The impact of alcoholism on families

Everyone in an alcoholic relationship plays a part in the dynamics of the disease. Besides the alcoholic, family members, friends, and co-workers all play a part. Of course the alcoholic plays the central role in the dance, but everyone close to the alcoholic has a role to play. Discovering the part that we play is essential to changing the circumstances.

In large part, alcoholics act while those who are close to them react. A common scenario is that the active alcoholic gets drunk, acts up, and becomes the center of attention, while those around the alcoholic react to the drinking and the problems that may occur as a result of the drinking.

This isn't true of all alcoholics, obviously but, while intoxicated, alcoholics too often don't worry about the problems their actions are causing, leaving that role to those who are close to them. Often, the alcoholic's family members and loved ones take on the responsibility of doing for the alcoholic what they are unwilling or unable to do for themselves.
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Usually, it starts out well, and the intentions are good. Those who are close to the alcoholic are concerned and willing to help the relative or friend who is clearly not well. However, as the problem continues the situation gets worse and, too often, family members and friends of the alcoholic forget that they have a choice in the matter.

In some cases, the choices are limited, or can become so. Those who grow up around alcoholism may feel as if they are forced to take actions on behalf of the alcoholic, sometimes for the sake of their own safety or for the good of the family. In time, the family member may come to believe that their help is required whether they want to give it or not. As a consequence, the alcoholic becomes more and more dependent.

Alcoholics act, and those around them react. Too often, no one can tell the active alcoholic anything, as he or she calls all the shots. One of the reasons that people drink is that alcohol promotes a sense of confidence and well-being. The intoxicated alcoholic may feel as if he or she is in charge, despite the fact that others are left to pick up the pieces.

Typically, drinking alcoholics become increasingly irrational, and those around them react by arguing, trying to get the drinker to see things more realistically. As the spouse or family member of the active alcoholic gets caught up in the chaos, they feel the need to prove that they are right. Even as the family member strives to justify the role that he or she has taken in the dance, the out-of-control alcoholic may turn on the family member who, in fact, may be enabling the drinking. In time, everyone around the alcoholic may come to doubt themselves and their perceptions.

For example, if the alcoholic blames his wife for his drinking, she may feel the need to walk as if she were on eggshells, hoping not to drive her husband to drink. The more confident the alcoholic gets with his drinking, since he's not having to take any responsibility for it, the more insecure his wife becomes. She may agree with whatever her husband says even when she knows it's wrong, just to avoid conflict. She may lost the ability to say no.

The same thing occurs around the failed promises that the drinker makes. Rather than holding the drinker responsible for himself, the spouse might feel the need to cover for her husband when he misses work or a child's piano recital. The drinker swears that it won't happen again but, of course, it does.

After several years as an enabler for an out-of-control alcoholic, family members may continue to react to alcoholic patterns even when they haven't been associated with an active alcoholic for years. Often, they are patterned to avoid conflict, and may do so with other family members, employers, or other authority figures. Conversely, the enabler may become patterned to seek conflict, having come to believe that the best defense is a good offense.

Family members, in particular, who have had to live with an alcoholic for many years may become accustomed to the chaos and crisis, and feel lost in its absence. As a result, when things are going well they may sabotage their own best interests, thus creating the crisis that makes them feel at home.

These patterns can continue in sobriety. Even when the loved one is in recovery, the spouse and family members will worry that the alcoholic may fall back on drinking, and may even feel the need to manage their spouse's sobriety. Plus, there may be unresolved resentments from the drinking times, and the lifestyle changes that take place during sobriety might trigger those who care about the recovering alcoholic.

Family and friends of alcoholics may need to choose recovery for themselves to prevent the dynamics of alcoholism to continue to dominate their relationships.