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 suffering from addiction. 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 is suffering from addiction, 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 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 alcoholics 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 alcoholics are in denial that there is a problem. No matter how obvious the problem seems to those around the alcoholic, 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 alcoholic 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 Alcohol Dependence

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

While the drinker 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 alcoholic's problems—not the alcoholic. 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 alcoholic, and whether or not your actions may actually be enabling the alcoholic to continue in their behavior, without you realizing it. (Take a quiz to find out if you are enabling your loved one's behavior.)

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.

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 the drinker 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.

Stage an Intervention

If this first attempt is not effective, which it often isn't—in fact, even when the drinker is committed to changing, it can take several rounds of treatment before they truly stop—the next step you might take is an intervention. An intervention often includes other family members or friends that this person trusts, and consists of presenting treatment facility ideas as well as the consequences of their continued drinking.

Consequences might include refusing to pick up the financial or personal messes that the drinker is creating, taking away child visitation rights, spousal separation, or asking them to leave the home until they are ready to begin treatment. Often it's only when the consequences of drinking become painful enough that they become committed enough to pursue recovery. 

It can be very helpful to bring in a professional counselor or therapist during this stage. You might make an appointment and bring your loved one, or if they are unwilling, go yourself in order to develop your intervention strategy.

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. 

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 ways big and small. 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. 

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Article Sources
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  3. What is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published January 2014.