How Alcohol Affects Relationships
From The Recovery Self Help Project
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If you believe drinking is hurting your relationship, reading this article can help you. There are many ways to recognize how problem drinking can affect a relationship, and I've done my best to discuss many of these factors. Also, I offer suggestions about how you can make changes to improve your situation.
Alcoholism can ruin your romance or your marriage. There may be other factors, but a problem with drinking can cause relationship problems and make other problems worse. Recognizing a problem is the first step in making changes.
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Are You Asking Questions Like These?
- Am I living with an alcoholic?
- Does my girlfriend have a drinking problem?
- How can I help my boyfriend quit drinking?
- Do I have an alcoholic wife?
- Do I have an alcoholic husband?
- Is his or her drinking hurting our relationship?
This article will help you identify how alcohol may be affecting your relationship and what you can do for help.
Signs of Problem Drinking in Relationships
Here are some of the situations you typically see where people are having alcohol problems in relationship:
<blockquote> "We just got home from a party. We had a few drinks and a great time. Now we're bickering again over nothing!" </blockquote> <blockquote> "I know we've got problems, but it's hard to cut back because all of our friends drink." </blockquote> <blockquote> "We went out for a romantic dinner and shared a bottle of wine. We were relaxed and felt close. Then we went to a club and had a few more. Now she's losing control again and flirting with a stranger. Why does this keep happening? Does she really love me?" </blockquote> <blockquote> "Things were great before we had kids. But I'm worried. We've had some bad fights. And I can't seem to reach him anymore. Every night he drinks a few beers and just sits in front of the TV." </blockquote>
You may be surprised to read this, but blaming only alcohol may be too simplistic. Usually relationship problems have several contributing causes. You'll want to find ways to address all the aspects of the issues in your relationship. But don't minimize or deny the role of alcohol in damaging your relationship.
Notice that in each of these situations, there is relationship conflict or unhappiness, but drinking is also part of the story. Relationship issues can become much worse "under the influence" of alcohol. Recognize that problem drinking has to be addressed, often before any other issues can be resolved.
How Do We Know if Alcohol Is Causing Relationship Problems?
Alcohol affects relationships in several ways: 1) as a drug, 2) as cultural ritual, and 3) psychologically.
Let's take a look at each of the ways that alcohol is involved in damaging a relationship.
Alcohol is a Drug That Affects Relationships
In my practice as a psychotherapist, I'm perplexed at how often people with obvious drinking problems push back when I suggest they may be self-medicating and might consider a psychiatric medication instead. If I suggest an antidepressant, for instance, they say they're very uncomfortable with the idea of taking a drug! If you think about it, you'll recognize that they are already taking a drug. Alcohol is a drug! It is a powerful psychoactive drug with very destructive side effects.
By definition, a psychoactive drug chemically changes perception, thinking, and emotionality. Like other popular psychoactive drugs, apparent positive experiences quickly give way to negative effects. Alcohol has more unwanted side-effects that many prescription medications.
Although alcohol's chemical effects include calming nervousness, when it starts to wear off, people get more anxious. This and its dehydrating side-effect may cause insomnia or make it worse, and make it harder to sustain sleep. Sufficient doses of alcohol also prevent the dreaming sleep that helps us process emotions at night. Even "happy drunks" who drink often find that over time they become more depressed. And although very moderate drinking can have positive health effects (as studies of the beneficial effects of red wine drinking have shown), heavy drinking gradually breaks down body and mind. I'm referring to such alcohol induced health problems as dementia, which is accelerated even with binge drinking, loss of ability to store new memories, which is associated with heavy drinking over time, cirrhosis of the liver, an increased risk for cancer. Also, chronic alcoholics can lose their very sanity, experiencing blackouts and hallucinations. And heavy drinkers who attempt to withdraw from alcohol without medical help may die from seizures.
Here's an effect most people don't know. Steady or binge drinking affects brain chemistry long after alcohol has left your body. Psychological testing is distorted as much as two weeks after not drinking -- one author advises against testing a "wet brain". [Arden, J. B. (2002). Surviving job stress: How to overcome workday pressures. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.]
If you are unconvinced that alcohol is a drug that makes alarming changes to the body's chemistry, read about the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Please be aware that quitting "cold turkey" can be very dangerous. See below for more on this.
