3 Things You Can Do If Your Partner Is An Alcoholic
In This Article
Being in a relationship with an alcoholic can affect your health and self-esteem. Partners of alcoholics experience both short-term and long-lasting adverse effects.
If you’re in a relationship with an alcoholic partner, you may experience emotional abuse, which can escalate to domestic violence. This can lead to several serious issues, including:
- Mental disorders
- Physical health problems
- Developing an addiction
- Permanent injuries
- Damaged relationships
Going through these issues can be difficult and require professional help. However, there are some things you can do to help your partner and yourself:
Step 1: Do Some Research
One of the essential elements of the recovery process is education. Most treatment programs use educational strategies to help people overcome their alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Learn About Alcoholism
Alcoholism, or AUD, is a chronic condition that causes a person to drink alcohol. If your partner has an AUD, they won’t be able to stop drinking alcohol despite the consequences.
AUD isn’t a character weakness or flaw; it’s a mental health disease and should be treated as such. It requires a medical diagnosis and treatment that caters to a person’s specific needs.
Long-term alcohol abuse also causes physical dependence. If your partner becomes physically dependent on alcohol, they won’t be able to quit without harmful withdrawal symptoms. So it’s not your partner’s fault if they can’t quit drinking.
Risk Factors for Alcoholism
Although excessive drinking can lead to alcoholism, some factors predispose someone to alcoholism. Some risk factors for alcohol abuse are:
- Growing up with family members who have substance use disorders
- Experiencing a traumatic event or stressful life situations
- Living in an environment with easy access to alcohol
- A family history of alcohol use disorder
Understanding your partner’s drinking problem will prevent you from blaming them.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Extreme confusion or agitation
- Racing heart
- High blood pressure
- Heavy sweating
Some withdrawal symptoms can be painful and dangerous such as delirium tremens. If your partner is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, contact a medical professional immediately.
Research Alcohol Treatment Facilities
Whether your partner has alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction, they may require treatment from one or more facilities.
Alcohol Detox Centers
Detoxification or detox is an important step for people who develop a physical dependence on alcohol. If your partner is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, they’ll need to undergo a medical detox.
Alcohol detox can help your partner detox from alcohol in a safe and comfortable environment. They’ll also have access to medical supervision and support. A successful detox can also prevent relapses and help them transition into recovery.
Alcohol Rehab Centers
Like drug addiction and other types of substance abuse, anyone struggling with alcohol problems can benefit from a rehab program. There are two types of rehabilitative centers:
- Inpatient rehab: Involves checking yourself into a rehab facility for 24-hour medical supervision
- Outpatient rehab: A treatment program where people are freely allowed to leave the rehab facility
- Partial hospitalization program: A treatment program where you stay at a rehab facility for a day and return home at night
Inpatient programs are better for people in the middle to late stage of alcoholism. On the other hand, outpatient programs are better for people with early alcoholism or still struggling with alcohol abuse after treatment.
Sober Living Homes
A sober living home is where alcoholics can stay during or after rehab. During rehab, the goal of sober living is to help people adjust to a life of recovery. This is achieved by:
- Re-establishing structure into the person’s life, such as performing tasks on a scheduled time
- Reinforcing coping skills so they can effectively avoid triggers and prevent relapse
- Equipping them with basic life skills, like handling household chores and learning how to apply for jobs
- Providing additional resources for treatment
- Giving access to peer support through in-house group therapies
After rehab, sober living homes aim to transition the individual from the rehabilitation program to the general public.
Other Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse
In addition to alcohol detox, rehabilitation, and sober living, you can explore other treatments for your alcoholic loved one. These include:4,5
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): A short-term therapy technique that explores the link between thought patterns and addiction
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): Involves using FDA-approved medication, counseling, and therapy to treat addiction
- Mutual support groups: 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous remain a popular option for those who prefer mutual support groups
AUD is a chronic condition that affects individuals in many ways. Each person responds to treatment a bit differently than others. Because of this, it’s important to consult a medical professional.
