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Alcoholism and Family/Marital Problems

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism within a family is a problem that can destroy a marriage or drive a wedge between members. That means people who drink can 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 abusing alcohol will help them deal with these stressors, but as they continue to drink a lot, over time, this abuse can turn into dependence on the substance. Once individuals become psychologically addicted, alcohol abuse can become all-consuming. As individuals are often part of social networks, it is easy to understand how alcohol abuse 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 will 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 abuse 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 abuse. 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. Long-term drinkers may have to exit careers earlier than planned in order to manage health problems.

In addition to the cost of health plans and the premiums paid to participate in them, the individual in need of treatment for alcohol-related conditions will likely have copays, transportation costs, and lost wages while being out of work. A loss of work income lowers social security contributions and contributions to employer-provided or independent retirement accounts.

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

Most often, working-class Americans rely on a certain amount of base income. When a person begins to abuse 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 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 personal or family finances. Concerns about paying for rehab services should never be a barrier to treatment.

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Alcohol and Marital Troubles

Alcohol abuse 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 abusing 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). In terms of religion, if the spouses observe one, they have made a vow to unconditionally support one another. When drinking causes a financial drain and/or leads to health issues, problems can flare up and threaten the very bedrock of the relationship. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the following are some of the most common problems that arise between spouses when one partner abuses alcohol:

  • 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 abuse, as well as debt, can easily trigger profound problems in a marriage. A spouse’s alcohol abuse 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 abuse 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 abusing alcohol that is primarily based on caregiving. The line between helping an alcohol abuser becomes blurred with enabling the alcohol abuser to maintain the addiction. For this reason, literature on codependency used to refer to the caregiving person as a “co-alcoholic.”

As with alcohol abuse, treatment for codependence is available 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.

Impact on Children

Children and extended family members, as mentioned, can become codependent on a loved one’s alcohol abuse, 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 abused alcohol in their adolescence.2 As a general rule, these people have a greater likelihood of having emotional troubles compared to children who grew up in sober homes. Early exposure to an alcohol abuser can also increase the child’s propensity to have a problematic relationship with alcohol. In general, children of individuals who abuse alcohol are four times more likely to abuse alcohol themselves.
As the AACAP explains, children are in a unique position in relation to a parent or caregiver who abuses 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.

The following are some ways in which children may respond to alcohol abuse in the home:

  • Fail classes in school
  • Overachieve in school or seek perfection
  • Become truant
  • Act like a parental figure
  • Engage in risky behaviors
  • Be unable to make or bond with friends
  • Steal and/or become violent or aggressive
  • Manifest physical illnesses
  • Abuse alcohol and/or other drugs
  • Suffer depression, even 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 abuse 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 alcoholics, such as Alateen and Al-Anon. These treatment approaches can be effective not only in helping children to cope with the alcohol abuse but also in helping kids to avoid becoming alcohol-dependent in the future.

In the fortunate event that the parent who abuses 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 Abuse and Violence

Man Shows Willpower Not To Drink Alcohol

In addition to the financial and emotional toll alcohol abuse can have, domestic violence and child abuse may occur. According to one report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 92 percent 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 percent had abused alcohol.8 The prevalence of alcohol in abuse situations does not necessarily mean that drinking causes the domestic violence (although it may be a factor in the violence).
Some studies challenge the belief that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol abuse 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.

Find Alcohol Abuse Treatment Centers Near You

    1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ().Excessive Drinking.
    2. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (N.A). Facts for Families.
    3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1991). Exposure to Alcoholism in the Family: United States, 1988.
    4. Caces, M. F., Harford, T. C., Williams, G. D., & Hanna, E. Z. (1999). Alcohol consumption and divorce rates in the United States. Journal of studies on alcohol60(5), 647–652.
    5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment: Know What to Ask.
    6. World Health Organization. (2006). Intimate Partner Violence and Alcohol.
    7. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Treatment Improvement Protocal: TIP 35.
    8. National Institute of Justice. (1997). Drugs, Alcohol, and Domestic Violence in Memphis. 
    9. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2004). Risk and Protective Factors for Child Abuse and Neglect.
    10. Solis, J. M., Shadur, J. M., Burns, A. R., & Hussong, A. M. (2012). Understanding the diverse needs of children whose parents abuse substances. Current drug abuse reviews5(2), 135–147.
Last Updated on April 4, 2022
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