How Alcoholism Affects Relationships

03 Mar How Alcoholism Affects Relationships

The effect that alcoholism has on relationships can be profound and long-lasting.  For many, the damage that alcoholism causes on relationships is a powerful example of the dangers of alcoholism.  Despite this bleak characterization, there remains a wide spectrum of ways that alcoholism can affect relationships.  In this article, we’ll breakdown some of the most common ways that alcoholism affects the relationships between the alcoholic and those closest to them.  Thankfully, with a proper treatment plan in place, sometimes the damage done can be worked through in couples, family, and group therapy sessions, allowing a chance for future growth.  


Everyone’s life is affected by alcoholism in different ways.  This includes how alcoholism affects a relationship.  Each relationship is comprised of unique individuals with personal goals, aspirations, and agency.  However, there are common trends that can be seen across a broad range of relationships affected by alcoholism.  One of these trends is the effect that alcoholism has on the bonds of trust within a relationship.  Alcoholism frequently erodes the bonds of trust between family members, spouses, and coworkers.  Alcoholics commonly exhibit erratic behaviors that may spill over into their relationships, including mood swings which can lead to unprovoked anger.  

This can, over time, cause the other party to lose trust in the ability of the alcoholic in their life to control their own mood or words.  Abuse, whether emotional, physical, or sexual, is much more likely in relationships where one party is an alcoholic.  Abuse of any kind is a fundamental betrayal of the trust between two people and represents one of the worst aspects of alcoholism.   

There are, however, far more mundane levels of abused trust that occur every day and lead to the erosion of trust, and the failing of relationships over time. These include things like missed appointments because the alcoholic was drunk, making a scene at family or social events, and missing a child’s school event due to being drunk or hungover.  For the family members of an alcoholic these events may be a part of living with, and caring for, the alcoholic in their life.  

Trust is a critical part of a normal and healthy relationship.  For the children of alcoholics that have experienced a betrayal of trust before, it can be extremely difficult to form healthy relationships with others.  Children of alcoholics more frequently exhibit signs of emotional distress, such as outbursts of anger or violence, along with higher instances of anxiety and depression.  These can exacerbate existing social withdrawal by causing the children of alcoholics to withdraw from those around them further.  This makes it even more difficult for them to form new relationships or maintain existing relationships.  

One important factor influencing the difficulty forming and maintaining relationships with others is the challenge many children of alcoholics have placing trust in others.  Many children of alcoholics will experience repeated instances where their parents disappoint them or betray their trust due to their addiction.  This will carry into other aspects of their life where they may have difficulty placing trust in friends or significant others for fear of being betrayed once again.

Emotional Availability

The regular, heavy drinking of alcoholism results in continued instances where the alcoholic has reduced emotional availability for those around them.  Emotional availability is an important part of a normal and healthy relationship and is integrally tied to communication between people.  Emotional availability is especially important in the close relationship between parents and children, and between spouses.  These two types of relationships are often the most detrimentally affected by alcoholism.  

Children need their parents to be emotionally available to them for a proper and healthy development.  Very young children of alcoholics may have attachment issues that stem from their alcoholic parent being emotionally unavailable during their formative years.  This can have a long-lasting negative impact, particularly when it comes to forming new relationships and interacting with others.  Children of alcoholic parents will often exhibit signs of emotional withdrawal from others, having few if any close friends and being wary with other adults.

Spouses or others in an intimate relationship with an alcoholic often bear the brunt of the emotional effects of alcohol abuse.  Frequent mood swings, outbursts, withdrawal, and resentment are all commonplace in long-term relationships with an alcoholic.  Unfortunately, domestic and relationship violence is also common in intimate relationships with alcoholic partners.  Over time, all of these factors contribute to a withdrawal from one another, as communication breaks down and negative outcomes of alcoholism increasingly add to the problem.  

Divorce is a common negative outcome for many alcoholics, particularly if they are resistant to receiving treatment.  At the same time, many partners choose to stay with their significant other and encourage them to get the help they need.  Ultimately, each couple navigates the turmoil that comes along with alcoholism in unique ways.


Abuse is a tragically common occurrence in relationships with alcoholics, particularly for those closest to the alcoholic.  Abuse can encompass either physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.  In many cases abuse can take multiple forms and will take place over a long period of time.  Alcohol plays a prominent role in abuse, with alcoholics being roughly three times more likely to abuse.  Alcohol is also a common contributing factor in domestic violence.  Both domestic and relationship violence are forms of abuse.

 This type of abuse happens most frequently behind closed doors, making it difficult for outsiders to accurately assess the situation.  Domestic violence against children can be difficult to spot, even for mandated reporters that may come into contact with the child such as teachers and counselors.  The illegibility of abuse makes it a particularly insidious effect of a relationship with an alcoholic.  Loved ones, friends, and those closest to the person being abused may miss key signs or brush off indicators of domestic violence.  Additionally, the abused party will frequently attempt to mask the signs of abuse out of guilt or shame.

