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How Alcoholism Affects Relationships

By Jackie Daniels
Published On February 12, 2021 | Last Updated On February 12, 2021

How Alcoholism Affects Relationships

By Jackie Daniels
Published On February 12, 2021 | Last Updated On February 12, 2021
Are you cheating on your partner with alcohol? If so, alcohol can negatively affect your relationships with loved ones. If relationships are like cars, alcoholism is a crack in the windshield.  If the crack is not addressed, the crack gets wider, more dangerous, and spreads across the entire windshield. Alcohol leaves widespread trauma and damage […]

Are you cheating on your partner with alcohol? If so, alcohol can negatively affect your relationships with loved ones.

If relationships are like cars, alcoholism is a crack in the windshield.  If the crack is not addressed, the crack gets wider, more dangerous, and spreads across the entire windshield. Alcohol leaves widespread trauma and damage in relationships, and partners everywhere feel hopeless. The good news is that just like a windshield can be fixed, there are solutions to take care of yourself as well.

Those who live with and love moderate to severe alcohol users feel the impact financially, socially, and end up feeling neglected, fearful, and angry.  All chronic medical conditions certainly create strain on families and relationships, but alcoholism is often perceived as a “choice” and this causes expectations and codependent dynamics that other conditions may not.

In relationships, chronic alcohol use can damage:

  • Trust
  • Stability
  • Affection and Intimacy
  • Commitment
  • Respect

The reality of alcohol is that it becomes a mistress. Loved ones often feel they come second to drunken nights and will often attend special events alone, or not at all. Drinkers will stop at nothing to protect their mistress, leaving loved ones feeling abandoned and neglected. The mistress gets all of the attention, and partners everywhere feel hurt, bitter, and resentful.

So, how do you salvage a relationship where alcohol is the mistress? How do you help yourself if you’re the one cheating?

For loved ones, the first thing to do is take a deep breath, and manage expectations.  The damage from years of drinking cannot be undone overnight, but there are steps you can take to protect and care for yourself.

  • Make a decision and a commitment.  Staying in a relationship with an active alcoholic is a commitment.  You commit to not punishing them for having a disease, as well as taking care of yourself.  This means that emotional hostage taking (explained below) cannot be used as a mechanism of change.  
  • Seek help for yourself.  Search for an individual therapist well-versed in addiction. Having support will empower you to set boundaries and cope with feelings of anger and disappointment.
  • Join a support group.  Al-anon is a world-wide fellowship for loved ones of alcoholics.  Find understanding, support, and a structured way to live side-by-side with your loved one by attending weekly meetings.
  • Protect any children involved.  If there is neglect or violence in your home, the children involved come first.  Take necessary steps to ensure their safety. If this means leaving, leave.

Addressing codependency not with Alcohol

Codependency is a dynamic that develops when one person relies heavily on another person.  Typically, there is a “giver”and a “taker” in codependent relationships. The dynamic becomes dysfunctional when the giver feels worthless unless the taker needs them.  Ultimately, codependency develops from a basic human need to feel important, where self-esteem is wrapped up in taking care of someone else, even at the expense of their own personal needs.

Codependency can be a learned behavior, especially in families where alcoholism or another addiction occurred in childhood. Children of alcoholics are put in situations where they become responsible for and often take care of their parent. This causes the child to grow up faster, and to assume the role of parent. If the child is rewarded and affirmed for taking care of a parent, this can be confused with love.  Codependency is not love.  Love is based on reciprocity, with shared values and conflict resolution.

Codependency is also fuelled by the belief that we can change others regardless of their actions if we are “good enough” or hard working enough. In the end, the codependent will become resentful and bitter if the change doesn’t occur.

Are you codependent?

  • You justify your husband’s drinking by saying he has had a stressful day or needs to relax.
  • You make excuses when your girlfriend can’t come to social functions because she is under the influence or nursing a hangover.
  • You buy alcohol whenever he complains of any minor discomfort, even though you’re worried about his  behavior.
  • You quietly take on extra responsibilities around the house or in parenting your children because your partner is always under the influence.
  • You find yourself frequently apologizing to others or doing favors to repair relationships damaged by your partner’s drug or alcohol misuse.
  • You risk your own financial future by loaning money to your partner to cover debts incurred from the consequences of their drinking.
  • You feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility and shame for their behavior, and lose your own identity in the process.

Don’t fret. There are ways to make changes and heal from codependency.

  1. Start being honest with yourself and your partner.  Do not do things for them that they can and should do for themselves.  Stay in your lane.
  2. Get support.  Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) is a 12-step program designed to help the participant develop healthy relationships.  The program can help you identify your patterns and tendencies in codependent relationships.
  3. Consider counseling.  A counselor serves as an unbiased 3rd party, and can often work with couples as well.  They can point out codependent tendencies in your relationship and provide feedback about change.
  4. Develop your own interests.  Schedule times during the week to enjoy your hobbies, or times with friends.  Establish boundaries and stick to them, regardless of complaints or manipulation tactics.
  5. Set a bottom line.  Humans can only tolerate so much.  You may decide that abusive language is your bottom line, or infidelity.   Do not threaten to leave and not follow through, because it’s not going to change their behavior.  Mean it and follow through.
  6. Be compassionate with yourself. This may not be what you asked for, and hindsight is always 20/20.  However, you can be kind to yourself.  Allow yourself to feel disappointment, but don’t get lost in the negative spiral afterward.  You are not a victim! Recognize that it’s possible to change, even if by taking  baby steps.

“What does a change in my behavior have to do with the alcoholic?”

