Alcohol Use Disorders and Relationships

Family members and loved ones living with people struggling with alcohol misuse, whether it’s a boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or roommate, face a difficult and often overlooked set of challenges when it comes to treating alcohol addiction.

Living with the disease of addiction, individuals do not have the luxury of ignorance or distance. They can be victims of physical or mental abuse, they can experience financial strain from supporting the addicted person, and they can even unintentionally make the addiction worse through enabling behaviors.

Alcohol Use Disorders in the Family

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20% of Americans live (or have lived) with a relative who is or was currently struggling with an alcohol use disorder.1 Addiction is often said to run in families, and there is in fact a strong genetic component to the disorder.

Genetics, however, comprise only a piece of a very complex puzzle. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that genes are responsible for about half of a person’s risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.2

There is a combination of other risk factors, such as stress at home, life events, gender, individual psychological traits, mental health, availability and access to alcohol, and interpersonal relationships that can all determine whether or not alcoholism will present in each individual.

How Alcohol Misuse Affects Children

Children of parents with are addicted to alcohol can face a number of complicated scenarios that place them at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder or other mental health challenges in adulthood.3 Situations such as having to lie to cover for their parent or needing to take on adult responsibilities can have a lasting impact.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends “a restructuring of the entire family system, including the relationship between the parents and the relationships between the parents and the children.”3

Extended family members may also be affected by individuals struggling with alcohol misuse in the form of shame or ostracization if their loved one’s drinking habits become well known. In cultures with strong traditional family values, excessive drinking can bring disgrace and dishonor to the family. Each family is a unique and complex network, but the impact of problematic alcohol use rarely stops at the person who is directly abusing alcohol.

Partner Abuse and Alcohol Use Disorders

The link between alcohol abuse, violence and aggression is well documented, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) links alcohol-related violence to other issues including domestic violence and sexual assault.5,8 Alcohol-involved violence is much more likely to occur between two people who know each other than between strangers.8

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), about 2/3 of reports of intimate partner violence involve alcohol, meaning one or both people were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault.9 The NCADD also estimates that 70% of all incidents of violence involving alcohol occur in the home.

Alcohol and Domestic Violence

The impact of living with a partner who is addicted to alcohol is not purely physical. Domestic partners of individuals with a substance use disorder sometimes report having to deal with extreme mood swings, unstable emotional settings, and negative behavior both in public and in private.5 In fact, intimate partner violence involving alcohol can take many forms, including:10

  • Psychological abuse (manipulation, intimidation, humiliation).
  • Control (isolation, monitoring a partner’s actions, restricting information or access to help, etc.)
  • Forced sexual intercourse.
  • Physical violence (hitting, slapping, kicking, etc.)

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol use is linked to an increase in the number and severity of domestic violence incidents.10 Potential contributing factors for the relationship between alcohol use and domestic violence include the following:10

  • Drinking impairs a person’s thinking and physical functioning and makes self-control more difficult. This makes resolving conflicts peacefully between partners harder.
  • Excessive drinking within the relationship can magnify other issues such as financial turmoil or childcare problems, creating increased tension and raising the risk of violence.
  • Societal and personal beliefs that alcohol increases aggression could increase the likelihood of a person acting out violently after drinking and later justifying their violence.

Some research shows that disparity in drinking behaviors may also contribute to violence. When one partner drinks much more than the other, the risk of domestic abuse is higher than when both partners have similar drinking patterns. 10

Living with a partner who abuses alcohol and is violent may also raise your or your child’s risk of developing problems with alcohol. According to the WHO, victims of partner violence may drink alcohol to cope with or self-medicate symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, and children who witness violence between their parents are more likely to engage in problematic drinking as adults. 10

If you’re in a relationship with someone struggling with alcohol abuse or you’re struggling yourself and want to discuss rehab for alcohol addiction, we can help when you call us at .

If you’re a victim of domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).  Government resources are available through the Department of Justice.

Alcohol Use Disorders in Intimate Relationships

Addiction to alcohol, as well as to other substances, can foster challenging patterns in intimate relationships even when no abuse is present.

The recovery of one partner from an alcohol use disorder is quite often dependent upon behavioral and emotional changes made by both partners together.

When Is Drinking a Problem in a Relationship?

Two common areas of concern when addressing alcoholism within the context of intimate relationships include:

  • Codependency: In which the non-alcoholic partner obtains all their meaning and personal value from caring their alcoholic spouse, resulting in a very one-sided fulfillment of needs. In extreme cases, the codependent partner may actively block the alcoholic from seeking help or may derail their continued recovery.
  • Enabling: Enabling behavior can look like offering help or supporting a loved one—lending money, use of a car or offering a place to live—but in actuality it allows the addicted person to continue their substance abuse behavior. Examples of enabling include repeatedly lending money even after the recipient has used borrowed funds to pay for drugs or alcohol, and setting an ultimatum (e.g., “get rehab help or move out of the house”) without following through on the consequences.

The dynamics of codependency and enabling behavior become even more complex in relationships with children. In all situations, it’s important for the couple to attend a therapy program to remedy problem behaviors. Many alcohol rehab programs feature family therapy as part of the recovery process for this very reason.

Effects of Living with a Partner with an AUD

Living with an alcoholic partner who becomes violent, angry, or aggressive while drinking can put one in danger of experiencing significant emotional and physical trauma. The lasting impact of such trauma can include everything from PTSD to depression, anxiety and panic attacks, and increased risk of suicidal thought.

Whether or not there is abuse in the relationship, partners of people with an AUD are at risk for developing their own substance abuse problems as a way to cope with negative emotions and the perceived isolation of having no one else to turn to.

Living with an addicted partner can impact numerous facets of a person’s life, including financial, legal, and social troubles. Individuals with an alcohol use disorder and their partners may also experience job loss or estrangement from family—all reasons why professional help should be sought as soon as possible.

Women and Alcohol Use Disorders

When discussing alcohol abuse and relationship issues, it can be easy to conjure a mental image of a heterosexual couple in which the man has an alcohol addiction and the woman suffers abuse. In reality, however, rates of alcohol use and abuse are rising among women,6 with implications for both straight and gay couples.

Biological differences between men and women contribute to the way women process and are affected by alcohol, and the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend no more than 1 alcoholic drink per day for women.6 However, modern-day attitudes towards women and the consumption of alcohol have significantly added to the growing number of women with alcohol use disorders in developed countries.

With the drop in stigma surrounding women’s drinking, especially women who drink heavily, nearly 14 million U.S. women report binge drinking 3 times per month.7 Risky behaviors associated with binge drinking can put women at greater risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies.7 Binge drinking is also a risk factor for sexual assault and predatory behavior.

Helping a Spouse or Family Member with an AUD

Living with someone struggling with an alcohol use disorder is a multifaceted problem, one that is not marked by gender lines or where the dangers begin and end.

Spouses and partners are threatened and harmed by the behavior of their loved one while under the influence. Children face the greatest risk because the actions, words, and emotional distance of an alcoholic parent or guardian can cause lifelong trauma. This puts the children of addicted parents at significant risk for substance abuse problems as well as other mental health issues later in life.

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol use, there is help available. At our inpatient alcohol rehab near Dallas, TX we help people get on the road to recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders.

Contact our compassionate and knowledgeable admissions navigators today at to learn more about our different levels of care and how to start admissions. Our navigators can also go over different ways to pay for rehab, including using insurance coverage for alcohol addiction treatment.

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