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Step 2: Talk with your partner
Talking to your partner about their alcoholism can be intimidating. However, this is a very important step to take if you want to help your partner recover from alcoholism.
How to Talk to Someone About Their Drinking
Generally, you want to be genuine with your concerns. But you also don't want to do or say anything that might prevent them from seeking treatment.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when talking to your loved one:
- Prepare ahead of time: Be sure to research and talk with a medical professional for tips ahead of time
- Choose a safe space: Make sure you talk to them in a safe, quiet, and private environment to avoid causing them stress
- Choose the right time: Never discuss the situation while your partner is intoxicated or under the influence
- Remain calm and patient: Address your concerns in a direct but calm way; avoid blaming or shaming them for their behavior
- Show your concern: Show genuine concern about how their drinking is affecting their life, health, and relationships
- Allow them to be vulnerable: Encourage your loved one to talk about their alcohol problems and their reasons for misusing alcohol
- Listen to them: When starting this discussion, it’s important that you listen actively as they open up
- Avoid making ultimatums: Ultimatums can be counterproductive and give them unnecessary stress
Encouraging Your Loved One to Get Help
Your loved one might not be convinced they need help. At least, not at the beginning.
But there are a few things you can do to encourage them to get help:
Have a Concrete Plan
Simply telling your loved one about their alcohol problem isn't helpful. Instead, give them a clear idea of their treatment options.
Lay out their available options and explain how these programs work. Provide hope and positivity while exploring these options and how they can benefit them.
It’ll be easier to undergo treatment if they know what they’re getting into. Having a concrete plan can also give them confidence and motivation.
Stage an Intervention
An intervention can help them understand the gravity of their addiction. It can also help them see how their alcohol abuse affects you and their loved ones.
When staging an intervention, only enlist people that your loved one trusts. Don't involve people they don’t get along with, even if they're a friend or family member.
Getting a medical professional or an alcohol counselor to help out isn’t necessary. But having them around during the intervention keeps the discussions on track. They can guide you through what needs to be discussed and how to explain them.
Step 3: Take Care of Yourself
Your partner will be turning to you for support throughout their recovery. It can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining if you don’t care for yourself and set healthy boundaries.
You can easily lose sight of your needs when caring for an alcoholic partner. This is especially true in the early stages of their recovery when they need the most attention.
While putting their welfare first is normal, it's not healthy in the long run. Constantly caring for your partner can harm your mental health and the success of your partner’s recovery.
Here are some simple and practical tips for self-care:
- Make sure you get enough sleep
- Eat healthily and don’t skip meals
- Pursue interests and hobbies
- Don’t be too hard on yourself
Set Healthy Boundaries
Establishing healthy boundaries is another way you can take care of yourself while also helping your loved one. This means not tolerating any behavior or activities you find unacceptable or detrimental to their recovery.
Below are some ways you can set boundaries with an alcoholic partner:
- Not allowing alcohol and other addictive substances at home
- Withholding help if they get into trouble as a result of drinking
- Not accepting disrespect, such as abusive language or violence
- Limiting or completely withholding financial support
- Restricting their involvement with people who influence them to drink
- Hold them accountable for their actions
Always consider your circumstances when creating boundaries. Know what you want and need, be more aware of your limits, and set realistic expectations around them.
Your partner isn’t the only one who needs support while they undergo addiction treatment — so do what’s best for you. Here are a few ways you can find support:
- Reach out to people you trust as a couple and confide in them
- Ask friends and family to help with chores and tasks that you’re unable to do
- Join support groups that are dedicated to the family and friends of recovering alcoholics, such as Al-Anon
- Talk with a therapist or other mental health professionals
- Spend more time socializing with loved ones
Sometimes, you don’t need to go far to get support. Ask the facility which provides addiction treatment for your loved one if they provide couples therapy and other resources.
Why Should You Help Your Partner?
Unfortunately, only 7.3 percent of adults aged 18 and older struggling with AUD sought treatment in 2019.1 However, studies show that alcoholics with caring and supportive partners are more likely to undergo treatment.2
Helping an alcoholic partner will be difficult. Throughout the process, you’ll likely need professional help from doctors, therapists, and addiction counselors.