Lauren is a 28 year-old college-educated, professional woman when she meets John.  At first, John sweeps her off her feet and promises her the world. She is smitten with his selfless deeds and lavish gifts.  After 6 months together, she realizes that John’s drinking is not like hers.  She can stop after a few drinks and wakes up early the next morning to tend to her responsibilities.  John, however, continues drinking after she goes to bed, leaving intimacy on the backburner. She discovers he is hiding liquor in his apartment and she finds empty vodka bottles in the trash.

Lauren confronts John about his drinking and the loneliness and disappointment she feels.  John offers a sob story about his stress level at work, and Lauren feels empathy and compassion.  John commits to “slowing down” and not drinking when she’s around.  Lauren sees this as an offering of love and sacrifice, and her feelings for John deepen.

At one year together, John is arrested for driving while intoxicated. She bails him out of jail when he calls her, worried about his job.  Understanding that John is under a lot of stress, she doesn’t want him to lose his job.  John returns to drinking as soon as he is released from jail, because of the stress.  Lauren can understand why he may be distressed. Lauren decides to move in with John to help him take care of his home so he can focus on being present at work, while helping with the bills.

After 18 months together, John fails to attend the court-ordered treatment mandated by his probation, stating that they “don’t understand me. I’m not like everyone else.”  Lauren vents to a friend as she feels the increasing pressure and sadness from a relationship that is going nowhere.  This friend happens to be in recovery from addiction, and encourages her to attend an Al-Anon meeting.  Lauren gets upset and doesn’t think she should have to attend.  After all, her boyfriend has the problem, not her.  Lauren stops relying on this friend for support.

After 2 years together, John loses his job, and his pension. He was hiding alcohol in his truck and leaving the office to drink at lunch, returning to the job intoxicated.  When John tells Lauren, John blames his boss stating they “drank together all the time, and he knows I can handle my liquor.”  Lauren decides  that she’s had enough, and threatens to leave.  John becomes very upset and tells Lauren she’s abandoning him at his greatest time of need.  He threatens to hurt himself if she leaves. Lauren feels desperate and decides she will stay because she would feel awful if something happened to John because of her. She knows he is facing more jail time for failing to attend court-ordered treatment.

John drinks daily now and has withdrawal symptoms each morning, dry heaving into the toilet as Lauren prepares to leave for work.  John begs Lauren to pick up vodka for him on her way to work and bring it to him.  “You don’t want me to be sick all day, do you?”  Lauren agrees to leave and bring him vodka, and shows up to work late.  Lauren is written up by her employer, and referred to her employer’s employee assistance program for counseling as she is obviously distressed, but does not disclose why.

Lauren attends the counseling appointment recommended by her employer.  The counselor collects history and asks Lauren to describe her current situation.  Lauren talks about her hard working boyfriend, John.  The counselor asks Lauren to identify John’s work ethic, and Lauren becomes confused and tongue tied.  The counselor tells Lauren she is in a codependent relationship with her boyfriend, and expresses concern for her stress level. She has lost weight and is not sleeping, and Lauren hadn’t even noticed.

Lauren decides to attend an Al-anon meeting as her friend and the new counselor recommended. She learns at her first meeting that alcoholism is a disease and it’s stronger than she ever thought.  She talks to the meeting leader afterward, who suggests she read the literature available, and offers her phone number for Lauren to call for support.

Lauren returns home and John is upset she has been gone so long.  He has run out of vodka and is too sick to drive himself, and he has no license.  He begs Lauren to buy him more vodka, but it’s getting late and Lauren knows she cannot be late to work again in the morning.  Lauren calls the woman who offered her phone number and begins to tell the woman about what’s happening at home.  She encourages Lauren to set a boundary with John and informs her that an alcoholic will get extremely sick without alcohol.  Lauren gets off the phone and tells John she will buy him liquor to help him avoid sickness, but he must admit himself to treatment in the morning, or she’s leaving.  She meant it.

In the morning, Lauren gets ready for work.  John swears he is calling treatment centers today, but needs her to buy more vodka so he can make the calls.  Lauren tells him “no,” and observes he has a half bottle left. She can tell he’s afraid he will run out, but is not without any at the moment.  Lauren leaves for work. Laruen also realizes he has other friends and family he can call if he runs into a problem.

When Lauren leaves work for the day, she calls John to see how he is doing.  He shares he called for an assessment today for a treatment center and is packing his belongings. They’ve encouraged him to come in for an intake at 8pm.  Lauren agrees to take John to the treatment center for his appointment.

When they arrive, Lauren expresses gratitude for John’s change of heart.  24 hours later, John wants to leave treatment against medical advice.  He calls Lauren for a ride, and she calls her Al-anon contact for advice.  After speaking with the woman, Lauren calls John and shares she will not be picking him up and if he returns home, she will call the police. She expects he will be drunk and abusive to her, and she needs to work in the morning.  John slams the phone down, and he doesn't show up at home that night. 

As you can see, Lauren finds herself in a codependent relationship.  As she seeks support, she is able to “get out of the way” and leave John to his natural consequences. She stuck to her bottom line, no matter how bad it felt, because she loved herself enough to believe she needed attention and care and she’s only responsible for her own behavior.

Lauren's situation is hypothetical, but experienced often by loved ones of alcoholics. Often, the duration of the problem is much longer, but there is help available for you and your loved one.

Indiana Center for Recovery recognizes the damage and pain addiction causes the families of those with the disease. If your loved one is willing to take the step today, please call our admission line. We offer a monthly family program that will help you identify and change codependent patterns and provide hope and coping skills for your family.

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