Can You Really Convince Someone to Stop Drinking?

Picture this: you’ve been watching your partner, or someone in your immediate family, slowly succumb to alcohol addiction. Perhaps you found empty bottles of liquor hidden away, or you’re surprised to find the glass recyclables can full of beer bottles when you take out the trash. No matter what awakens you to reality, it’s a scary feeling to admit your loved one might be addicted to alcohol. 

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “I’ll give him an ultimatum. It’s me and the kids or it’s the alcohol. I’m not watching him waste his life and damage ours in the process.”

That kind of ultimatum (and others like it) may seem reasonable, but can love or threats of leaving really convince someone to stop drinking?

 

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Stories of Recovery

I’ve heard in AA time and time again that you cannot will someone to get sober. They say it isn’t a good enough reason and the person will eventually relapse because they aren’t doing it for themselves. 

I happen to disagree, and here’s why: I have witnessed lots of people in the rooms tell me a number of reasons why they are in AA:

  • They’ve either been court mandated to attend AA and chose a meeting over a conviction and possible prison time
  • They were instructed to attend because AA is part of their residential treatment program
  • They came because they didn’t want to lose their wife [or other partner]
  • Their licensing board insisted that they attend as part of their probation to get their license back (I’ve seen this with doctors, nurses, dentists and other licensed providers).

Take Will, for example. I asked him one day why he was there after he rolled his eyes at an old-timer who said you have to be there for yourself. “You know, I came here because I didn’t want my daughter to see me hiding my empty bottles in the garden. She deserves a dad that is present in her life, not someone who is half-cut all the time. That’s why I’m here. Not for me,” he exclaimed.

Over my 10 years in AA, I’ve observed many reasons why people attend 12-step recovery…even if they didn’t choose to do it for themselves. I believe it’s a myth that people have to want to find recovery for themselves. What happens is that, over time, people find themselves choosing recovery over the alternatives. They start to believe in the transformation of recovery, and they desire that change or betterment of their lives. 

I think you can support and love someone through the recovery process until they develop enough self-esteem and confidence to do it for themselves. Not everyone who has alcohol use disorder (the new term for alcoholism) presents in the same way. Meaning, one person’s motivation to get sober may be different from another person, and that may change over time. 

What is for sure is that no one else can determine whether a person wants recovery or not. After all, the only requirement to attend a 12-step meeting is a desire to stop drinking – who says that desire has to be yours? You can absolutely fake it until you make it. 

Can You Convince Someone to Stop Drinking?

What if someone isn’t mandated to attend 12-step, isn’t a licensed professional, or isn’t in a relationship? Well, in truth, they basically have no serious consequences – other than their wellbeing – as a motivator for change. Can you still convince them to stop drinking?

I think the answer is maybe. What I know for certain is that a tough love approach did not work for me. I believe it’s a tactic that can strip people of their support networks and push them deeper into their addiction. But loving and supporting a person through gaining awareness around their drinking habits and how those habits might be harmful is entirely possible. 

Here are a few ways that you can encourage a loved one to consider their drinking:

  • Sit down with a friend or family member and tell them (loving and compassionately) that you’ve noticed that they might be drinking more than usual, and wondered if anything was on their mind that they wanted to share with you.
  • If you’re a person in recovery concerned for a loved one, perhaps you could ask them if they’d be open to attending a meeting with you.
  • Ask a partner if they have noticed how much they’re spending on alcohol and ask if they think their drinking habits have changed.
  • Be prepared by having some concrete examples of your concerns: perhaps the number of empty bottles, the number of days of the week they have been drinking, or days they’ve missed work. 
  • Have a list of resources to hand that could support them. That might include a local treatment center or detox (or both), a list of AA and alternative meetings, a link to the Rethinking Drinking website, where they can explore themselves if they meet the criteria for heavy drinking or alcohol use disorder. 
  • Listen and be supportive. If your loved one feels supported they may be more likely to open up to you about their problems and ask for help.

Conversely, here is a list of unhelpful things you can avoid for someone who needs help finding treatment:

  • Practice tough love.
  • Cut them off.
  • Drink around them.
  • Use language like “enabling.” This is particularly unhelpful, stigmatizing, and practices tough love which could push a person further away and down the rabbit hole of addiction
  • Be judgmental, shaming, or overly critical.
  • Tell them to leave your home when they have nowhere to go.
  • Drop them off at an AA meeting even though they have expressly declined to go.

 

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At the end of the day, we can only suggest resources and make compassionate observations to loved ones about their drinking habits. We cannot make anyone do anything, and we certainly can be mindful of the ways in which we can make things worse. The best thing you can do is provide love and support for someone who is struggling.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? today to speak with a treatment specialist.

 

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