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Alcohol addict in the family. Helping them realize the problem and start treatment

24.07.2019 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

“My father has been drinking for 10 years already. I can leave him any moment, but I stay because of my mother. I told her so many times to leave him, but she is afraid he’ll drink himself to death. Well, he already is doing so! All while she is around! And why shouldn’t he, now that she cares about the whole family and he doesn’t have to lift a finger? She brings money, she cooks food, she does laundry. More time for drinking at his disposal! It has become even worse lately. He cannot even heat up the food without problems, he scorches it and almost caused a fire the other day. Twice he flooded our neighbors. Mother was left to make everything right. And he sees no problem in that! It wasn’t his fault, he says, he was tired and fell asleep. It has become dangerous to live with him.”

– Ella, 20


An alcohol addict is not the only one suffering from their addiction. Their family is in the same boat. Life with a person addicted to alcohol is like sitting on a powder keg: lack of money, sense of guild and inability to control the situation. Naturally, family members are not content with this state and try to change it. However, is it even possible? Can we help a spouse or a grown-up child when they drown in alcohol yet see no problem in it? How should we act if an addict started receiving treatment? Can we increase their chances of success? Let’s find out.


Test: signs of alcohol addiction. When start to worry

alcoholism treatment

Many alcohol addict do not admit to having a problem. “I can quit any time! I just want to drink right now, but I can also not want. I’ll quit when I decide to quit. Why am I not quitting now? I don’t want to, I’m fine this way.”

Is there really no problem in that? Not every person who consumes alcohol is an addict. How can we distinguish addicts from people who simply drink occasionally?

You can read about stages of alcohol addiction in another article. For now, we offer you a short test consisting of 10 statements. They are related to the behavior of a person whom you suspect to be addicted to alcohol. [1] Read the statements and answer “yes” or “no”.

  1. They always find a reason to drink, even if there are no celebrations and they have no company.
  2. They get angry and nervous when they cannot get a drink.
  3. They hide the amount of alcohol they actually consume.
  4. They often forget what happened while they were drunk.
  5. They cannot stop and quit drinking. They drink while they have alcohol.
  6. They need to take a drink to cure a hangover.
  7. Alcohol replaced almost all their hobbies and interests.
  8. They go on a drinking spree spanning at least 2-3 days.
  9. They have had problems with the law due to drunken brawls and such, yet they still drink regularly.
  10. They drink often and need only a small amount of alcohol to get drunk.

If you have answered “yes” to at least 3 statements, you should pay close attention to the whole situation. Your relative is quite likely to have an alcohol addiction.

Please note: this is not a precise test and we strongly recommend against making a diagnosis based on it. However, if you are genuinely worried about your relative’s behavior, you should consult with a specialist.

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Who is guilty in alcohol addiction?

husband drinks

Some people say that people develop alcohol addiction because of their surrounding. They say that an addict is a good person, but their spouse or parents are so awful that there is nothing else left but to drink. Addicts themselves support that opinion, as it is very convenient for them: now they are not responsible for their behavior, it’s someone else’s fault.

Of course, there are certain risk factors for alcohol addiction. Let’s look at the most common social causes of this habit development.

Why is my husband drinking?

  • No professional fulfillment. Low salary, lack of qualification or even proper job can make a person want to distract themselves by consuming alcohol.
  • Friends and hobbies. Many traditional kinds of entertainment for men, like fishing, hunting, repairing a car imply drinking, and many people do so, because “it’s tradition”.
  • Authoritative relatives. If parents or wife dominate over a man, that man might develop the desire to start drinking as a means to escape their control.
  • Stress, anxiety and depression. In many cultures, men are supposed to be strong, tolerate pain and never complain. As the result, a husband is left alone with his own problems, and he starts to see alcohol as a means to distract themselves.

Why is my wife drinking?

wife drinks
  • Boredom. Household chores are tedious and resemble a Groundhog Day, so many housewives entertain themselves with alcohol.
  • Illusion of a beautiful life. Some people perceive sangria, mojito and “Sex on the beach” not as drinks, but as elements of beautiful life. Abuse of such drinks can eventually result in transition to a much less glamorous vodka.
  • If a husband drinks, his wife might start drinking as well. She may do some to keep him company or with the intention to reduce the amount her husband drinks.
  • Domestic violence, including the one experiences in her birth family, depression, anxiety. Lack of peace and stability can result in developing a drinking habit to soother the pain.