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What are the Stages of Alcoholism?
Understanding the different stages of alcoholism can help you understand how bad your partner’s condition is. The four stages of alcoholism include:
Stage 1: Pre-Alcoholism
The pre-alcoholism stage involves drinking for reasons other than social drinking. They might start drinking to:
- De-stress from work or life problems
- Forget traumatic experiences or memories
- To dull emotional pain
Stage 2: Early Alcoholism
At this stage, your partner is already suffering from alcohol abuse. However, their drinking problems may go unnoticed since many people hide them at this stage.
Signs of early alcoholism include:
- Heavy drinking
- Binge drinking
- Increased obsession with alcohol
Stage 3: Middle Alcoholism
Here, your loved one’s drinking problem becomes obvious. Signs of middle alcoholism include:
- Spending more time drinking
- Ignoring hobbies or interests to drink
- Neglecting professional and social obligations
Alcohol tolerance and dependence usually develop at this stage, causing your partner to drink more. Any attempt to stop drinking is usually met with withdrawal symptoms.
Stage 4: Late Alcoholism
By this stage, your loved one may already have an alcohol addiction. They’re either in the process of spiraling downward or have already “hit rock bottom.”
Some signs of late alcoholism include:
- Debts or bankruptcy
- Serious health problems
- Failed relationships
- Getting fired from work
- Legal issues
- Losing a home
If your loved one shows any of these signs, contact a medical professional. You can also look into available treatments for alcohol-related substance abuse.
Having an alcoholic partner can cause short and long-term problems for you and your partner. It can negatively affect your relationship, and mental, physical, and emotional health.
To help your partner seek treatment, you must educate yourself and approach them calmly. Be open and encouraging without enabling their behavior.
Being in a relationship with an alcoholic partner can also affect your health. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and consider seeking professional help.
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Physical Health Effects of Alcohol
Moderate alcohol consumption is generally safe, depending on your health and tolerance. However, frequent drinking can lead to various health effects.
Excessive alcohol use, or binge drinking, can affect your health in many ways, including:
Alcohol and the Liver
Consuming too much alcohol for an extended period contributes to three types of liver disease: steatosis (fatty liver), cirrhosis, and alcoholic hepatitis.
These diseases disrupt liver function, severely damaging the body over time. Women have a higher risk of developing alcohol-induced liver injuries than men.
Alcohol and the Heart
Directly after drinking alcohol, your heart rate and blood pressure rise. Once the substance is out of your system, your vital signs return to normal.
However, excessive alcohol consumption can:
- Result in an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure
- Weaken heart muscle
- Thin your blood
- Increase the risk of a heart attack, an enlarged heart, heart failure, stroke, and death
Alcohol and the Pancreas
Drinking alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances. This can result in pancreatitis (inflammation and swelling of the pancreas).
Alcohol and the Digestive System
Alcohol directly aggravates your gastrointestinal tract (digestive system). This is because your digestive system is the first exposure site after alcohol ingestion.
Alcohol makes your stomach produce extra acid, leading to inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis). Diarrhea, vomiting, heartburn, ulcers, and stomach pain after drinking are common side effects.
Alcohol and Cancer Risk
Regularly drinking alcohol, especially heavy drinking, increases your risk of developing certain cancers, including:
- Oral cancer
- Larynx cancer (voice box)
- Esophageal cancer
- Colon cancer
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer (among women)
Alcohol and the Reproductive System
Women who regularly consume alcohol have a greater risk of infertility and decreased menstruation. Drinking during pregnancy can also lead to developmental issues in babies, including:
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)
- Physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities
Similarly, men who binge drink are more likely to develop erectile dysfunction than men who don't.
Alcohol and the Skeletal System
Alcohol can negatively affect the muscular and skeletal systems by thinning the bones over time. This increases the risk of falls, fractures, muscle weakness, cramping, and atrophy.