Abuse in all of its forms places an enormous strain on the relationships between the alcoholic and those around them.  It can have lasting effects on children, both developmentally and socially.  Child victims of abuse tend to withdraw from others socially, making the formation of meaningful relationships difficult.  They also will more frequently experience feelings of anxiety and anger, as well as guilt or shame.  Spouses or romantic partners of alcoholics will often be pushed away when the alcoholic wants to drink.  When many people think of abuse in the context of alcoholism, they think of physical abuse.  Although emotional abuse is often overlooked, it can have a significantly damaging effect on those in a relationship with the alcoholic.  Repeated emotional abuse can instill in a loved one feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, anger, and sadness.  

Failure to Agree On the Problem

Many alcoholics have a difficult time seeing the fact that their alcohol use is having a negative outcome in their life.  Part of this is due to the fact that the negative outcomes that are associated with alcohol are generally slow to come to fruition, allowing the alcoholic to point towards the absence of anything immediately negative as vindication that their drinking isn’t a problem.  

Some alcoholics rationalize their behavior as a byproduct of having “one-too-many” drinks the night before, not recognizing that the repetition of that behavior and frequency with which it happens is itself an indication of a problem.  For those closest to the alcoholic, it can be difficult to see them continue their substance abuse while seemingly ignoring the harm it is doing to themselves and others.

The struggle to get an alcoholic to see the extent of their problem can create an ongoing series of interactions that put strain on relationships.  This is particularly true in family units, or between spouses.  Within a marriage, the spouse that is drinking may rationalize the problems that are stemming from their alcohol use as instead a byproduct of something else in the marriage or outside of it.  Often financial troubles, stress, difficulty raising children, or health issues in the family can be used as a type of scapegoat by the alcoholic to rationalize what is happening. For those trying to get the alcoholic in their life to see the truth the process can result in many disagreements.  Because of the emotional volatility of many alcoholics, this process can be stressful and at times dangerous.  

Family members and spouses that are having a difficult time getting their loved one to see their addiction may consider approaching a mental health professional for consultation and advice.  Depending on the situation, a mental health professional may recommend an intervention mediated by a certified intervention specialist.  This type of structured, formal intervention is sometimes necessary in situations where an alcoholic simply refuses to hear the words of those closest to them and see the damage that alcohol is causing in their lives.  Interventions can offer a means to penetrate the barrier that prevents some alcoholics from seeing the reality of their addiction.  Interventions are also successful in difficult cases such as these because they can facilitate the rapid induction of the alcoholic into a detox and recovery program.

Relationships and Treatment

Relationships play an important role in any treatment.  This is particularly true for relationships with the people closest to the alcoholic. There are a variety of different treatment programs that can get loved ones involved. Spouses and family members will commonly have the option to attend regular counseling and therapy sessions.  During these guided sessions, the alcoholic and those closest to them will be able to begin to explore the extent of the damage caused by alcoholism and begin to do the important work of healing some of the damage.  Healing takes time and is an ongoing process requiring engagement and trust from both parties involved.  

Mediated therapy sessions, including couples therapy sessions, offer an effective means of strengthening weakened bonds in a relationship and facilitating the process of rebuilding.   In rehabilitation centers, couples therapy sessions that are specifically geared towards combating alcoholism also teach the spouse techniques for preventing relapse, coping with the aftermath of alcoholism, and how to be an engaged and supporting partner during the recovery process.  In many cases, couples that enter the recovery process together emerge stronger because of the journey.  

The effects of alcoholism on relationships are extensive.  The vast majority of outcomes from alcoholism are negative, and damaged relationships are a common byproduct of alcoholism.  Despite the prevalence of families where one or more member is an alcoholic, the negative impacts of alcoholism on those closest to the alcoholic are often difficult to see for people on the outside.  This makes it especially hard for some children with an alcoholic parent who is abusive, or spouses whose partner is abusive, to receive the help they need.  Rather, too often the victims of an alcoholic withdraw from those around them that could provide them with help and support.  

For marriages or long-term relationships where one party is an alcoholic, the strain that the addiction and substance abuse places on the relationship can be overwhelming.  Many relationships don’t last years of extensive alcohol abuse.  Those that do are often characterized by repeated patterns of abuse, neglect, emotional withdrawal, and loss of trust.  Rebuilding from this is difficult, but possible.  Having an engaged spouse or partner as part of the recovery process can give the alcoholic a larger support system and contribute to a successful recovery.  For some alcoholics, maintaining a serious romantic relationship is simply impossible.  Many people don’t even realize they are an alcoholic, and those that do may not even see how their alcohol use is affecting their romantic relationships.  Instead, they may blame the other partner and rationalize their own behavior.  Difficulty forming and maintaining friendships due to alcoholism isn’t limited to romantic relationships, but rather every relationship in the alcoholic’s life.  

From work relationships to casual social friendships, every aspect of an alcoholic’s life is affected as a result of their addiction.  This is why it is imperative that if you are an alcoholic, or if you are close to an alcoholic, you get them the help they need as quickly as possible. Choosing the right program with the right methodology is a good way to begin the recovery process.  Alcoholism damages not only the mind and body, but results in a negative impact on the lives of family members, friends, and loved ones close to the alcoholic.   

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