Alcohol Use Disorder and Family/Marital Problems

Alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder, the clinical term for an alcohol addiction, within a family is a problem that can destroy a marriage or drive a wedge between 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.

How Alcohol Causes Marital Issues & Ruins 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 Abuse and Financial Troubles

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 in the moment. For instance, a person who is intoxicated may be apt to 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 increase the likelihood of an unnecessary purchase.

Work productivity 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. 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 or 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 treatment.

Alcohol and Marital Troubles

Alcohol misuse is a large stressor within a family, whether the person drinking is a parent, child, extended family member, or an older adult like 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 seen as a financial unit (but not in all instances; for example, a spouse is not usually financially liable for the other spouse’s student loan debt). 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 on Children

Children and extended family members, as mentioned, can 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), one in every five adult Americans resided with a relative who misused alcohol during their adolescence.2 As a general rule, these people have a greater likelihood of having emotional troubles compared to children who grew up in homes without alcohol misuse. Early exposure to an 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.

As the AACAP explains, children are in a unique position in relation to a parent or caregiver who misuses alcohol. The drinking is most often a source of confusion, and the child is unlikely to have the parent’s support because the parent’s behavior is the heart of the problem (however unintentionally). Children will notice radical changes in behavior, such as parent turning from happy to angry, and may falsely believe that they are the cause of these mood swings. Self-blame, guilt, frustration, and anger can emerge as the child tries to understand why the parent acts this way.

Children may respond to alcohol misuse in the home in different ways, including:

  • Failing classes in school.
  • Overachieving in school or seeking perfection.
  • Becoming truant.
  • Acting like a parental figure.
  • Engaging in risky behaviors.
  • Being unable to make or bond with friends.
  • Stealing and/or becoming violent or aggressive.
  • Manifesting physical illnesses.
  • Misusing alcohol and/or other drugs.
  • Suffering from depression, even experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Children can recover through therapy and other forms of treatment, provided the parent or a concerned individual can overcome the denial associated with alcohol misuse and get help. Treatment is available from child psychologists and psychiatrists, both on a one-on-one basis as well as in a group setting with other similarly situated young people.

There are also independent recovery groups for the children of individuals with an alcohol use disorder. Groups such as Alateen and Al-Anon can be effective, not only in helping children cope with the alcohol misuse, but also in helping them avoid becoming alcohol-dependent in the future.

In the fortunate event that the parent who misuses alcohol seeks treatment, a rehab center that offers a full spectrum of services will be able to provide family therapy that can involve affected children in the healing and recovery process.

Alcohol Misuse and 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, 60-70% 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.

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Last Updated on Jan 11, 2023
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