Alcohol and Immunity
Alcohol lowers your immune system. This makes it more difficult for your body to fight off infections, including the common cold and flu, as well as pneumonia and tuberculosis.
How Alcohol Affects Your Brain and Central Nervous System (CNS)
Heavy alcohol use negatively impacts reasoning, memory, and overall brain function. The hippocampus, which aids in learning and stores memories, can be particularly vulnerable to alcohol.
According to the University College London’s Whitehall II study recording 30 years of data from 1985 to 2015, even moderate drinking over extended periods can lead to brain shrinkage.10 Regularly drinking four or more alcoholic drinks daily increases your risk of hippocampal shrinkage by almost six times compared to non-drinkers.
This shrinking is because alcohol dehydrates tissues. Moreover, consistent dehydration can cause lasting damage to these sensitive areas.
Effects on Key Brain Regions and Associated Side Effects
Consistent alcohol consumption primarily affects the prefrontal cerebral cortex and cerebellum. The prefrontal cortex is critical in planning and decision-making. The cerebellum is responsible for balance and motor function.
When alcohol impairs these brain regions, it can result in various side effects like:
- Memory problems
- Poor coordination
- Reduced cognitive performance
- Vision issues
- Difficulty concentrating
- Low self-worth and confidence
- Mood swings
- Stress and anxiety
Determinants of Alcohol's Impact on the Brain
Multiple factors influence the severity of alcohol's adverse effects on the brain, including:
- Frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption
- Genetics, family history, and education level
- Age and gender
- Overall health status
- The age at which you began drinking alcohol
- Risks of prenatal alcohol exposure
The Biochemical Mechanism of Alcohol
The liver metabolizes alcohol. When you drink it, your stomach and small intestine absorb it into the bloodstream.
From there, enzymes in your liver break down about 95 percent of the alcohol you consume. Your body eliminates the remaining five percent through breath, sweat, or urine.
Alcohol's Impact on Neurotransmitters
While the liver breaks down alcohol, it also affects essential neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals include GABA, dopamine, and serotonin.
- GABA: Alcohol increases the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the brain. This is one reason why alcohol can make you feel relaxed or sedated.
- Dopamine: Alcohol consumption increases the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This is why alcohol can initially make you feel happy or euphoric.
- Serotonin: Alcohol inhibits the production and release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood, appetite, sleep, and pain sensation. This can lead to increased feelings of depression or anxiety.
The Role of Enzymes in Alcohol Metabolism
The primary enzyme involved in alcohol metabolism is the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). This enzyme converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic byproduct.
Another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), converts acetaldehyde into acetate. This substance is less toxic. Your body also safely eliminates it from its system.
However, some people have genetic variations that affect the activity of these enzymes. These variations can determine how quickly or slowly you metabolize alcohol, making you more or less susceptible to its effects.
Mental Health Effects of Alcohol
Excessive alcohol use also leads to mental health conditions. A drinking-related condition is also known as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder.
- Depressive disorders: The most typical co-occurring psychiatric disease among people who misuse alcohol is major depressive disorder.13 Depression comes in many forms, including clinical depression, persistent depressive disorder, and bipolar disorders. The effects of alcohol come in waves throughout life or can be long-term.
- Anxiety disorders: These conditions lead to constant worrying about daily situations. Alcohol-induced anxiety is separate from an independent anxiety disorder but is often hard to differentiate.
- Other mood disorders: These include social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and panic disorder, which have an increased co-occurrence with alcohol dependence.
- Increased risk of self-harm: This occurrence is high among alcoholics due to intoxication and lack of inhibition. Self-inflicted injuries, such as cutting or attempted suicide, are common among people with dual diagnoses.
Other Ways Alcohol Can Affect Your Life
Besides severely affecting your physical and mental health, alcohol can also lead to social and legal problems.
Learn more about how alcohol consumption can impact your life by reading the articles below:
Underage drinking can lead to several serious health issues. Teenagers’ brains are still developing, which makes them more susceptible to adverse physical and mental health effects.
