When Alcoholism Impacts Your Personal Relationships

Alcoholism and relationships are a delicate dynamic, as alcohol addiction has the potential to overshadow all other life responsibilities, impacting your personal relationships of all types.1 This impact may be seen within your home, your social circles, your community circles, at work, and anywhere you interact closely with others.

In this article:

How Are Alcoholism and Relationships Connected?

You engage in multiple relationships throughout your day-to-day life. You have relationships with family, both extended and immediate, including biological family and chosen family. Family relationships can be diverse and include partners, children, grandparents, and extended family members like cousins. You may interact with friends on a daily basis or less frequently, with some being closer friendships than others. You also have relationships at work and online.

Your closest relationships—such as the family members you live with or your romantic partner—may be most impacted if your alcohol use affects your day-to-day life, changes how you relate to others, and begins to damage the close bond you have with them.2

Those closest to you are not necessarily blood family or a significant other, but rather those you speak and see to most. Perhaps they are friends you see daily in your workplace, a community of chosen family you live with, or non-family members who lived in your home during your childhood.2

The behaviors that can accompany alcohol misuse may place strain on relationships. For example, individuals who misuse alcohol may: 3, 4

  • Avoid or lose a sense of emotional and physical intimacy in close relationships
  • Become emotionally or physically distant, including communicating less frequently or seeing loved ones in person less often
  • Experience feelings of loneliness or isolation
  • Experience changes in mood and mental health symptoms that experience interactions with others, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, or depressive symptoms
  • Lie to people in their lives about their alcohol use or its effects
  • Becoming unable to interact naturally with acquaintances, schoolmates, coworkers, or an employer, which could affect casual and professional relationships

Changes in relationships are part of the clinical criteria that clinicians use to diagnose alcohol use disorder and determine its severity. The signs and symptoms that can impact relationships include: 5

  • Spending progressively greater amount of time being spent getting, using, or recovering from using alcohol
  • Struggling or becoming unable to fulfill responsibilities at home, school, or work
  • Experiencing “persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems” related to alcohol use
  • Placing less importance or focus on social, recreational, or occupational activities that used to be a large part of everyday life

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What Are the Warning Signs That Alcohol Misuse Is Interfering With Relationships?

The effects of alcohol misuse or addiction on relationships can manifest different based on the exact nature of the misuse and relationship. However, you may notice certain warning signs that alcohol has begun to affect your relationships, such as:6

  • Avoiding your family or friends to use alcohol or hide that you have used alcohol
  • Forgetting milestones, like birthdays, or events that would usually be important to you
  • Asking loved ones to “cover” for you if you miss an event or become unable to fulfill a specific obligation
  • Finding household tasks overwhelming or decreasingly lower in your priorities to the point that you have difficulty completing them on schedule or at all
  • Being late for family events, dates, appointments, or work
  • Having increasing difficulty performing at the expected level in social settings, such as being engaged while playing with your children, interacting with customers at work, or collaborating with other members of a community group
  • Having loved ones express concern about your alcohol use or about your behavior while using alcohol
  • Having frequent disagreements or arguments about your alcohol use
  • Having arguments that escalate physically

These are the most common warning signs and not an all-inclusive list of ways that drinking can potentially impact your relationships. Some people do not show these specific warning signs, and some may be at a stage of alcohol use disorder where warning signs are not clear.6

The effects of alcohol on relationships may also look different in your life. For example, if you work and see most of your close friends remotely, the impact on your relationships may manifest differently than someone who lives in a multi-generational household and works several in-person jobs.

Because alcohol use disorder is a complex mental health condition that can be mild, moderate, or severe, clinicians evaluate 11 total criteria, including those dealing directly to do with relationships.5 If your relationships are showing any concerning signs, it may be time to seek guidance and support.

Your relationships are arguably the most important aspect of your life, and no amount of alcohol is worth losing your friendships and family relationships.

How Do I Find Treatment for Alcoholism and Relationships Issues?