Why is my adult child drinking?

Adult children can start drinking for the same reasons listed above. After all, they are not just your children, they are also somebody’s spouses. However, in some cases people develop addiction during teenage years and adolescence.

  • Drinking parents. If even one of the parents is drinking, children have a hard time. This is not just a bad example. Children may experience abuse and be in constant stress. Some addicts can even make their children drink with them. Sometimes children drink to become closer with their parents. All this develops early alcohol addiction. In some cases though, children firmly decide to stay sober after watching their parents drink. We can never know for certain the outcome of any specific situation.
  • Bad company. A teenager may start drinking to seem older or cooler. As the result, such teenagers may develop an addiction to alcohol by the time they reach adulthood.

Regardless of these risk factors, a lot depends on the person themselves when it comes to alcohol addiction, aside from cases among children and teenagers. Drinking people involve others in their abuse, and so their family and friends start to condone an addict’s behavior, thus supporting the disease progression. Such relationship becomes co-dependent quickly, an it is extremely difficult to get out of it.

About co-dependent relationship

In healthy relationship, a person devotes a lot of their time to their life, health and emotional well-being. They understand that they can affect other people, they feel the connection with their friends and family but never try to control them. How are co-dependent relationships different from that? [2]

  • In co-dependent relationship a person tries to control the emotions and behavior of the other person constantly. Naturally, achieving full control is impossible, but the attempts never end.
  • Co-dependent people start to fight their relative’s alcohol addiction only when it solves someone else’s problem. Their own interests become less important. They can try to find a job for an addict, apply to job interviews, plan some methods to motivate and inspire addicts, choose treatment methods or even turn to less conventional methods like fortunetellers and prayers.
  • Co-dependent relationship is often mistaken for a genuine desire to help a person. How can we abandon our loved one in need, after all? However, in co-dependent relationship the main goal is to improve the other person’s life, not one’s own. “They’ll quit drinking and I’ll finally be happy.”

If you saw yourself in this description, do not let that upset you. You are not wrong and you are not a bad person. You have simply learned that behavior pattern. It often stems from our childhood.

“I have long wondered why am I so obsessed with treating my husband’s addiction. He never wanted treatment, he thought his behavior was normal. He said that everyone drank in our village, so how else could he entertain himself? You see, he never even thought about changing anything, I was the only one who wanted that. I went out of my way to make our family happy and racked my brains about making my husband quit. One day I have finally realized what it looked like. My grandfather used to drink quite a lot. When he got violent, mother and grandmother always told me: “Go comfort your grandpa, he loves you, so he won’t hurt you.” You see? They made me believe that I could control my grandfather. I want to pick him up from our neighbors to make sure he doesn’t get wasted. I pleaded him to refrain from drinking on holidays. I thought I was controlling him, but I wasn’t. Now I do the same thing to my husband.”

– Zoya, 37

Co-dependence often goes hand in hand with enabling addictions. Relatives of an addict genuinely want to help, but they often don’t realize that some of their actions justify an addict’s behavior. A person with alcohol addiction becomes convinced that there is no problem, so there is nothing to solve.

How can we realize that we are entangled in co-dependent relationship? What behavior counts as enabling?

When we enable our relative’s addiction


1. Financial support

Relatives may start providing money or even buying alcohol themselves. Such behavior often stems from fear. People are afraid that they will have to refuse, establish boundaries and insist on adhering to them. They fear that an addict will behave unpredictably, start yelling or even become aggressive and violent. Alcohol addicts often beg for money in public places, in hope that their spouse or relatives will be ashamed of this.

“He knew what buttons to push. I never gave him any money, I didn’t even keep any cash at home. He started to come to my work and ask for money in front of others. I gave in a couple of times, as I didn’t want to start arguing at work. After that, he began to come every day and whine until I gave him at least some money. He stopped asking for that at home, simply came to my workplace to beg for money for alcohol. I had to clench my teeth and endure his tantrums. I didn’t let him in, went out and refused, refused and refused. He understood that I will not give him money anymore after the fifth time, and stopped coming.”