Also recognize that drinking problems are worse when other intoxicants are involved. You may be aware of the advice (which is often ignored or even celebrated) that combining drugs is dangerous. But the effects of mixing intoxicants last long after the intoxication is over, especially if there is regular and repeated use of alcohol with other drugs.
For example, people who have problems with alcohol often find that alcohol becomes a gateway to cocaine use. Combining these two drugs is popular and has interrelated physiological effects. Psychologically, people taking this combination often experience serious problems with regulating their emotions and actions and wreak havoc on their relationships. Physically, this is like driving your car with the gas pedal to the floor and your other foot on the brakes and it risks even more devastating chemical addiction. People with this pattern are at much higher risk for serious health problems, troubles with the law, entanglements with criminals and gangs who traffic in cocaine, and the financial cost of alcohol combined with a cocaine habit.
If you can see that alcohol is a drug that profoundly alters the body's chemistry, both immediately while drinking, and long-term after repeated drinking, you can see that you are in relationship with someone who has been altered by a chemical. Their feelings, thinking, and judgment are changed by their involvement with alcohol. You are relating not just to a partner but to a partner who has been transformed by a drug.
<pre> Consider how alcohol -- as a drug -- is affecting your relationship:
- Are you in relationship with your partner -- and a drug?
- Would your partner be different if they were not using alcohol?
If you suspect that your partner would be different if alcohol were not involved, quitting drinking may do a lot to improve your relationship or marriage. Your relationship will change in many ways. So be sure to get all the help you need to adjust to those changes, whether joining Al Anon or getting marriage counseling from someone experienced in recovery work.
Myths About Alcohol Affect Relationships
Several cultural myths about alcohol lead people to minimize its drug effects. Here are a few of them unmasked.
"Alcohol is natural, so it can't be harmful." Alcohol is created in an age-old process of fermenting sugar with yeast. If it's a naturally-occurring chemical, our bodies must be able to accommodate this, right? Well, consider other modes of food spoilage. If sugar is broken down by other organisms, such as salmonella, our bodies don't handle this too well. Alcohol is a potent chemical that can kill in excessive doses.
"If it's legal, it can't be that dangerous." Consider the legal sale of cigarettes and the role of tobacco in heart and lung disease and cancer. We don't need to go back to prohibition, but let's face it, some people have trouble controlling their ability to keep alcohol consumption within safe or healthy limits––especially those who self-medicate other problems or whose genetics make them more vulnerable to alcohol addiction. Heavy drinking makes people much more vulnerable to auto accidents, and over time, it can destroy the liver and cause Korsakoff's dementia, where one can't store new memories. And drinking doesn't need to be continuous to cause dementia. We now know that binge drinking accelerates the onset and severity of dementia later in life. [Backer, K. (2008). "Binge-drinking culture may cause dementia epidemic, experts warn." In The Independent. Downloaded 12/16/08 .]
"I can't imagine celebrating without champagne!" Alcohol has taken a central place in celebrations for thousands of years. At weddings, people drink toasts to the happy couple. In our culture, drinking has become a rite of passage into adulthood, when one reaches the "legal age". People watch sporting events with beer. Are you able to celebrate without drinking? If not, what does this say about the power of familiarity? What kinds of social pressures would you face if you chose not to drink? And what about when those celebrations are ruined when drunken relatives embarrass themselves at weddings or when fights break out at sporting events?
"In vino veritas (in alcohol is truth)." Most of us have seen someone who, after a few drinks, becomes much more emotionally expressive and may say or do things that reflect wishes they had previously hidden. Some incorrectly interpret this disinhibition effect as showing one's true self. But "true self" is more nuanced and subtle than this. Its expression requires the interaction of many aspects of personality, including the person with a fully functioning brain who plans, organizes, weighs consequences, and chooses among conflicting wishes. To further disprove the contention that the unmasking effects of alcohol reveal one's true self, consider the fact that alcohol may sometimes unmask positive feelings and sometimes negative ones. This is one of the reasons that couples who drink in order to better connect can easily get caught up in intense arguments.
<pre> Consider how these cultural myths about alcohol may be affecting your relationship:
- Do you and your partner consume alcohol with the same nonchalance you consume foods and other beverages?
