the addiction can be maintained; at worse, the partner becomes a threat to the addiction, forcing the person to act in ways that are bizarre, scary, and abusive.
In explaining how substance abuse affects intimate relationships, Psych Central writes that an alcoholic partner’s life will gradually come to revolve around addiction, making the spouse (or even children) part of the process. Whether knowingly or otherwise, everything the alcoholic does (from hitting the spouse, to threatening harm to children, to blackmail) is to reinforce the addiction.
If people have to endure this kind of treatment from a loved one, they are at risk for developing significant traumas as a result. In a report entitled “Mental Health Consequences of Intimate Partner Abuse,” the journal Violence Against Women lists some of the possible psychological risks that come from living with an abusive alcoholic:
Ironically, and tragically, victimized partners might even develop a substance abuse problem of their own, as a way of coping with the reality of the deteriorating nature of their relationship.
It is very important to remember than those struggling with alcoholism may not be making an active choice to put their partners second to their needs to continue (or resume) drinking. An addiction works by psychologically and physiologically compelling people to do whatever they can (legal or otherwise, ethical or otherwise) to keep feeding it, because it poisons their perceptions of pleasure and rewards. Instead of the normal, healthy elements of a relationship (like sex, companionship, intimacy, or other mutually beneficial pursuits), an alcohol addiction becomes all about the alcohol, rendering the relationship itself little more than a way of facilitating the addiction. Those struggling with alcoholism may have a greatly diminished capacity to control this, if they are even aware of it.
A lot of the language we use when talking about abuse when living with an alcoholic partner brings up images of a drunken man menacing his wife or girlfriend. In reality, however, alcoholism and abuse rates among women are rising. The genetics of female biology (more fat, less water) lower the threshold of intoxication for women, making it easier for them to get drunk. But it’s not simply that women get drunk quicker than men; the genetics of female psychology make women more likely to experience trauma in their formative years, which cultivates the conditions for a substance abuse problem later in the women’s lives. Women are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than men, and childhood PTSD is “strongly associated” with an alcohol problem in adulthood.
In addition, modern-day attitudes towards women and the consumption of alcohol have significantly added to the growing number of female alcoholics in developed countries. Not only is there no longer as much stigma surrounding a woman consuming alcohol, but more women are binge drinking now than ever before. Furthermore, as women achieve greater equality and status as professionals, the stress associated with high-power and high-demanding jobs may also compel them to drink harder and heavier. The journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research writes that working at a job with a high level of mental stress, where employers are required to work late hours and long nights with a significant work-life imbalance, will most likely induce members of those organizations to start drinking just to cope with the stress.
Unfortunately, more and more women are starting to bring their drinking (and the effects of their drinking) home with them, swapping the gender dynamic and putting male partners in the shoes of the person who now “lives with an alcoholic.” Even if an alcoholic woman is physically smaller than her sober partner, she can still employ any one of the abusive methods and behaviors mentioned above to coerce or intimidate her husband or boyfriend into furthering her addiction.
The problem that men in that situation face is that their complaints and pleas for help are not likely to be taken seriously by friends, family members, or the authorities. For fear of being publicly emasculated (let alone privately emasculated by an alcoholic, abusive wife, or girlfriend), victimized men rarely speak out, instead bearing their burdens in silence and shame. Some of them even turn to substance abuse themselves, since developing an alcohol problem of their own might appear to be the only apparent way to deal with living with an alcoholic wife or girlfriend.
Living with an alcoholic is a multifaceted problem, one that is not clearly marked by gender lines or where the dangers begin and end. Spouses and partners are threatened and harmed by the behavior of their loved one while under the influence, undoubtedly. Children face the greatest risk. The actions, words, and sentiments of an alcoholic parent or guardian can cause lifelong trauma that may lead to a substance abuse problem, and other mental health issues, for these children later in life.
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