Living With an Alcoholic: Tolls, Strategies & Support
Last Updated: August 28, 2023
Since alcohol abuse is so common, it may be difficult to determine if you’re living with someone with an alcohol use disorder. Some signs can point toward alcohol addiction and give you a clearer picture of whether your spouse has an alcohol problem.
Alcoholism Is a Family Disease
You’ve probably heard someone say alcoholism is a family disease, and there is truth to this. Studies show that about 50% of alcoholism is heritable, meaning that around half of a person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder is due to genetics.
It can also be a “family disease” in that research shows that the wives and mothers of those with alcohol addictions are likely to become codependent, meaning that all of their energy becomes focused on “fixing” or “saving” the person with the addiction. This results in poor physical and emotional well-being, self-sacrifice and neglect of one’s needs. For this reason, close family members of someone with an alcohol use disorder often also require treatment.
How Do I Know if Someone Is an Alcoholic?
Alcohol misuse is common in the U.S. Recent research shows that within a given year, around 13.9% of the population meets diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder — the clinical term for alcoholism or alcohol addiction. Furthermore, data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) shows that 25.8% of American adults binge drink within a given month.
However, not every case of binge drinking means that a person has an alcohol addiction. If someone truly has an alcohol use disorder, they will demonstrate signs of alcoholism. Sometimes, the signs may be more subtle, as a person can have a mild case of alcohol use disorder with only two or three symptoms. On the other hand, some cases of alcoholism may be more severe, and a person will show many symptoms.
Signs of Alcoholism
If someone has an alcohol use disorder, they may show some or many of the following signs:
- Being unable to cut back on drinking, even if they desire to
- Consuming more significant amounts of alcohol than intended
- Continuing to drink, even when it causes problems in their relationships
- Drinking even though alcohol worsens a physical or mental health problem
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
- Developing a tolerance, meaning larger amounts of alcohol are needed to achieve the same effects
- Giving up other activities because of drinking
- Being unable to fulfill duties at work because of alcohol consumption
- Spending a considerable amount of time drinking or recovering from the effects of alcohol
- Having strong alcohol cravings
- Drinking in situations in which it is dangerous, such as drinking and driving
A person may have subtle signs, such as craving alcohol and having a high tolerance, but otherwise, be able to function. If alcohol addiction is more severe, they may have many symptoms and have difficulty performing at work or keeping up with family duties.
In some cases, a person can have a problem with alcohol but still manage to keep up with responsibilities at work and fulfill their family obligations. In fact, addiction experts have identified five subtypes of alcoholism, one being the functional alcoholic. A functional alcoholic is likely to be well-educated with a stable job and family, and one-third of them have multigenerational alcoholism within their families. Unfortunately, because functional alcoholics can still maintain a job and generally care for themselves and their families, they may deny they have a problem.
The functional alcoholic is likely to have a high tolerance for alcohol. They may even spend all their free time drinking or occasionally engaging in dangerous behavior. However, they may use their successful career and lack of serious consequences as reasons why they do not have a problem with alcohol.
Rates of depression are fairly high in functional alcoholics, affecting around 25% of this group. This suggests that mental health symptoms may be a risk factor for this type of alcoholism.
The Tolls of Living With an Alcoholic
If you’re living with someone with an alcohol use disorder, you probably already know the toll alcohol takes on relationships. One of the signs of alcoholism is continuing to drink even when it causes relationship problems. If your spouse continues to drink, even though you express concern and have had arguments about their alcohol use, this is a pretty clear sign you’re living with someone with an alcohol use disorder.
Emotional Tolls of Living With an Alcoholic
Alcoholism doesn’t just affect the person misusing alcohol. The loved ones who live with them can also experience negative consequences of their behavior. This can include:
- Feeling angry towards the person with alcohol use disorder or afraid of their behavior
- Insecurity about your future due to someone’s addictive behavior or their safety
- Sadness about the loss of the relationship you once had with the person misusing alcohol
- Potential emotional or physical abuse at the hands of the addicted family member
Alcoholism can cause close relationships to deteriorate because you may lose all trust in your partner. They may hide their alcohol use from you or lie about how much they spend on alcohol or their legal troubles.
Alcoholism can also lead to codependency. Over time, if you’re living with someone with an alcohol use disorder, you may take on a caretaking role and neglect your well-being. Trying to save someone addicted to alcohol from the consequences of their addiction can take a toll on the relationship.
