How Alcoholism Affects Relationships
The majority of people are acutely aware of the long-term and very damaging effects alcoholism has on the body, but not many know that just as much damage can be done to relationships as well. The fact that alcoholism has a simultaneous destructive effect on physical and mental health and (committed and intimate) relationships is what makes it so different from other chronic health conditions.
With a marriage or other committed relationships, alcoholism has the potential to put a serious strain on - or even destroy - the intimate bond between two people. Having a partner who drinks too much is very much like throwing a stone into a calm body of water – the effects have a ripple-like effect on all those around them. Children, relatives, friends, and co-workers all bear the brunt of a person’s addiction. However, many would argue that - aside from the alcohol abuser - their partner often feels the biggest impact.
Couples where a partner abuses alcohol are often very unhappy - in fact, they are usually unhappier than couples that seek marriage guidance for other reasons. As the alcohol abuse worsens, it starts to take more and more time away from the couple - taking its toll by creating an emotional distance between them that is difficult to overcome. These couples also report that they fight and argue a great deal, which sometimes can become violent. It is often the fighting itself that can create an environment or situation in which the partner with the alcohol dependency uses the substance to reduce the stress of their unhappy situation, meaning that a vicious cycle ensues.
When the alcohol dependence eventually becomes one of the main reasons for fighting or arguing, the conflict leads to more substance use as a way of reducing tension, conflict about the substance use escalates; thus more drinking occurs, and so on. Couples where one partner abuses alcohol have a very tough time getting breaking free from this downward spiral – however, all is not necessarily lost. There are many proven ways to combat this cycle of abuse – allowing the abuser and their relationship to recover.
What Are The Alcoholism Symptoms
There are several warning signs that drinking by a partner is causing harm to the relationship to the point where an intervention by a professional is required. If a partnership finds that there are frequent arguments about drinking or things related to drinking, for example: financial problems, staying out late, not taking responsibility for helping in the home or with childcare, then it might be time to get some help. Further, if one is having to cover for a partner regularly because they have been drinking – be that phoning in sick for them or lying to friends and family because they are a no-show at an event, then it is time to address the addiction professionally.
Couples often report that as alcohol dependency takes hold in one partner, the abuser will only want to join in with activities where alcohol is readily available. Instances of domestic violence often increase – not just initiated by the partner who has been drinking – but by the partner who is suffering the consequences – often borne out of anger and frustration at the situation that they find themselves in.
How Alcohol Affects The Brain
Alcohol use - especially heavy drinking and binge drinking- is linked to male-to-female partner violence. This is true across a range of different cultures – and tends to be more severe when one or both partners have been drinking. Added to that, we know that alcohol plays a contributing role in heightened aggression generally – not just in an intimate relationship. However, according to research by Giancola, Corman, Godlaski, et al. entitled: “Men and women, alcohol and aggression”, under experimental conditions that while alcohol increases aggression in both men and women, the effect is stronger for men. Drinking by men has been shown to play a more important role in domestic violence perpetration than has drinking by women. This reflects the gendered nature of both problem drinking and domestic violence in an intimate relationship.
Furthermore, alcohol is thought to influence aggressive behavior through detrimental effects on the drinker’s cognitive executive functioning and problem-solving abilities, narrowing the focus of attention and increasing their willingness to take risks. In the context of an intimate couple, when one spouse has been drinking, he or she will be less able to address conflicts constructively because of the effects of alcohol on cognitive functioning and problem-solving. And, the partner with drinking problem may have a disproportionate response to a perceived slight, insult or other apparent wrong done by the partner. The one who engages in alcohol abuse may be less likely to see the partner’s perspective or the situational and environmental factors that may have affected the partner’s behavior. This is because of the narrowing of their focus of attention on a specific action of the partner related to their drinking.
The drinking partner may engage in highly provocative or aggressive behavior without thinking about the consequences of his or her actions because of alcohol’s effects on risk-taking. For male partners in particular, perceived aggression by the partner may be interpreted as a threat to their masculinity or social identity generally and therefore require an aggressive response to reassert this identity.
When both partners have been drinking, the role of alcohol may be even greater because of the potential for it to affect the thinking, perceptions, and risk-taking of both partners. That is, both partners are more likely to misconstrue the other’s behavior, be less able to resolve the situation without anger, and be more likely to engage in dangerous aggression that is likely to result in injury. Social and cultural perceptions of alcohol can also play a role where the acceptance and tolerance of alcohol-related misbehavior – including violence - can influence drinkers’ expectations about their behavior while drinking alcohol. This means that - regardless of the effects of alcohol - some people who have been drinking, may intentionally engage in aggression or violence toward their significant other because they expect that their behavior will be excused on the basis that they had been drinking – or were drunk - at the time.