Many individuals with alcohol addiction need external treatment and supports to find sobriety and address harm that may be related to alcohol and relationships in their life.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Programs

Many people who are seeking treatment for alcohol addiction complete one or more levels of care in alcohol addiction treatment. You may participate in detox, inpatient treatment, and outpatient treatment.7

Inpatient treatment occurs in a residential setting, where you are removed from your traditional using environment and can begin the healing process with an individual counselor and group counseling. Many inpatient programs include family therapy sessions when possible.7 These may be part of your session schedule or part of the program plan, such as a “family week” where your loved ones are invited to visit the facility for educational and therapy sessions.

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In outpatient programs, you live a home while receiving many of the same services offered in inpatient treatment, such as individual and group therapy. Depending on your level of need and your living environment, you may start in an outpatient setting, which can allow you to rebuild your relationships with your family, friends, and community while working on your recovery.7 Alternatively, if your home environment is unstable or unsupportive, you may be referred to a sober living house after inpatient treatment or during an outpatient program.

Therapy for Alcohol Addiction

Therapy is often recommended for individuals in recovery from alcohol addiction, including individual therapy and group therapy outside of alcohol addiction treatment programs. If alcohol use has significantly impacted your relationships, you may also benefit from family therapy. Therapy improves long-term recovery outcomes for many individuals and is also beneficial for many families seeking healing.6

Alcohol Addiction Support

Many people seeking sobriety use peer support resources, such as 12-step fellowships modeled on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other peer support groups. Here, you will develop close relationships with other people  who are also seeking sobriety from alcohol. If you attend AA, you may have the opportunity to work with a sponsor. The program has shown to improve long-term recovery outcomes.7

Many peer support organizations offer resources for rebuilding and healing relationships. For example, AA holds open meetings that can be attended by family and friends who want to be actively engaged in your recovery. AA’s sister organization, Alcoholics Anonymous Family Groups (Al-Anon) and its subgroup Alateen, offer safe spaces just for family members of people with addictions.

How Do I Heal Relationships Affected By Alcoholism?

Healing relationships can take time, so be patient with yourself and your loved ones. Using resources offered by a family therapist and support groups like AA can help with taking action steps toward healing relationships.

These action steps may include:7, 8

  • Participating in process-style family therapy sessions where you and your loved ones can speak candidly about events and emotions with a licensed mental health professional to find catharsis
  • Participate in action-focused family therapy sessions to set family boundaries, such as about whether alcohol will be kept in the home
  • Work the 12 Steps of AA, in particular Step 8 and Step 9 which involve identifying individuals you have harmed and offering direct amends to them when possible
  • Participating in process-style group therapy or peer support groups to speak about complex relationship dynamics without hurting your loved ones’ feelings
  • Set personal boundaries to protect yourself and your loved ones

Allow your therapist to offer support and encouragement as you and your family process through any potential trauma and pain that the drinking may have caused.8

Your alcohol use may have impacted your relationships in a potentially negative way, but that does not mean the changes are permanent.8 Recovery is possible and taking steps toward recovery can help you begin to heal your relationships.7

To find treatment for alcohol misuse or addiction that may have impacted your relationships, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? at any time.

Resources

  1. Abbey, A., Smith, M. J., & Scott, R. O. (1993). The relationship between reasons for drinking alcohol and alcohol consumption: an interactional approach. Addictive Behaviors, 18(6), 659–670.
  2. Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Social Work in Public Health, 28(3-4), 194–205.
  3. Rangarajan, S., & Kelly, L. (2006). Family communication patterns, family environment, and the impact of parental alcoholism on offspring self-esteem. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23(4), 655–671.
  4. French, M. T., Maclean, J. C., Sindelar, J. L., & Fang, H. (2011). The morning after: alcohol misuse and employment problems. Applied Economics, 43(21), 2705–2720.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. American Psychiatric Association Publishing.
  6. Fals-Stewart, W. (2002) Substance Abuse and Intimate Relationships. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
  7. Volkow, N. D. (2011). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (2nd Ed.). United States: DIANE Publishing Company.
  8. Beattie, M. (1986). Codependent no more: how to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Hazelden Publishing Company.

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