– Irina, 47

2. Over-protection

Relatives often rush to save a person, thus taking away that person’s chance to overcome any hardships on their own. For example, they blame a manager who let a person go because of drinking, insist on helping them find a job, buy them groceries etc. Such over-protection leads to the sense of personal helplessness (I cannot do anything myself, others always do things for me) or impunity (I can do anything I want, and they will help me anyway).

3. Taking responsibility for an addict’s behavior

Relatives start to consider themselves to be the cause of their loved one’s addiction. They think they didn’t support and inspire them enough, earned to little or too much, didn’t act properly, insisted on doing chores etc. As the result, an addict takes no responsibility for their own behavior and does not try to change the situation: they are not at fault, they cannot do anything about their unhealthy surroundings.

“It was living hell. One day I realized that my husband was drinking every day and didn’t even intend to stop. My mother-in-law blamed me for that. She said he was an innocent boy when we met, but I got on his nerves too much and he started drinking. However, he used to drink even before meeting me, his sprees simply lasted for 2-3 days, not several weeks. And I fell for her words! I started to blame myself, try to become better, act like a good wife, never said a word about it to him. Hangover? Here is something to help. What, you need me to bring you some beer from the fridge? Sure enough, I am a good wife and obey my husband. Then I got into personal therapy and realized that I was not at fault! Drinking was his choice, and all I did was enabling him. I couldn’t stand it and filed for divorce. Surprise-surprise! My new husband does not drink, even though I am around. Even my previous mother-in-law considers me an angel and blames her son’s new wife for his addiction.”

– Marina, 29

4. Shifting responsibility to other people or circumstances

In this case, everyone and everything but the addict is responsible for this problem: bad lineage, evil manager, stressful job, drinking co-workers, world crisis or moon in Aquarius. An addict becomes therefore relaxed: if they are not the cause of the addiction, they cannot do anything about it. They cannot solve the world problems, and they need to relieve stress, so why not have a drink?

work on yourself

You are disappointed with me again, start working on yourself so that I change

5. Lies and secretiveness

Relatives can be ashamed of public judgment and cover up for an addict, help them lie to others and conceal any problems. For example, if a person cannot work because of a drinking spree, that call that person’s manager and lie about having a disease. As the result, and addict becomes convinced that everything is fine and there is no need to worry.

6. Desire to appease and avoid conflicts

Desire to be an “ideal spouse”, a good and understanding person makes an addict’s relatives allow abusive treatment and never resist bursts of aggression. As the result, an addict concludes that they can behave (and drink) however they want with no consequences.

7. Blaming and criticism

It is hard to accept that you are an addict. Direct blaming often leads to resistance, stubbornness and anger. The situation, however, does not change, a person refuses to take a hard look on their habits and thinks that everything is fine.

“It took me a long time to realize my drinking problem. I used to drink on weekends. Well, everyone does it. Well, it can be hard to stop. Well, I cannot sometimes remember the evening. I thought hangover comes from low quality of alcohol. My boyfriend tried to tell me about that, but it was always hurtful, something like: “Varya, you are a booze hag, stop drinking.” I simply got angry and took another glass. We broke up, because he became so negative. I came back to my senses when I noticed myself doing things I would never do sober. Nothing criminal, yet nothing good. I don’t drink nowadays, and even if I do, I only have a little, so that I don’t become drunk.”

– Varvara, 34

8. Belief that a person can be changed against their will

Some people think that they can influence another person’s behavior and change it without that person noticing if they try hard enough. However, we all have free will and are responsible for our own actions. The only thing we can do is change our own behavior and attitude towards the situation. These changes may or may not affect another person’s behavior. There is no kind of “proper” behavior to treat an addiction. However, if our relative reciprocates our actions, there is a chance that our behavior will have a positive effect.

How to act when our relative is an addict

What can we do if our loved one drinks a lot? How can we help them overcome their alcohol addiction? First of all, we can help them realize the problem. Secondly, we must support them during their treatment.

