Alcohol abuse negatively affects a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being in various ways. But the damage of misusing alcohol doesn’t end with the body and mind of the person drinking. It also extends to their family members.

Abuse or misuse of alcohol often disrupts family relationships through arguments, tension, fear, and confusion. It can be challenging to live with someone who has a drinking problem.

For people who are concerned about a loved one’s alcohol abuse and are interested in getting help for that person, this post provides important information. It presents the primary signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse, explores how alcohol abuse harms personal relationships and negatively affects the entire family unit, and discusses the importance of family involvement in the treatment process.

What is Alcohol Abuse? 

A drinking problem doesn’t necessarily mean a person is addicted to alcohol. There are levels of alcohol misuse that don’t cross the threshold into alcohol use disorder (AUD)—i.e., a diagnosed alcohol addiction.

However, when a person continues to misuse alcohol over a long period, their risk of developing an addiction increases.

Whether or not it’s an official addiction, a person can be said to have a drinking problem if their alcohol-use habit damages their physical or emotional health; disrupts their work, school, or social life; or wreaks havoc on their relationships.

Types of Alcohol Misuse 

There are different types of alcohol misuse. 

• Alcohol use disorder (AUD)—the clinical term for alcohol addiction or physiological dependence—is a chronic medical illness that requires long-term care. A person suffering from an alcohol use disorder (AUD) can’t control their harmful drinking, and they experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking.

Binge drinking means that a person drinks too much alcohol in a short time. For men, drinking more than eight units of alcohol on one occasion is considered a binge. For women, consuming more than six units on one occasion is a binge.  A person who binge drinks doesn’t necessarily have an alcohol addiction. However, binge drinking can cause blackouts, memory loss, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, and other short and long-term health problems. And, like all forms of alcohol misuse, a binge-drinking habit can disrupt personal relationships and distort family dynamics.

• A so-called functional alcoholic is a person who seems to be living a socially acceptable “normal” life but has an alcohol addiction. Such a person may have a stable job and apparently healthy connections with family, friends, and community. However, they are addicted to alcohol and will eventually experience the negative consequences of the addiction.

Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse 

When a person drinks alcohol, their body doesn’t digest it in the way that most food is digested. Instead, the alcohol passes very quickly into the bloodstream and, from there, travels to every part of the body.

Alcohol affects the brain first—negatively impacting parts of the brain that control balance, memory, speech, and judgment. Alcohol then affects the kidneys, lungs, and liver. These effects of alcohol consumption on the brain and other body organs can progress into the various symptoms of alcohol use disorder.

To diagnose alcohol use disorder (AUD), psychiatrists and other mental health professionals refer to the criteria described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). An AUD diagnosis can encompass a variety of conditions referred to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, or alcoholism.

One of the basic warning signs of AUD is craving (a strong desire or urge to use alcohol). Another is experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the person is not drinking, which compels them to drink to get rid of these symptoms.

If a person experiences any two or more of the following symptoms within the past year, they can be diagnosed with a mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorder:

• They drink more than they want or intend to.

• They want to stop drinking but aren’t able to stop.

• They spend lots of time in alcohol-related activities.

• They experience strong cravings for alcohol: thinking about it when they’re not actually drinking.

• Drinking interferes with their day-to-day work/family/school roles and responsibilities.

• Drinking disrupts their relationships.

• Activities they used to enjoy are given up because of alcohol use.

• They engage in risky behaviors while drinking.

• They know drinking isn’t good for them (physically and/or psychologically), but they do it anyway.

• They have financial troubles due to spending money on alcohol.

• Their tolerance for alcohol increases: they need to drink more to get the same effect.

• They experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking.

A person who experiences 2-3 of these symptoms is diagnosed with mild AUD. Someone who experiences 4-5 symptoms has a moderate AUD. And an individual who experiences six or more of these symptoms has a severe alcohol use disorder.

How Alcohol Abuse Affects the Family Unit 

Alcohol misuse disrupts personal relationships and interferes with a person’s ability to fulfill their family responsibilities. These are two of the official symptoms of an alcohol use disorder. So, what exactly are the ways that alcohol abuse can distort family dynamics?

