The Effects of Alcoholism on Families: How Alcoholism Effects Families

5 min read · 8 sections
Alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder (i.e., the clinical term for an alcohol addiction) can destroy family relationships and drive a wedge between its members. That means people who misuse alcohol may blow through the family budget, cause fights, ignore children, and otherwise impair the health and happiness of the people they love. In time, family members may even develop symptoms of codependency, inadvertently keeping the addiction alive, even though it harms them. Family therapy and rehab can help.
What you will learn:
Alcoholism and relationships.
Effects of alcohol on the family.
Marital issues and family finances.

Impacts of Alcoholism in Relationships

As the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence discusses, the following are some of the ways in which problem drinking affects family members, employers, colleagues, fellow students, and others:

  • Neglect of important duties: Alcohol impairs one’s cognitive functions and physical capabilities, and this, at some point, will likely result in neglect of responsibilities associated with work, home life, and/or school.
  • Needing time to nurse hangovers: Alcohol has various short-term side effects, such as hangovers. The physical state of a hangover may be temporary, but it can significantly disrupt a person’s ability to meet commitments as well as invite unhealthy behaviors, such as poor eating and a lack of exercise.
  • Encountering legal problems: Drinking can increase a person’s likelihood of getting into fights, displaying disorderly conduct in public, driving under the influence, and becoming involved in domestic disputes or violence.
  • The inability to stop at will: Alcohol is an addictive substance and can lead to physical dependence. Although a person who is physically dependent (i.e., has an increased tolerance among other side effects) is not necessarily addicted, ongoing drinking is a slippery slope that can lead to addiction.

As a result, the time, effort, and resources formerly dedicated to life-sustaining activities, such as working and spending time with the family, are disrupted.

Initially, a person may think that using alcohol helps them deal with these stressors, but over time, frequent heavy drinking can turn into dependence on the substance. Once individuals become psychologically addicted, alcohol misuse can become all-consuming. As individuals are often part of social networks, it is easy to understand how alcohol misuse has a ripple effect across a person’s entire network of family, friends, employers, colleagues, and anyone else who depends on the person.

Alcohol Addiction and Family Finances

Alcohol is not free. Although even the strictest accountant or budgeter can make an allowance for entertainment expenses, ongoing drinking can quickly cause people to spend beyond their allotment for socializing. It is well established that alcohol misuse can lead to serious financial problems, but not only because of the actual money spent on alcohol.

Because your inhibitions are lowered when you drink alcohol, you may be more likely to impulsively buy things without thinking through the consequences of those purchases. For instance, a person who is intoxicated may spend more money than planned at a bar.

Even drinking at home does not provide a shield against spending when inhibitions are low. The internet opens up an entire world of shopping possibilities. The “beer goggles” effect can make an item seem more attractive and the purchase price more inviting, and it can increase the likelihood of an unnecessary purchase.

Work productivity also can suffer from alcohol misuse. Finances are about more than the dollars earned; they also include earning potential. Studies show that drinking can affect work or academic productivity at every phase of working life. Students who binge drink in college may have lower grades, which can have a ripple effect across their employment prospects and salary potential. Additionally, employees who binge drink or drink heavily are prone to absenteeism.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking results in $249 billion a year in healthcare-related costs and lowered employee productivity.1 Alcohol abuse can lead to an increase in debt, especially credit card debt, in numerous ways, such as:

  • An inability to pay down credit card bills as income from work lessens.
  • Increased credit card charges to cover the gap between expenses and reduced income.
  • Charges for alcohol or alcohol-related activities such as partying and gambling.
  • Forgetfulness about when to make payments, resulting in late fees and other penalties.

Additionally, chronic drinkers may have to leave careers early due to health problems.

A loss of work income lowers social security contributions and contributions to employer-provided or independent retirement accounts. Additionally, a loss of employment could lead to more out-of-pocket costs for health insurance plans, especially if a health insurance plan had been partially paid for by an employer.

Families rely on a certain amount of income to pay their bills. When a person begins to misuse alcohol, the gap between anticipated earnings and expenses and actual earnings and expenses can widen. As a result, the individual’s personal stability (if single) or family life can be radically shaken.

Although the cost of rehab treatment may seem like an additional burden, it is one of the most effective steps that can be taken to restore the individual’s sobriety and finances. Concerns about paying for rehab services should never be a barrier to alcohol addiction treatment.

Alcohol Abuse and Marital Problems

Alcohol misuse is a large stressor within a family, whether the person drinking is a father/mother, child, extended family member, or an older adult such as a grandparent. Spouses are uniquely dependent on one another, so if one spouse is misusing alcohol, the other is likely to feel the associated problems.

By law, spouses are often seen as a financial unit. When drinking causes a financial drain and/or leads to health issues, problems can flare up and threaten the relationship. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the most common problems that arise between spouses when one partner misuses alcohol include:

  • Marital conflict.
  • Infidelity.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Unplanned pregnancy.
  • Financial instability.
  • Stress.
  • Jealousy.
  • Divorce.

Regarding financial instability, the earlier discussion on the real and potential economic losses associated with alcohol misuse, as well as debt, can easily trigger profound problems in a marriage. A spouse’s alcohol misuse can also trigger a host of emotions, such as feelings of abandonment, unworthiness, guilt, and self-blame.