Helping a relative recognize the problem and consider treatment

drinking husband

Step 1. Decide yourself if you are ready to live this life

First you must think for yourself if you are fine with the life you are about to start. What will you do if your spouse becomes aggressive, fighting for their right to drink? Are you ready to support them if they finally decide to start treatment? Will you be able to start over again if they lack will and give up? What will you do if the treatment doesn’t work? Are you ready to spend your whole life with an alcohol addict? Sometimes we cannot give clear answers to all these questions, so it might be a good idea to consult a psychologist.

Remember that helping an addict is hard, and you may lack resources to go until the end, while some situations are practically hopeless. Do not blame yourself for making a choice.

Step 2. Relieve yourself of responsibility for other person’s actions

Accept the fact that you cannot change other person’s habits on your own. You can support and help them, yes, but you cannot do this instead of them. If an addict doesn’t realize the problem, no persuasion and no hidden treatment will work. It all depends entirely on them. There is only one answer to the question “can I do anything if my spouse or child drinks”. No, you cannot, unless they realize their addiction and want to get rid of it.

Step 3. Prompt an addict towards realizing the problem

If you take an addict to a clinic and simply give them to doctors, your chances of success are very low. An addict doesn’t need this, so they won’t make any efforts to move forward with treatment. You must first nudge them towards understanding their state. This conversation is best to happen when a person is sober.

  • Tell them what worries you and how much you care about them. Tell them what you see, what consequences their addiction has and how much your life has changed because of it.
  • Try not to blame them, but let them open up. “I care about you, and I want to listen to you and understand you, I won’t blame or judge you, but I need to know what is going on.”
  • Try to peak calmly, without attacking and blaming a person. They must understand that you are their ally, not a persecutor.
  • Your loved one will likely try to protect themselves. It is a normal reaction to avoid the sense of guilt. Your first attempt may fail, and it will take time for an addict to realize the problem.
  • Близкий человек может начать защищаться — это нормальная реакция, которая помогает избежать чувства вины. Первая попытка разговора может оказаться неудачной, а осознание проблемы может занять время.

Step 4. Stop enabling an addict

Find out which of your actions help an addict avoid the consequences of their behavior. You might be helping them with their job, hiding the problem from mutual friends, buying them groceries or something similar. Let an addict take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions.

It can be extremely hard to refrain from helping if the person drinking is your own son or daughter, your dear child. However, you must find in yourself the strength to say “no” for their sake, not buy into their manipulations and blackmailing, never believe their attempts to blame you for their addiction. You might need help and support from a psychologist on this stage as well.

Step 5. Let the person see that their problem can be solved

There are several views of an alcohol addiction and its treatment: [3]

  • Medical and biological model presents this addiction as a disorder or even hereditary disease. An addict then does not feel guild, yet cannot realize that alcohol addiction can be treated. “I tried treatment and it didn’t work. It is a disease.” “My father drinks, my son drinks, so there is nothing I can do. It runs in our family.”
  • Choice model presents alcohol addiction as a conscious decision. This approach helps people gain sight of treatment methods, but it is paired with a strong sense of guilt, which interferes with overcoming addiction.
  • Cause search model lets us find the causes of addiction, but is not in the least helpful for the process of overcoming it.
  • Learning model. This model can prove to be more efficient. It basically says: addiction is a learned behavior pattern. A person learns to do a certain thing and continues doing so. Their brains get used to receiveing pleasure this way. This source of pleasure becomes the easiest and most accessible, so a person obviously indulges in it. Just like we brush our teeth in the morning or eat cookies with tea, an addict relieves their stress and boosts their mood with alcohol.

Increased craving for alcohol causes strong desires, which in turn subdue other intentions of a person. As the result, a person develops tunnel vision, with only their goal in sight. In our case, it is alcohol.

If a person mastered a habit, they can learn another one, because our brains are flexible and can adapt to various situations, while learning mechanisms for habits are all the same. This is how our 7Spsy behavior modification technique works. It is a registered method of behavior psychology, which can help people on their way to overcome a bad habit.

How to act when a relative is trying to get rid of alcohol addiction

helping hand

What should you do when your drinking spouse decided to receive treatment? How can we help them stay on the course and support them?

