Will an alcoholic ever change?

Tips for relatives of alcoholics

The family suffers too. A person's alcoholic illness puts a strain on those around them.

Relatives are in a quandary: on the one hand, they try to protect the family, to hold the family together and often to keep the appearance of the ideal world outwardly.

On the other hand, they have to watch how the personality of the person affected gradually changes, how the addictive substance increasingly becomes the center of life.

++ More on the topic: Alcohol is Austria's No. 1 addictive disease ++

Increased risk for relatives

The alcoholic illness of a family member represents a permanent stressful situation for relatives. The risk of developing a mental illness (such as an anxiety disorder) is correspondingly high for these people. Studies have also shown that children of alcoholics have an increased risk of becoming dependent later in life.

The role of loved ones

On the other hand, relatives can be of great support to alcoholics. In both treated and untreated alcoholics, some studies have shown that social support helps to maintain abstinence. Of course, there are gender-specific differences. For example, women who are dependent on alcohol are more likely to divorce at the start of treatment or the husband is alcoholic himself.

Don't cover up, no empty threats

Alcohol addiction is a disease, not a weak will. Even if it sometimes seems difficult, it is possible for the person concerned to change their behavior. A way out of addiction can be found with family and professional psychosocial help.

The other side of the coin for relatives is in dealing with the alcoholic. The person concerned has to come to the realization that he wants to change his behavior. To do this, the person often first has to reach an absolute low point in life. Only when the trough has bottomed out can things go up again.

Experts therefore recommend avoiding typical behaviors that we normally display towards (chronically) ill people.

This includes, for example, relieving responsibility, protecting the person concerned and apologizing for their actions.

  • Do not cover up the behavior of your alcoholic loved one. For example, if the person is unable to go to the office as a result of alcohol consumption, then do not call and give the wrong reason for the absence.
  • Do not get rid of the impurities caused by the intoxicated individual.
  • There is no point in looking for alcohol hiding places and throwing away supplies of alcohol - the person concerned can get more supplies faster than you would like.
  • You are not to blame for the dependency of the person concerned. Always keep this in mind. Everyone makes mistakes (e.g. in their upbringing), nobody is perfect (e.g. in dealing with their partner). Remember: alcoholics look for reasons to justify their consumption. As a result, those affected often blame their relatives for their addiction.
  • Don't announce any actions if you don't follow through with them. Don't threaten divorce. Rather say: "If you come home drunk today, I will move the children to my parents' home and will only come back when you are sober" - and let words be followed by deeds. The more you make empty threats, the less credible you become.

Pay attention to your needs

As difficult as it may seem at first glance, relatives of alcoholics have to set themselves apart. Do not put your needs aside, or if you have already done so, pay more attention to your well-being. Do not neglect friends and acquaintances; describe the situation to them. The same applies to hobbies and things that you enjoy doing in your free time (sports, going to the cinema, gardening, etc.)

How do I support those affected?

If your alcoholic relative should seek a conversation with you and express their willingness to start therapy, you can support them with information and understanding.

  • Information: Help us find the appropriate form of therapy or the appropriate facility.
  • Understanding: Make the person concerned aware that you are suffering from the current situation; at the same time ensure support (“We can do it”, “We'll get out of there”).

If the person concerned has gone into therapy, give him the time and space to get used to the new situation. Do not follow your loved one at every turn. Before starting treatment, discuss the objectives and who should learn how much of the situation in your environment. Avoid alcohol when cooking, as well as cough suppressants containing alcohol.

++ More on the topic: The treatment of alcoholism ++

Important: Both partners have to give each other another chance. Try to gently strengthen your relationship and find a new relationship with one another.

What to do if the relapse occurs

If a relapse occurs during therapy, there are two things you can do: First, you need to make it clear that you are not responsible for the relapse. Ultimately, only the person concerned can overcome the addiction himself.

Second, you can offer help. Accompany your alcoholic relative to the next outpatient appointment, contact the person treating you and try - even if it is difficult - to see the sick person as sick and to attribute his possibly difficult behavior to his alcohol consumption.

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Philip Pfleger
Medical review:
Dr. Roland Mader
Editorial editing:
Dr. med. Stefanie Sperlich

Updated on:

Müller M: Goals in the context of comorbid disorders. JATROS Neurology & Psychiatry 6/2012

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