- Do you and your partner assume that alcohol isn't dangerous to you because it is legal?
- Do you and your partner always include alcohol in social rituals and celebrations?
- Do you expect alcohol to make your partner more emotionally available or expressive?
Answering "yes" to any one of these questions may mean that stopping drinking may save your marriage or romance. </pre>
Psychological Effects of Alcohol on Relationships
Let's face it, people like to drink alcohol for its positive effects. If you're anxious, a drink can help you relax. Bored? You can enjoy a gourmet experience. Hurting? You'll go numb. Shy? You'll be less inhibited. Lonely? Other drinkers are your instant friends.
These are all psychological effects of alcohol. Unlike many other drugs, alcohol strongly affects the emotional aspects of a person and is tied to our social interactions with others.
One example is the "social" binge drinking that often starts in high school or college. This habit often continues into early adulthood and is hard to break, because many people have known no other ways to gather socially.
You can also think of how your job or other social identity can link you to alcohol. This is a common issue for restaurant staff, or in any job that requires selling, networking or travel.
Because of alcohol's connection with the emotional centers of the brain, any situation with a strong emotional component can trigger the urge to drink excessively, such as holidays or anniversary dates of important personal events, or longing for a lost love.
Often, people who are in emotional distress seek "help" from alcohol. After all, it is readily available and seems to alleviate negative feelings quickly. But does it really? And at what cost?
People familiar with computer programming know that you get junk data unless you process both zeros and ones. Similarly, the frequent use of alcohol and drugs to feel better filters out negative experience but robs us of needed perceptions. Consider what it would be like to turn off the pain receptors in your feet. You wouldn't notice much difference at first, until you step on a sharp object without knowing it and make the injury much worse––people with leprosy experience just this problem! My point is that we need access to unpleasant feelings to alert ourselves to situations that need a course correction. Alcohol numbs our responses and makes it more difficult to cope with life's challenges.
Even more significant, although alcohol in moderation doesn't create problems for some people, for many, moderate or binge drinking has unwanted psychosocial effects, even after alcohol has left their system. These include irrational thinking, defensiveness, aggression, mood problems, and worsening of mental illnesses. It also promotes interpersonal problems that include failures of integrity, family and relationship difficulties, and career problems.
Here's a list of alcohol's psychosocial effects, so you can see if they may be impacting you or those you love:
- Irrational thinking, including such cognitive distortions as black and white thinking and emotional reasoning
- Defensiveness, such as denial; blaming out; escape and avoidance of uncomfortable situations; isolation and withdrawal
- Aggression, including intense and violent temper; unwanted sexual advances; physical fights, sexual abuse or assaults
- Lack of integrity, such as broken promises; underfunctioning that leads to codependency; driving under the influence (DUI -- a serious danger to self and others); infidelity; refusing to take responsibility; and facilitating other addictions, like pathological gambling
- Mood problems, including depression, anxiety, anger and irritability, low self-esteem, increased risk of suicide and homicide
- Family problems, such as arguing, bickering, stonewalling, withdrawal, and generally poor communication; neglectful, emotionally abusive, codependent or stagnant relationships; infidelity or not coming home; poor sexual performance; financial distress
- Career difficulties, including failure to advance, conflicts at work, job loss
- Worsening of other mental health issues, such as anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, depression, bipolar disorder, mood swings, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), paranoia, personality disorders, schizophrenia, poor anger management.
<pre> Consider the psychological effects of alcohol:
- Is your partner's mood, behavior, or ability to relate affected by alcohol?
What You Can Do To Help Save a Marriage or Romance
After reading about the many potential problems, you may see that it is hurting your relationship.
Alcohol problems can range from mild to severe. Just because alcohol seems a minor part of a bad relationship, doesn't mean that it should be ignored. Often, addressing a drinking problem will may make other changes possible. And if the drinking problem is severe, taking action to quit drinking will make it far more possible to save a marriage or romance.
