The Impact of Alcoholism and Addiction on Family, and How to Protect Yourself

What are a few ways alcoholism and addiction affects family members, loved ones and spouses?


Alcoholism and addiction causes significant distress to all individuals who care for the addicted individual.  Due to the impact of addiction on family relationships and dynamics, addiction is often called a “family disease” by those in the addiction field.  Loved ones are often faced with constant worry about their addicted loved one, often fearing the worst when they are not in their presence.  As such, it is common for loved ones to have anxiety surrounding their loved one’s addiction.  Loved ones are also exposed to trauma due to overdose, or due to the physical and/or emotional abuse that often coincides with addiction.  Such trauma can be especially detrimental to young children and young adults who grow up with addicted caregivers.  Parental neglect and parental negligence are also factors that impact young children and can have long-term negative effects.


It is not uncommon for the addicted individual to separate themselves from their loved ones, often as a survival mechanism to sustain their addiction.  In other words, the addicted individual may not want their loved ones to see them drunk or high due to fear of intervention.  Furthermore, addicted individuals often reach a point where they will choose their substance of choice over wanting to spend time with their loved ones, and will lose interest in social activities that they used to find pleasurable.  This type of withdrawal that loved ones experience is often very painful.


Family members of addicted individuals sometimes blame themselves for their loved one’s addiction.  This is especially true of parents with addicted children, as well as spouses of an addicted individual.  As such, their self-worth and self-esteem is often compromised as they begin to feel a sense of responsibility and guilt. Family members also face a great deal of shame for their loved one’s addiction which is exacerbated due to the stigmatizing nature of addiction.


Another problem that is sometimes faced by loved ones is taking on the role of caretaker in order to take care of the addicted individual and the family as a whole. Although the loved one who takes on the caretaker role may believe they are taking on this role due to their love for the addicted individual, their behavior is actually helping to sustain their loved one’s addiction.  In such cases, taking care of the addicted individual and the family often becomes more important than taking care of themselves.  Taking care of the addicted individual becomes very burdensome, and can lead to physical and mental health issues for the caretaker.


Loved ones of addicted individuals, especially family members, face a great deal of trauma that often comes in the form of abuse – physical abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse.  In fact, 40-60% of intimate partner violence involves substance use according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.


What can you do to protect your mental and emotional wellbeing if you are in a relationship with an addict or alcoholic?


Most loved ones focus on getting the addicted individual help, but it is just as important to get your own help if you are a loved one of a person suffering from a drug or alcohol dependence. In many cases the addicted individual may choose to continue with their downward spiral rather than choosing to get well, and in such cases it is imperative that family members and other loved ones do not get further sucked into the emotional turmoil that goes hand-in-hand with addiction.  Loved ones often experience anxiety, sadness, shame, guilt, trauma and host of other negative emotions due to their loved one’s addiction.  As such, it is critical that you begin your own healing journey so that you can learn to cope with negative emotions, learn to set healthier boundaries, and not suffer in silence.  Through seeking out professional help, finding a support group, and engaging in self-care behaviors not only will you feel better, but you will also be modeling recovery related behaviors for the addicted individual, showing them that it is ok to get help and to take care of yourself.


We always encourage family members to engage in holistic wellness behaviors such as eating well, exercising, meditating, proper sleep-hygiene, and engaging in self-care routines.  Family members should also seek out an addiction specialist who can teach stress reduction techniques, coping skills for negative emotions, boundary setting, and educate them about the nature of addiction.  Additionally, seeking out mutual help groups with like-minded individuals can help loved ones establish a sense of universality so that they do not feel alone, and so that they can begin to build a support group they can confide in.


Are there specific boundaries spouses, children, parents and/or loved ones of addicts and alcoholics need to put up? 


There are always healthy boundaries that need to be built and unhealthy ones that need to be torn down. Every situation and relationship is unique, and therefore boundaries will look different in each respective case. Generally speaking, we want to stop behaviors that enable a person’s addiction such as supporting the addicted individual financially, lying for them to cover up their addiction, or making excuses for their negative behaviors. We want to let them know that we love them and that we are here for them when they want to get well, but we cannot continue to see them destroy their lives and ours.  In extreme cases some loved ones may need to tell their loved one that they cannot see them or speak with them until they are ready and willing to get help.


What is the role of Al-Anon/Nar-Anon and what other resources are available to families of addicts/alcoholics?


Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are 12-Step support groups for the family members of an addicted individual. They operate under the philosophy that we are powerless over the addicted individual, and therefore need to let go and focus on ourselves. Another popular support group is SMART Recovery, which also offers support groups for loved ones which can be found by visiting  Mutual help groups such as these are a great place to get support and meet people struggling with similar issues as yourself.  By visiting or you can find a free meeting in your area, many of which are currently online due to COVID-19.  Many addiction treatment centers also offer support groups for family members, as do private therapists and addiction specialists.


For more information on addiction treatment, therapy and mental health, sober coaching, sober companions, or to inquire about our private concierge therapy services and/or our teletherapy services (online therapy/virtual therapy) in New York City please contact our undisclosed therapy office location in the Upper East Side of NYC today at (929) 220-2912.


What is the one thing spouses, children, parents and/or loved ones need to know about alcoholism and addiction?


There are many things loved ones of an addiction individual need to know about addiction itself, and about the family side of addiction as well.


Loved ones should know that addiction is a brain disease.  Over time, the substance has hijacked the brain’s reward system, resulting in that individual relying on their substance of choice to receive pleasure and to feel good.  Furthermore, Individuals who have developed addictions have neurally embedded associations and memories with their addictive behaviors, resulting in minuscule things triggering them that may not even enter our conscious mind.  Addiction also negatively impacts the part of the brain responsible for impulse control.  As such, relapse rates are unfortunately very high.  Approximately 40-60% of individuals relapse within 30 days of leaving an inpatient treatment center, and up to 85% of individuals relapse within the first year.  As such, loved ones must recognize that their loved one will not be “cured” by simply going away to a month of treatment, but rather they are in a life-long journey of recovery.  The good news is that the longer an individual is able to maintain their sobriety, the greater chance they have of maintaining their long-term recovery.  The first year is especially crucial, and therefore it is beneficial for the addicted individual to be engaged in some form of recovery related treatment or support group for their first year of recovery.


Loved ones of an addicted individual should also acknowledge that addiction is progressive in nature, meaning that the longer an individual is engaged in their substance use, the worse it will get over time.  This is because of the individual’s tolerance, meaning that the individuals often requires more quantity and/or frequency of use over time in order to get the same desired effect.  Consequences of drug and alcohol use also often get worse over time.  As such, the sooner one is able to receive help the better off they will be.  Ultimately, drug and alcohol use is fatal, and receiving help should not be something that is delayed.


While family members often feel helpless over their loved one’s addiction, they may have more power than they think.  Loved one’s can stage a formal intervention in order to get their loved one into treatment.  About 85% of professional interventions are successful.  Contrary to popular belief, just because an individual is forced into treatment does not mean that their treatment outcome will not be successful.

Lin Sternlicht & Aaron Sternlicht

You Might Also Enjoy...