Hangovers can make you feel horrible the day after drinking. However, for more frequent alcohol users, hangovers can seriously affect the quality of your life and lead to mental, physical, social, and interpersonal issues.
Physical Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol has dangerous effects on your physical health. Alcohol consumption increases your risk of injuries, liver disease, heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, cancer, and more.
Psychological Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol consumption also harms your mental health. Heavy alcohol use impairs brain functions, such as memory and reasoning. Scientists have linked frequent alcohol use to depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and self-harm (e.g., suicide attempts and cutting).
Insomnia and Alcohol Addiction
An estimated 20 percent of adults in the U.S. drink alcohol to help them fall asleep. However, alcohol use has a direct, adverse effect on a person’s sleep quality. Alcohol addiction can lead to several long-term sleep problems, including insomnia.
Drunk Driving and DUIs
Over 10,000 people die from drunk driving accidents every year.14 Drunk driving puts everyone on the road in danger. A Driving under the influence (DUI) offense may cause you to lose your license, pay a hefty fine, or end up in jail.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcohol addiction or alcoholism, is a chronic relapsing brain disease. It develops when you misuse alcohol despite knowing its adverse effects.
AUD affects the brain's operations. Therefore, it causes symptoms like compulsive behavior and intense cravings.
What are the Symptoms of AUD?
Common symptoms of alcohol use disorder include:
- Inability to limit alcohol consumption
- Failed attempts to reduce or stop alcohol consumption
- Spending a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from drinking
- Cravings for alcohol
- Neglecting responsibilities and obligations
- Continuing to drink alcohol despite physical, emotional, or social harm
- Using alcohol in unsafe situations, such as when driving
- Neglecting social activities and hobbies
- Developing alcohol tolerance
- Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as sweating, tremors, and nausea
Treatment and Rehabilitation for Alcohol Dependency
Alcohol dependency is a chronic disease that requires professional treatment and ongoing support. Some common methods used to treat alcoholism include:
Detoxification, or detox for short, is removing alcohol from your system while managing withdrawal symptoms. This typically takes place in a medically supervised facility.
Inpatient Rehabilitation Programs
Inpatient rehabilitation programs provide intensive therapy and support for people struggling with alcohol addiction or substance abuse. You'll live in a specialized facility and receive 24/7 care.
This approach allows you to focus solely on your recovery without outside distractions. Moreover, you'll have access to therapy, support groups, and medical care during your stay.
Outpatient Rehabilitation Programs
Outpatient rehabilitation programs offer similar treatments as inpatient rehab. However, it allows you to continue living at home.
You'll regularly attend therapy sessions and support group meetings while managing your daily responsibilities. This option may be more suitable for those with mild AUD or those who can't leave their obligations for extended periods.
Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), provide a community of people going through similar struggles. These groups offer emotional support, accountability, and guidance in maintaining sobriety.
Strategies for Responsible Drinking
You can lower your risk of developing an addiction to alcohol by practicing responsible drinking. Here are a few strategies you can use to drink responsibly:
- Set limits and stick to them.
- Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic beverages.
- Eat before and while drinking.
- Pace yourself and sip your drink slowly.
- Avoid binge or excessive drinking by consuming less than four drinks for women and five for men daily.
- Avoid drinking when you are feeling stressed or sad.
- Avoid drinking to cope with problems, emotions, or stressors.
- Monitor your alcohol consumption and cut back if necessary.
- Seek help if you can't control your drinking habits.
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- “The National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2019.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Services.
- “Developing A Willingness To Change: Treatment-Seeking Processes For People With Alcohol Problems.” Oxford Academic Journals.
- “Home detox – supporting patients to overcome alcohol addiction.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
- “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Substance Use Disorders.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
- “Medications for Unhealthy Alcohol Use.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
- “Alcoholics Anonymous most effective path to alcohol abstinence.” Stanford Medicine.
- “Substance Users’ Perspectives on Helpful and Unhelpful Confrontation: Implications for Recovery.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.