How Drinking Can Affect a Person’s Spouse/Partner 

The secrecy, shame, and compulsion of alcohol abuse can easily undermine a person’s relationship with their spouse or partner.

People who misuse alcohol often feel torn between craving alcohol and not wanting to endure the physical and psychological harm that always seems to follow. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they may blame others—including their spouse/partner—for drinking too much. Anger, resentment, and frustration can spill out into the interactions with their spouse/partner.

The spouse or partner, on the other hand, may become anxious, fearful, or ashamed of their partner. They may believe that they have failed and are somehow responsible for the situation. They may collude with the drinker to hide the problem, further enabling the addiction. The partner may take on extra responsibilities to counterbalance the increasingly irresponsible behavior (and lack of function) of the person abusing alcohol.

In all these ways, alcohol misuse can damage a person’s relationship with their spouse or partner.

How a Parent’s Drinking May Affect Their Children 

When one or both parents misuse alcohol, the harm can easily extend to their children. When under the influence of alcohol, it becomes increasingly difficult for a parent to understand what their child genuinely needs and wants. 

For instance, children can be affected by alcoholism in the following ways:

• A parent may neglect to feed or clothe their child adequately.

• A parent may fail to insist that the child attends school daily, completes their homework, and gets to bed on time.

• The children may not feel comfortable inviting friends into the home—because of their parent’s erratic behavior—and become isolated.

• An older child may take on a parenting role, caring for younger brothers and sisters, because the drinking parent fails to do so.

• The children may experience emotional and physical abuse at the hand of a parent who has an alcohol addiction.

• Relationships at home may consistently feel strained, with the children feeling like they need to “walk on eggshells” when around the drinking parent.

How a Teenager’s Drinking Can Disrupt Their Home Life 

Teenagers or underage drinkers who are misusing alcohol while still living in the family home can also cause significant disruption.

The parents of such a child will likely feel concerned about the physical and emotional damage that alcohol can cause. They will be worried, also, about how the child’s alcohol habit may negatively impact their high school or college education and/or relationships with their peers.

Other siblings in the household—brothers or sisters—may become resentful of how much of their parent’s attention is devoted to the one child’s drinking problem. They may resent all the drama, anxiety, and unhappiness that the drinking habit is causing within the family. In these ways, a teenager’s drinking can disrupt the family unit.

Resources for Concerned Loved Ones 

For people whose spouse, partner, parent, child, or friend is abusing alcohol, gathering resources for treatment options is an important first step. And because alcohol abuse often distorts family dynamics, family involvement in the treatment process can be a vital aspect of recovery.

Emergency First Aid for Alcohol Poisoning

If someone who has been drinking alcohol starts behaving in a way that causes concern about their immediate safety or the safety of those around them—or if they become violently ill—call 911. Other first-aid measures to take include:

• Check to see that the person’s airway isn’t blocked (e.g., by vomit or by swallowing their tongue).

• Try not to let them fall asleep without someone watching them.

• Don’t let them leave the premises, walk alone, or drive.

• Call for help from police or paramedics as quickly as possible.

Having a Conversation About Alcohol Misuse 

Broaching the topic of a loved one’s alcohol abuse may feel daunting, but it’s an important first step in getting them the help that they need. Tips for having such a conversation include:

• Express concern and be direct

• Be patient and show compassion

• Listen and acknowledge their feelings

• Remember that alcohol use disorder is treatable

• Offer to help

• Get professional support

• Offer addiction treatment 

• Care for yourself too

Treatment options for alcohol abuse include 12-Step Alcohol Anonymous groups, seeing a private healthcare professional, or entering a residential or outpatient addiction recovery detox and rehab program.

How to Help a Loved One Who Is Abusing Alcohol 

Alcohol use disorder is a serious and multi-faceted illness with physical, behavioral, social, and spiritual elements. Addressing each part of this complicated disease is essential for a successful recovery. It’s for this reason that professional support from an alcohol rehab center is often the best choice.

New Method Wellness provides effective treatment for alcohol addiction and dual diagnosis. Our team of skilled counselors and medical professionals employ a wide range of evidence-based and complementary therapies, including family therapy, to support healing from alcohol addiction.

To learn more about the alcohol detox and rehab program at New Method Wellness—and how it can help you or a loved one recover from addiction—please feel free to contact us.