Here's another aspect to consider. Someone with a drinking problem may have had a problem for a long time. Realize that some people haven't had an extended period of not drinking since their teen years or earlier. They may have never had a healthier relationship than the one they're in. It's easy to underestimate alcohol's effects, especially for someone who has never experienced a healthy relationship without alcohol. Freeing oneself from alcohol can lead to an experience of life that is remarkable. Recovering alcoholics often speak of the release from alcohol addiction as liberation from prison or the beginning of a new life. Both partners in a troubled relationship may feel this after overcoming alcohol's affect on the relationship. Your relationship will be new and different, and you may need help figuring out how to accommodate these changes. It's like re-discovering romance after losing 150 pounds. It will feel strange and new, with many more possibilities. It also may take time to get used to the changes. Just like the person with a new body as a result of weight loss, someone who now has better access to their thinking and feelings may need to work through shyness and learn social skills they didn't know they needed when drinking.
Here are some of the ways you can address the problems you may be seeing. I'll cover some of the resources for getting help and discuss potential pitfalls. These resources include psychotherapy; medical consultation and treatment, such as outpatient and inpatient detoxification (detox); residential rehabilitation (rehab) centers; Alcoholics Anonymous and Al Anon and alternative programs to these; church and community organizations; friends and family, and home-based recovery programs.
Here are your choices for getting help:
- Psychotherapy for individuals, couples and families. You may be reluctant to seek psychotherapy for a number of reasons. Some people are turned off watching TV personalities with a pushy style. Others would be ashamed to admit they need help. Whatever the reason for hesitation, it's common to feel vulnerable when discussing personal issues. So shop around until you find a therapist who's knowledgeable and has a personal style that helps you discuss these things. Psychotherapists who specialize in addictions understand that it may be difficult to stop drinking and avoid ongoing temptations to drink. They're also aware of impacts on family life and the stages people go through when changing lifestyles. If you choose to participate in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Al Anon or other twelve-step programs, many therapists are supportive of those programs and can explore your discomfort with them, focusing on your personal struggle rather than insisting on AA participation as the only way. Psychotherapy is also an ideal approach for addressing alcohol problems in relationship, because therapists are skilled at addressing the dynamics of both relationship and individual psychology.
- Medical consultation. Some physicians specialize in addiction medicine and can help you safely clear alcohol and other drugs from your system (detox). Please be sure to consult with your physician before stopping drinking, because quitting "cold turkey" can lead to life-threatening medical complications, including seizures. You may also want to consult with a psychiatrist, a physician who specializes in treating mental health issues. Some people use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other mental health issues and could benefit from an appropriate medication regimen in addition to behavioral health treatment. You may work with a physician as an outpatient or need in-patient hospitalization for medical necessity, such as intense withdrawal.
- In-patient rehab. There are many rehabilitation centers that help people detox and then take the time to review the effects of their addiction, open up to the recovery process and start to make necessary lifestyle changes. Some who struggle with psychological or physical addiction or both can benefit from a time away from life's usual pressures to loosen the grip of their habit and the lifestyle that supports it.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In a 1995 Consumer Reports study, [Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). The effectiveness of psychotherapy: The Consumer Reports study. In American Psychologist, December 1995 Vol. 50, No. 12, pp. 965-974. Downloaded 12/16/08  ] people expressed higher satisfaction with AA than with psychotherapy. AA offers a supportive fellowship of people from all walks of life who have struggled with alcohol problems. It provides the opportunity to receive around-the-clock support from people who have "been there, done that" to prevent relapse or get back on track after a slip. The AA 12 steps are principles for systematically overcoming the denial that keeps addiction in place, taking responsibility for your actions, and surrendering to a spiritual "higher power" or, alternatively, collective support — an AA saying is "GOD can mean Group Of Drunks" — for facing life's challenges. Many people have difficulty with adopting all of the AA principles. They may not believe that they are powerless over alcohol (AA first step) and return to controlled drinking, a risk that's easy to underestimate. They may reject the idea of alcohol dependence as a disease or believe they could succeed if they could only muster enough willpower. They may object to the principle of surrendering to a higher power, to accepting the label of "alcoholic" or identifying with others in the fellowship. Many of these objections can emerge from avoidance of shame or guilt, denial of the wreckage that alcohol dependence has caused to themselves or loved ones, fear of public exposure of an alcohol problem, co-dependence with others who continue to drink, and so on. Far more often than not, my clients who have gone to AA have been thrilled to see their lives turn in a more positive direction. Those who haven't still receive my support, and I don't believe AA is the only way people can achieve freedom from alcohol. AA's many benefits include the ability to work through the 12-steps and receive support for sobriety from an experienced sponsor, the availability of meetings during many times of the day, in many places, and interventions to offer sobriety and support to loved ones whose lives have been overtaken by drinking.