These emotions can all collect into a disorder known as codependency. People may develop a maladjustment to a loved one’s drinking that causes them to enable it through the process of caring for it. Individuals who misuse alcohol experience physical impairments that can draw others into caring for them. While some individuals may be able to resist the urge to help, many will not, especially spouses, children, and other family members or concerned individuals in the person’s immediate environment.

Over time, the caregiver can habituate to this rescuer and provider role and even develop an identity based on it. Further, the caregiver grows accustomed to a relationship with the person misusing alcohol that is primarily based on caregiving. The line between helping an individual who is misusing alcohol becomes blurred with enabling them to maintain the addiction.

Just as treatment is available for alcohol misuse, treatment is also available for codependency and has been proven effective. One of the main goals of codependency treatment is to help realign caregivers with their own needs so they can live personally fulfilling lives, rather than being in constant service to a loved one’s addiction.

If your loved one agrees to seek treatment, you as their spouse (or other family member) need to actively support them in their recovery. Sometimes, however, that support might require you to give them time and space so they can do the hard work recovery necessitates. Rehab and recovery are life changing and difficult at times. Your loved one may want to stop treatment early and even ask you to help them do so. However, American Addiction Centers (AAC) often advises spouses and other family members to “lovingly disconnect” from their loved one while they are in treatment, allowing your loved one to fully adjust to their new environment and see the benefits treatment will provide.

Impact of Alcoholism on Children

Children can also become codependent on a loved one’s alcohol misuse, or at least be significantly affected. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), 1 in every 5 adult Americans resided with a relative who misused alcohol during their adolescence. And as a general rule, these people have a greater likelihood of having emotional trouble compared to children who grew up in homes without alcohol misuse. Early exposure to someone with an alcohol use disorder can also increase the child’s propensity to have a problematic relationship with alcohol. In general, children of individuals who misuse alcohol are four times more likely to misuse alcohol themselves. 2

Keep in mind, the family member with alcohol misuse issues could be a child or adolescent—as opposed to an adult. But regardless of which family member has alcohol-related issues, children can experience a host of effects related to alcohol misuse within the family. Various therapies and treatments, however, can help both children and family members deal with and recovery from these impacts.

More on Loved Ones & Addiction

Facts and Statistics on Alcohol and Marriage

To be sure, alcohol affects a marriage. The following information provides insight into alcohol’s impact:4-10

  • Verbal aggression in marriages is up to 2 times more likely to occur if alcohol has been consumed in the last 4 hours by either individual, with physical aggression 3 to 4 times more likely to occur if alcohol has been consumed by the perpetrator.
  • Consumption of 1 liter of alcohol per capita increases divorce rates by 20%.
  • At some point in their lives, more than 9% of people have been married to or lived with someone who met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder or participated in problem drinking.
  • Heavier, more frequent drinking increases the risk of violence in perpetrators, and there is evidence that problem drinkers are at increased risk of victimization.
  • Economic costs of intimate partner violence add up to about $12.6 billion a year in the United States.
  • Some form of substance misuse is present in 40 to 80% of families in which children suffer physical abuse.
  • Children of parents who misuse substances are more than twice as likely to have a substance use disorder by young adulthood compared to their peers.

Alcohol Misuse and Domestic Violence

In addition to the financial and emotional toll alcohol misuse can have, domestic violence and child abuse may occur. Research indicates that 92% of victims of domestic violence reported that the assailant had used alcohol or other drugs on the day of the assault. Another study found that of those individuals who attack a partner, 60 to 70% had misused alcohol.8 The prevalence of alcohol in abuse situations does not necessarily mean that drinking causes the domestic violence, but it may be a factor in the violence.

Some studies challenge the belief that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol misuse and domestic violence. For instance, the majority of men who are classified as “high-level drinkers” do not abuse their partners. Rather, some researchers in the field of domestic violence postulate that the violent partner’s assaults are part of a pattern of abuse that is independent of alcohol consumption. Some individuals may use alcohol consumption to excuse their actions, but the blame is usually misplaced.

Treatment for Families Struggling With Alcoholism

Given the destructive effects of alcoholism on relationships, families, finances, and more, treatment is essential. Patient-focused treatment options—e.g., detox, outpatient, inpatient, aftercare, etc.—can certainly aid those who are struggling with alcohol misuse or an alcohol use disorder. However, since the family unit plays a central role in substance abuse treatment, it’s helpful to involve the entire family in the treatment process.11 In fact, there’s an apropos name for this unique treatment approach: family therapy.

According to Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy (offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA]) family therapy for alcohol use disorder aims to help the family to make interpersonal, intrapersonal, and environmental changes that impact the person misusing alcohol.11

Additionally, family therapy can work to prevent alcohol and other substance misuse from recurring. That is, studies show that when one person misuses a substance, the risk of other family members developing substance use issues increases. Family therapy acts as a tool to prevent the substance use issue from “spreading” from parent to child—and/or from children to siblings. 11

To lessen the effects of alcohol misuse on families and their members, American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers family therapy at many of its treatment facilities located across the country. Explore our treatment centers online, or contact one of our admissions navigators at . They can help you not only explore family therapy options but also identify tailored treatment programs to meet the unique needs of you or a loved one.

Resources for Families of Alcoholics

Family therapy is an effective option to address myriad issues that arise in connection to alcohol misuse. However, a host of support organizations can also provide assistance in the form of group support, therapy, training, education, and more.

Here’s a snapshot of just a few organizations that may offer valuable support for families dealing with the effects of alcoholism.

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