Although drinking can occur without domestic abuse being an outcome – just like domestic abuse happens without alcohol being consumed - both are sufficiently linked that the World Health Organization proposed that ‘primary prevention interventions to reduce the harm caused by alcohol could potentially reduce domestic abuse.’ Further investigation of the effects of alcohol prevention on domestic abuse is important because direct interventions addressing violence against women have been shown to have a limited impact.
It is important to recognize the complex nature of domestic abuse – the World Health Organization has recommended a framework for violence prevention, whereby the “factors influence violent behavior separately and cumulatively at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels.”
Previously, reviews of alcohol interventions have focused exclusively on the individual or relationship level – in other words - an individual or couple treatment for alcohol dependency. This model suggests that interventions where alcohol is responsible for domestic violence needs to happen at a community level and the wider population and not just on a one-on-one or couple basis.
Exploring this further, it is interesting to note that community-level interventions are differentiated from population-level interventions because they tend to apply to a specific community or area and have often been developed as a direct response to very local issues or concerns. Interventions such as these would need to involve community figureheads and other key stakeholders in order to make them workable solutions. Population or society-level interventions are different because they are usually brought in through government regulations, and usually involve taxes on alcohol or similar legislation for them to be successfully implemented.
Aside from physical and mental abuse, alcohol addiction has other, significant consequences for relationships. If children are part of the equation, then there is a safeguarding issue that needs to be addressed. Naturally, the alcoholic parent may not be in a position to take care of a minor unsupervised. Indeed, research by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) suggests that one in every five adult Americans resided with a relative who abused alcohol in their adolescence. Not only can this lead to a child developing a codependency on a loved one’s alcohol abuse but also have a greater likelihood of having emotional trouble compared with children growing up in households where alcohol wasn’t an issue.
Furthermore, the research states that generally people have a greater likelihood of experiencing their own addictive behavior if exposed early on in life to a parent with a drinking problem. Tragically, children will become confused at the lack of support from their parent or caregiver – that’s because the alcohol will radically change a person’s behavior – switching between happy, sad and possibly aggressive – leading the child to think they are the cause of these mood swings. Children are likely to experience self-blame, guilt, frustration, and anger while the child tries to fathom why their parent is behaving in this way.
Be Proactive and Seek Treatment
Many couples have a misplaced belief that the problems associated with alcohol addiction – and the wider impact on children, friends, family, and colleagues – will eventually sort themselves out and the relationship will get itself back on the right track. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. The better thing to do is to get treatment as soon as possible, or at least call and ask about treatments that may be available. Failure to take action will see the situation spiral further out of control.
There are many different alcohol rehab treatments available that can be effective in reducing or eliminating problems with alcohol while easing the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Some treatments involve individual counseling, group counseling, while some are more focused on peer-supported self-help meetings and groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. These programs also have guidelines for anyone thinking, “am I an alcoholic?” With a plethora of tailored support available, it is vital to seek help – getting your alcohol dependent partner to enter a treatment program could be one of the best things you can do for your relationship.
Naturally, the old adage applies here – you can lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink. Not everyone will be keen to seek help or embark on a treatment programme. Research shows this is a common problem faced by many partners of alcoholics. Often they are incapable of recognizing that they have a problem – some also have a skewed view of counseling. Naturally, this is something that counseling services and treatment programs are very experienced in dealing with and can offer help for concerned family members. They can provide ideas and information on motivating your partner to consider getting help - these approaches are often very helpful in getting family members who are reluctant to seek help to ultimately enter treatment.
A Strong Support System Is Key
Many treatments for people who have a problem with alcoholism will include the partner in some way. Research has shown that involving partners in the treatment at some point can be very important in achieving a successful outcome. It is also very important that the problems in the relationship are addressed and resolved – these issues don’t magically disappear just because the drinking stops. Many couples are both surprised and disappointed that they continue fighting despite the removal of the perceived cause – namely the alcohol.
The important point here is substance abuse by a partner causes damage to the marriage or relationship, and these problems need to be treated, too. As previously indicated, the relationship and the issues within it need to be thoroughly addressed – if they aren’t, then conflict will continue and the likelihood of a relapse increases. In this way, lasting recovery from alcohol dependency, in part, relies on making the relationship better. Eliminating drinking is only the starting point – once a person has committed to staying sober and undertaking the necessary treatment, it is vital that the relationship is strong enough to withstand challenges – because it’s a supportive and loving relationship that can be the deciding factor between a sober life or a life of dependency.