- Al Anon. This is a sister organization to AA that helps people whose lives are impacted by close relationships with alcoholics. It employs the AA model of meetings, sponsorship and step work to help people overcome co-dependency and relationship patterns learned when trying to cope with significant others, especially alcoholic parents, spouses or siblings.
- Alternatives to 12-step programs. There are alternatives to AA, Al Anon and similar programs. An Internet search for AA alternatives or 12-step alternatives should bring up a list of some of these resources. Whatever program you choose, consider whether it offers sufficient social support and help in recovering from relapse, especially for people having trouble staying away from alcohol despite problems it's causing.
- Churches and spiritual groups can help you deal with issues of faith, such as trusting in a higher power to assist your sobriety or healing from a dysfunctional relationship. Many churches also help people facing financial distress that can exacerbate alcohol problems and addictions.
- Community organizations. Some churches offer a variety of community services. Some community organizations, like Salvation Army, are faith-based non-profits. Others may be sectarian and wholly or partly funded by government agencies. An example is community mental health services that may be offered in your county.
- Friends and family can provide much-needed emotional and financial support and encouragement in times of distress. Often family members alert their loved ones to problems they see with alcohol use and may bring in external experts for counseling, rehabilitation or intervention.
- Home-based recovery programs include DVDs, CDs, workbooks, self-help books and Internet-based support programs. The best programs involve you actively in ways to help yourself and may combine several approaches, for example, offering both a DVD of motivational lessons and a book of techniques and exercises you can try at home. These are self-help programs and that means the problem drinker must make a personal commitment to change. Be honest with yourself about whether you are actually following through. It's too easy to make a partial effort to say that you've tried, while you continue to drink and hurt your relationship. If you're buying one of these programs for someone who doesn't follow through or recognize their own problem you can waste your money and contact AA or a mental health professional to get more help. If the program comes with a money-back guarantee, the better programs will offer you a refund if your loved one isn't helped. Keep in mind that home-based recovery programs are most useful when they are used to supplement other treatment. These programs can be helpful in conjunction with psychotherapy or to support an alcoholic who has completed a rehab program and wants help to remain sober. Home-based recovery programs are also useful in conjunction with AA or other peer-based programs when the recovering alcoholic can't get to a meeting (for example, when traveling or privacy is a concern) or there's a need for immediate help in a stressful situation. If in AA or working with a psychotherapist, make sure they're aware of the program so they can help you use it effectively.
<pre> If you believe that alcohol may be spoiling your romance or causing some of the other problems discussed here, take courage, and reach out for help. There's no single way that works for everyone, but if you truly want help and look for it, you can find an approach that's likely to work for you. </pre>
What a Relationship Can Be Like Without Alcohol
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You've had the insight that alcohol could be contributing to problems in your relationship. Hopefully, this article has given you additional clarity and you know you can get help.
There's more you should you know. We talk about the damage of alcohol in a relationship as a problem. Really, by recognizing what's going on and doing something about it, you actually have the opportunity to experience something more than improving a relationship from "bad" to "okay" or "normal." If your loved one has a long history of problems with alcohol, and the two of you address the problem, your loved one may experience the joys of life in ways he or she has never experienced before. You, too, may experience not just an "improved" relationship, but the fulfillment and joy of a relationship that has overcome limitations and reached new levels of emotional connection, bonding, and love, both of each other, and love for life. In your struggle with this "problem," don't underestimate the great possibility for joy and happiness that is waiting for the two of you. When one or both partners stop drinking and using, the relationship will change. Don't be surprised, for instance, if you want more emotional distance from your partner than previously. This frequently happens as each partner faces themselves and makes needed changes that were previously avoided through drinking. This is also a time when co-dependency issues are addressed. You may want to give each other space for becoming more fully the people you were meant to be.
About the Author
<blockquote> Gary Seeman, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco and Corte Madera, California (license PSY19356). He works with adult individuals and couples who have substance abuse issues, including some in long-time recovery who seek further growth and healing. For more articles and information about his services, visit his web site at http://www.drgaryseeman.com/. </blockquote>
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