Family members and people living with alcoholics, whether it’s a boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or roommate, face a difficult and often overlooked set of challenges when it comes to treating alcoholism.
The people who have to wake up and coexist with the alcoholic person do not have the luxury of ignorance or distance. They can be victims of physical or mental abuse, they can experience financial strain from supporting the addicted person, and they can even unintentionally make the addiction worse through enabling behaviors.
Alcoholism in the Family
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20% of Americans live (or have lived) with a relative who is (or was) an alcoholic.1 Alcoholism is often said to run in families, and there is in fact a strong genetic component to the disorder.
Genetics, however, comprise only a piece of a very complex puzzle. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that genes are responsible for about half of a person’s risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.2 There is a combination of other risk factors, such as stress at home, life events, gender, individual psychological traits, mental health, availability and access to alcohol, and interpersonal relationships that can all determine whether or not alcoholism will present in each individual.
Children of alcoholic parents can face a number of complicated scenarios that place them at risk for developing alcoholism or other mental health challenges in adulthood.3 Situations such as having to lie to cover for the alcoholic parent or needing to take on adult responsibilities for that parent can have a lasting impact. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends “a restructuring of the entire family system, including the relationship between the parents and the relationships between the parents and the children.”3
Conditions surrounding alcoholism in homes with young children can lead to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies as “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs.4According to the CDC,
“ACEs can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. However, ACEs can be prevented.”4
Extended family members may also be affected by an alcoholic in the family in the form of shame or ostracization if their loved one’s drinking habits become well known. In cultures with strong traditional family values, excessive drinking can bring disgrace and dishonor to the family. Each family is a unique and complex network, but the impact of alcoholism rarely stops at the person who is directly abusing alcohol.
Partner Abuse by an Alcoholic
The link between alcohol abuse, violence and aggression is well documented, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) links alcohol-related violence to other issues including domestic violence and sexual assault.5 Government resources, including domestic abuse hotline, are available through the Department of Justice here.
The impact of living with an alcoholic partner are not purely physical. The toll of living with a person who abuses alcohol can take on multiple forms, including the psychological and emotional. Domestic partners of alcoholics sometimes report having to deal with extreme mood swings, unstable emotional settings, and negative behavior both in public and in private.5
Chronic drinking also brings about conflict. A person might feel the need to justify their addiction, and the easiest way to do that is to lash out against those who are closest to them. In turn, this can lead to the possibility of infidelity or the chance of separation or divorce.
Just as alarming is that domestic partners are often at increased risk of being raped, even within the context of a marriage.
Alcoholism in Intimate Relationships
Alcoholism (as well as addiction to other substances) can foster challenging patterns in intimate relationships even when no abuse is present. The recovery of one partner from alcoholism is quite often dependent upon behavioral and emotional changes made by both partners together.
Two common areas of concern when addressing alcoholism within the context of intimate relationships include:
- Codependency: In which the non-alcoholic partner obtains all their meaning and personal value from caring their alcoholic spouse, resulting in a very one-sided fulfillment of needs. In extreme cases, the codependent partner may actively block the alcoholic from seeking help or may derail their continued recovery.
- Enabling: Enabling behavior can look like offering help or supporting a loved one—lending money, use of a car or offering a place to live—but in actuality it allows the addicted person to continue their substance abuse behavior. Examples of enabling include repeatedly lending money even after the recipient has used borrowed funds to pay for drugs or alcohol, and setting an ultimatum (e.g., “get rehab help or move out of the house”) without following through on the consequences.
The dynamics of codependency and enabling behavior become even more complex in relationships with children. In all situations, it’s important for the couple to attend a therapy program to remedy problem behaviors. Many alcohol rehab programs feature family therapy as part of the recovery process for this very reason.
The Effects of Living with an Alcoholic Partner
Living with an alcoholic partner who becomes violent, angry, or aggressive while drinking can put one in danger of experiencing significant emotional and physical trauma. The lasting impact of such trauma can include everything from PTSD to depression, anxiety and panic attacks, and increased risk of suicidal thought.
Whether or not there is abuse in the relationship, partners of alcoholics are at risk for developing their own substance abuse problems as a way to cope with negative emotions and the perceived isolation of having no one else to turn to.
Living with an alcoholic partner can impact numerous facets of a person’s life, including financial, legal, and social troubles. Alcoholics and their partners may also experience job loss or estrangement from family—all reasons why professional help should be sought as soon as possible.
Women and Alcoholism
When discussing alcoholism and relationship issues, it can be easy to conjure a mental image of a heterosexual couple in which the man is the alcoholic and the woman suffers abuse. In reality, however, rates of alcohol use and abuse are rising among women,6 with implications for both straight and gay couples.
Biological differences between men and women contribute differences in the way women process and are affected by alcohol, and the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend no more than 1 alcoholic drink per day for women.6 However, modern-day attitudes towards women and the consumption of alcohol have significantly added to the growing number of female alcoholics in developed countries.
With the drop in stigma surrounding women drinking, especially women drinking heavily, nearly 14 million U.S. women report binge drinking 3 times per month.7 Risky behaviors associated with binge drinking can put women at greater risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies.7 Binge drinking is also a risk factor for sexual assault and predatory behavior.
As more women abuse alcohol at dangerous levels and struggle with alcoholism, the dynamic in relationships is affected as traditional gender roles are challenged.
Seeking Help for a Partner
Living with an alcoholic is a multifaceted problem, one that is not 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. Children face the greatest risk because the actions, words, and emotional distance of an alcoholic parent or guardian can cause lifelong trauma. This puts children of alcoholics at significant risk for substance abuse problems as well as other mental health issues later in life.
Entering a rehab program can be the best way to address all of these concerns and begin to unravel the damage already done. To learn more about treatment for alcoholism at Greenhouse Treatment Center, visit our page on treatment services or read the FAQ on what to expect if your family member comes to rehab.
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (May 2019). Alcohol Use in Families.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.) Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. 2004. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Rockville (MD). Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39. Chapter 2 Impact of Substance Abuse on Families.
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (Nov. 5, 2019). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (Oct. 1997). Alcohol Alert.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (Dec. 2019). Women and Alcohol.
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (Jan 8, 2013). Binge drinking is an under-recognized problem among women and girls.