Physical Tolls of Living With an Alcoholic
When living with someone with an alcohol use disorder, there can be physical health consequences to consider. Due to stress or anxiety caused by the behavior of someone who misuses alcohol, a person living with them may develop poor sleep or eating habits that negatively affect their physical health. Someone may also neglect personal hygiene or exercise due to worrying about someone addicted to alcohol or taking care of them when drinking.
Financial Consequences of Living With an Alcoholic
In addition to the physical and emotional consequences of living with someone who misuses alcohol, financial concerns can also arise. Someone with an alcohol use disorder may spend excessive money on alcohol, and therefore other responsibilities, such as bills or groceries, may be neglected. There may not be enough money to pay for basic living needs if someone with alcoholism uses all their finances to obtain more alcohol. Another financial burden may be due to legal fees or issues that arise due to the consequences of alcohol misuse.
Strategies for Living With an Alcoholic
When you realize you’re living with someone with an alcohol use disorder, you probably want to do all you can to help them. You likely long for the days before alcohol took hold and when your relationship was more functional.
If you truly want to help the person misusing alcohol in your life, you must stop engaging in codependent behaviors. This can include calling them off work sick when they are hungover from drinking, trying to get them out of trouble or giving them money for alcohol. Codependent and enabling behaviors only make it comfortable for them to continue drinking. They also end up harming your emotional and physical well-being.
Encouraging Your Loved One To Get Help
If you want to help the person addicted to alcohol in your life, it is critical you have an honest conversation about your concerns. Pick a time when they are not under the influence and are in a positive mood. Avoid blaming them or judging their behavior. Instead, be prepared to express your concerns, remind them you are coming from a place of love, and give specific examples of concerning behavior and the negative effects of their alcohol misuse. You might be met with denial and anger, but it is important to remain calm and avoid fighting back. You might have to give your loved one an ultimatum and tell them that you would be glad to help them get into treatment, but if they choose not to go, you may have to step aside from the relationship until they are ready to seek help. This may be difficult, but it could save their life.
Caring for Yourself
When living with someone with an alcohol use disorder or helping support them during their recovery, caring for your mental health is equally important. After an extended period of living with someone who misuses alcohol, someone’s physical and mental health may need attention before they can help anyone else.
Some useful ways to care for yourself can include:
- Prioritizing good sleep
- Getting proper nutrition
- Having your own emotional support network
- Seeing a mental health therapist
- Setting boundaries with the person with alcohol use disorder
- Prioritizing things outside of the addicted person, such as school or work
Supporting Your Loved One Through Recovery
If your loved one is actively seeking recovery from alcoholism, there are ways to help them in this next step of their journey.
Recovery and Treatment Options
When you realize your loved one needs treatment for alcohol misuse, options are available. In most cases, starting with a medical detox program is critical, as severe cases of alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures and a potentially fatal condition called delirium tremens. After medical detox, your spouse can enter either an inpatient or an outpatient rehab program. Those with a supportive living environment may begin with outpatient alcohol rehab, whereas most patients begin with an inpatient program. In that form of treatment, they live onsite at a treatment facility and transition to outpatient care in the community after completing inpatient rehab.
Encouraging Accountability and Responsibility
When someone is in treatment for their alcohol addiction, they need to take responsibility for the actions that led to their addiction, and they can control how their recovery goes.
While in inpatient and outpatient treatment, your loved one should work to prioritize their recovery by participating in the programs that are a part of their treatment. It can be easier to stay accountable while in an inpatient setting due to the strict schedule and lack of variability they provide. Helping your loved one transition to a lower level of care, such as outpatient treatment, will include supporting them in making appointments and going to any other follow-up needed for their recovery.
Celebrating Milestones and Successes
When someone is working towards their recovery from alcohol addiction, it is important to encourage their progress and celebrate the milestones and successes of recovery. If someone has not gone without a drink in a long time, that first day of abstaining from alcohol is a huge milestone and should be celebrated.
Recovery from alcohol addiction is not a linear process; all milestones, small and large, should be celebrated to encourage the person in recovery to keep working at it daily. If someone you know is struggling with alcohol use disorder, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper can support you and help your loved one on their path to recovery.
For those in New Jersey and the Greater Philadelphia area, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper offers comprehensive alcohol treatment services in South Jersey and treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Our medical detox program helps patients stay as safe and comfortable as possible during alcohol withdrawal. After completing medical detox, they transition to inpatient or outpatient care. Give us a call today to discuss your situation, verify your insurance and begin the admissions process.
Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.