Rule 1. Help them choose a treatment program or a medical facility

At its final stage an alcohol addiction is not just a psychological problem, it also has physical consequences. Body of an addict gets used to large volumes of alcohol and adapts to “process” it. Experiencing withdrawal syndrom is quite common. [4] It is expressed by excessive sweating, tremor, spasms, low mood, anxiety, fear, bad sleep and nightmares. A person gets in a terrible state, and it can get even worse depending on their stage of addiction. Medical and psychological help becomes extremely important for them. Find rehabilitation facilities in your city, read their reviews, consult with medical specialists or even find people who have received treatment and ask them for advice. You can discuss all this with your loved one and help them make a choice.

Rule 2. Support them even during relapse

A person fighting an addiction learns to life their life anew, this time without alcohol. They may relapse on that way. You must understand that a short relapse does not mean failure. It is simply a small step back, so you still can, and should, continue. You need to analyze the situation, find risk factors that can prompt alcohol consumption and learn from it.

For example, if your relative was sober for two months but then had a day of drinking, do not treat them like a failure of a human being. Be wary of certain phrases. This is not a type of “support” your loved one needs: “I knew you will give in, what else could I expect of you.” “You must be having it hard, you’ll probably never overcome it, there are no ex-alcohol addicts.”

The best thing you can do is focus on their further actions, but not the consequences of the relapse. “Yes, people do relapse sometimes, you were used to solving problems this way, that’s why you’ve done it. But you could hold yourself together for such a long time. Then you can stay sober for even longer, if you really want it.”

Rule 3. Do not instigate them to drink

A person has a hard time fighting an addiction, and they will have even lower chances of success if people around them offer a drink regularly. You don’t have to quit drinking completely, because temptation will always be there: an addict will encounter alcohol somewhere else. You simply don’t have to create an artificial alcohol-free world at home.

A person should learn to contain themselves and properly react to a possibility to drink by refraining from it. Your care and support are more important.

Rule 4. Continue fighting your co-dependence

Some people cannot immediately recognize enabling behavior, so you should pay attention to your actions and refrain from doing things that can make a person go back to their addiction. Please remember that an addict was not the only one suffering: you were there too. A family of an addict often develops a routine around that bad habit. This simply means that the whole family will have to change their behavior, not just the person drinking.

Rule 5. Help them find a replacement for alcohol

Do not wait until a person finds a replacement for their drinking themselves. Offer them various ways to spend time: go to the cinema, take a trip to a countryside, find others who promote healthy lifestyle. You can start doing sports, like swimming, cycling, even rollerskating and walking can do. Find an activity that can help you relax and entertain yourselves.

Pay attention to the fact that alcohol addiction is often accompanied by a habit of drinking something at the table. The contents are not that important, simply having a glass will do. If that is the case, find other drinks to replace alcohol for a time being, until an addict grows out of that “drinking culture”.

Please, never forget that your loved one must make all the decisions themselves, or it will turn into a life-long game of playing savior.

Rule 6. Take care of yourself

An addict is not the only person who requires help: you do need it as well. You are now faced with a difficult task of helping and supporting another person, while you also have to withstand this whole process yourself.

We will help you to give up alcohol

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Simply quitting alcohol does not solve all the problems. An ex-addict may start whining and become constantly upset. They may behave inadequately, hoping that they will receive the same amount of help and care they had while drinking. A person trying to quit may behave unpredictably, so you need support and an outside perspective. You can consult a psychologist personally or go to group counseling for co-dependent people.

You should not remain alone in this situation. You have your own worth, you deserve love and care just as much as everyone else, so do find time for yourself as well.


  1. Stadii alkogolizma, «Bolshaia rossiiskaia entsiklopediia» (https://bigenc.ru/sociology/text/1813568).
  2. Melodi Bitti, «Alkogolik v seme, ili Preodolenie sozavisimosti».
  3. Mark Liuis, «Biologiia zhelaniia. Zavisimost — ne bolezn».
  4. Sindrom otmeny pri alkogolizme (http://www.psychiatry.ru/lib/54/book/32/chapter/10).