Helping Your Loved One With a Drinking Problem

Man with a drink
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Alcoholism is a family disease. It doesn't just affect the person with the alcohol use disorder (AUD). The family's dynamic, mental and physical health, finances, and overall stability are affected.

The home environment is often tense and unpredictable. Family members may try to deny the drinker's behavior, make excuses for it, or attempt to control or stop it. These are all common responses to a home life that feels like it is out of control.

What Can I Do to Get Them to Stop? 

If your loved one has an alcohol use disorder, it's natural to wonder how to make them see that they need help. For you to be asking this question, it's likely that your loved one has gotten to the point that they continue to drink in spite of obvious problems caused by their drinking.

Personal, social, and even legal problems that would cause most people to conclude that their drinking should be curtailed or eliminated don't typically affect people with an alcohol use disorder in the same way.

It's important to understand that this is not a weakness—rather, the drinker is psychologically and physiologically addicted to the substance of alcohol and requires professional help. 

The challenge to this is that many people with an alcohol use disorder are in denial that there is a problem. No matter how obvious the problem seems to others, the alcohol-dependent person may loudly deny that drinking is the cause of their troubles, and may blame the circumstances or people around them instead.

When people ask how to help the drinker in their lives, the answer they usually receive is, "Unfortunately, there is not much anyone can do until the person with an alcohol use disorder admits they have a problem."

While it is true that your loved one needs to actively seek sobriety and want to change, you don't have to sit back and watch them self-destruct, hoping and praying that a light bulb goes off in their head. There are several things you can do to intervene, show your concern and support for your loved one, and protect yourself from getting too wrapped up in their addiction. 

Learn About AUD

The first step for family members and loved ones of a problem drinker is to inform themselves about AUD. This helps you understand your loved one's behavior, and it helps you stop blaming them.

While a person with an alcohol use disorder needs to take responsibility for their actions in order to recover, alcoholism is a chronic disease, has defined symptoms, and is often triggered by genes and life circumstances. Above all, getting informed helps you see that your loved one is sick and suffering, not trying to hurt you.

As a family member, you can attend Al-Anon meetings or join an online group to learn more about the disease of alcoholism as well as the emotional and psychological toll it is taking on you. In Al-Anon, you learn how to detach from the person's problems—not necessarily to detach from the person. You will likely hear your own story in the stories of those who share with the group, creating a sense of solidarity and support.

You will also learn more about the unhealthy roles you may be playing in the life of the person with an alcohol use disorder, and whether or not your actions may actually be enabling them to continue in their behavior, without you realizing it.

Confront the Person in a Non-Accusatory Way

This is a difficult conversation. Plan what you're going to say ahead of time. Wait until your loved one is sober and relatively emotionally stable. Make sure you are also feeling calm, as it is important that your loved one doesn't feel attacked. Avoid accusatory language such as, "You'd better get help or else."

During this first discussion, it's important to show how much you care about your loved one. Be genuine and honest about your concerns, including how their drinking is affecting their health and the family as a whole. You can mention a particular problem that is arising from drinking, such as financial or relationship troubles.

Let your family member know you want to support them in stopping. Offer to help them find a treatment program, such as a 12-step program or a rehab facility, and perhaps to take over some of their responsibilities at home while they are taking time out for recovery. 

Expect some pushback. The person may be in denial. Or if they aren't, they might suggest that they can quit on their own. This rarely ever works. However, you might discuss a timeframe and when you can expect changed behavior.

Consider the CRAFT Method

If this first attempt is not effective, which it often isn't—in fact, even when your loved one is committed to changing, it can take several rounds of treatment before they truly stop—the next step you might take is an intervention.

Rather than a traditional confrontational intervention as depicted in movies, many addiction experts are now recommending community reinforcement and family training (CRAFT) as the preferred way to get a loved one help. In fact, studies show that CRAFT interventions have a success rate ranging from 64% to 74% when it comes to getting a loved one with a substance use disorder into treatment.

CRAFT provides concerned significant others with tools to:

  • Identify substance use triggers
  • Break patterns that enable drinking or using
  • Develop and improve communication skills
  • Practice self-care and reconnect with their values
  • Identify triggers for violence
  • Develop a plan to keep themselves (and their children) safe

Avoid Codependency 

After you've taken all these measures, remember that you cannot force your loved one into treatment. They have to make that decision themselves. All you can do is present options, offer support, and follow through with the consequences you presented. The only person you control in this life is you. 

It's common to become overly focused on the drinker's actions and behavior, and obsessively worried, which takes the focus off your own life. This is defined as co-dependency, and it is destructive to your own mental and emotional health. A core tenet of Al-Anon is to stop trying to change your loved one and instead turn the focus back on yourself, the only one you can truly change. 

A Word From Verywell

Even if your loved one does enter treatment and recovery, there will likely be many bumps along the way. Without alcohol as a coping mechanism, deeper issues tend to rise to the surface and must be dealt with.

Your loved one will need to continue practicing sobriety, and the changes they go through will affect you in big and small ways. It's helpful to continue attending Al-Anon meetings, to learn to differentiate between your issues and your loved one's issues, and take responsibility only for your own. And don't forget to practice self-care—your physical and mental health matter, too.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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