Alcoholic in the Family
Having an alcoholic in the family puts everyone in harm’s way. The person with the drinking problem may be the focus of the initial concern, but spouses, partners, children, parents, and others suffer from the effects of alcohol dependency as well. Alcoholism disrupts family dynamics in profound ways, and with treatment—substance use treatment for the person with the drinking problem and family therapy for everyone else—recovery is possible for the entire family.
At some time in their lives, 43 percent of the American adult population has been exposed to alcohol dependency in their families, and nearly one-in-five grew up in homes with an alcoholic caregiver.
The impact of alcohol use on a family can be profound. Alcohol misuse, or exposure to it, can be a cause of or contributing factor to divorce, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, financial difficulties, job loss or failed grades, serious physical illness, and mental health troubles of all kinds.
Families plagued by one or more members’ alcohol use disorder are forced to live under a giant shadow. In an environment where peace, tranquility, and harmony are desired, strife, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty reign supreme.
People suffering the effects of alcohol abuse need help, but so do their loved ones, and the failure to receive that assistance can have devastating short-term and long-term ramifications.
Alcohol and Its Effects on Family Dynamics
Alcohol abuse can isolate a person from the outside world. But at home, in the family, there is no isolation or separation; everyone who lives with an alcoholic is affected by their illness and the frightening and unpredictable behavior it causes.
When a husband, wife, partner, adult or adolescent child, sibling, or older parent living at home is using alcohol unsafely or irresponsibly, everyone who shares their living space becomes ensnared in the circle of misery they create. Alcohol becomes a primary determining factor in the health, happiness, and stability of the family, and its abuse will provoke a variety of emotional responses from each member of the household, who must somehow try to preserve a sense of normalcy in a stressful and often chaotic environment.
The collective emotional life of a family beset by alcoholism is shaped by the illness, which leaves everyone scrambling to cope with intense, complicated, and conflicted feelings they may be unable to acknowledge.
Oftentimes, when family dynamics are corrupted by alcohol the two dominant emotions in the household are denial and shame, which are clearly interrelated. The whole family may cooperate in hiding the truth about the alcohol abuse from others, even as they refuse to accept the full truth among themselves. Extended family members may or may not go along with this ruse, but if they do try to confront the person with the alcohol use disorder they may be rebuffed—not just by the alcoholic, but by spouses, children, or others living in the home.
Needless to say, this type of enabling behavior is not good for the person suffering from the alcoholic use disorder, who won’t have a chance to get better until they can admit they have a problem and are willing to seek help. Ultimately, every member of the family who is affected by the alcohol abuse, including spouses, partners, children, and anyone else who lives in the home, will likely need therapy to overcome the impact alcohol abuse has had on their lives.
Alcoholic Parents and Children
Having a parent who misuses alcohol and is frequently intoxicated or otherwise unavailable robs children of their sense of safety and security. Especially at younger ages but even into adolescence, kids depend on their parents to provide support and stability, and the anxiety, anger, disappointment, and frustration they feel when alcoholism interferes is profound and life-altering.
While spouses, life partners, siblings, and parents react to the alcoholism of loved ones with a certain degree of maturity and perspective, children lack the experience to fully understand or process what is happening, and that makes their exposure to parental alcoholism traumatic and unrelentingly painful. In fact, their experiences with alcoholism can leave scars that take many years to heal—if they ever do.
This is true regardless of how alcohol use affects parental behavior, but the trauma is especially devastating if it is linked to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. It can also be overwhelming if both parents suffer from a drinking problem, which can leave kids feeling helpless and vulnerable all the time.
Young people who grow up in homes warped by alcohol misuse do develop coping strategies to help them survive. They may avoid parents under the influence of alcohol as much as possible, or exert extra care to make sure their words or behaviors do nothing to provoke an outburst or attract attention. They may lie to their friends while retreating into a fantasy world, where they can repress their feelings and protect themselves from harm.
But for children, there is no escape from the impact of alcoholism. Growing up in a home where parental abuse of alcohol is common will inevitably have long-term effects, and children who come from such a background are at higher risk for substance use and mental health issues later in life.
People with parents who abused alcohol are four times more likely than the general population to develop an alcohol use disorder, and they also face an increased risk for drug dependency. In one study, 40 percent of men and women in treatment for anxiety disorders were adult children of alcoholics, and other mental health disorders like depression are common among this group as well.
Unsurprisingly, adult children of alcoholics are three-to-four times more likely to choose partners with a drinking problem, and this life pattern helps perpetuate the family cycle of alcoholism far into the future.
Alcoholism and Marriage
Alcohol abuse inevitably brings turbulence and trouble to any romantic relationship, even one that has lasted for decades. In most instances, alcohol dependency was not present before the marriage or partnership was formed, which makes alcohol an unwanted intruder that will inevitably disrupt the delicate emotional balance of a loving relationship.
The spouse or partner of an alcoholic is on the front lines of the battle against the disease, a position that is scary, stressful, and highly frustrating. The longer the substance use continues the worse the consequences will be, and this puts even more pressure on partners to help their loved ones find a solution.
Unfortunately, alcohol abuse is often associated with domestic violence. Studies indicate that between 25 and 50 percent of perpetrators in domestic violence incidents were drinking at the time of the act. Violent behavior in general is associated with alcohol abuse, and often family members are the victims of these attacks.
Even if they don’t resort to physical violence, many problem drinkers are emotionally and verbally abusive while under the influence of alcohol, and that can put formerly stable relationships under great duress. If repeated attempts to get the alcoholic to seek help fail, the odds of a marriage ending in divorce increase—while the rate of divorce for all marriages is about 30 percent, that number jumps to 50 percent for marriages that include one partner with an alcohol use disorder.
Divorce rates are not as high for relationships in which both partners drink heavily or chronically. But that level of alcohol abuse in the family creates plenty of problems for everyone, and life in a household dominated by alcohol will not be happy or productive for anyone.
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Treatment for Alcoholism and the Role of the Family
When alcoholism controls the family dynamic, it means the entire family will need to heal.
First and foremost, the person with the drinking problem must accept full responsibility for their condition and take the initiative to seek treatment immediately at that point. But that cannot and should not be the end of the story: family members who’ve been affected by alcohol abuse need attention as well, and they should be included in the recovery process during family therapy sessions that acknowledge the reality of how everyone suffers from alcoholism.
Even beyond their participation in family therapy sessions during inpatient treatment, the loved ones of a person with a drinking problem should have opportunities to work with therapists to discuss their issues and experiences. They can also benefit by involvement in peer support groups like Al-Anon, where people whose lives have been impacted by someone’s substance use can support each other and share their insights and advice.
No matter how long a drinking problem may have persisted, and regardless of how much damage it has done, there is always hope for recovery. Treatment programs for alcohol dependency have a good track record of success, when the men and women who use them are truly motivated to change and ready to make the effort to do so.
Alcoholism is an illness that touches the lives of many, and its effects can echo for generations if the situation is neglected. Having an alcoholic in the family is stressful and difficult, but its impact can be overcome with treatment and a new family dynamic that offers compassion, forgiveness, and a willingness to move forward rather than continuing to look back.