Codependency and Self-Care: When Someone You Love Abuses Alcohol

Adult with short hair sits on window seat in spacious room and looks out toward beachFew things may be more devastating than coming to terms with a loved one’s alcohol abuse. The day you realize the person you care about doesn’t just “party,” isn’t just a “social drinker,” isn’t going to just “grow out of it,” and isn’t going to ever choose you over drinking is a sad day you will always remember.

Sometimes it’s a personality change while the person is under the influence of alcohol that leaves their loved one feeling lonely, invisible, and fed up. Sometimes it’s a legal consequence and expensive attorney fees. Sometimes it’s a final humiliation or betrayal.

Partners and parents of people who abuse alcohol often go to great lengths to get the person to stop drinking. Well-meaning family and friends may accuse them of enabling their loved one. Sometimes they’re advised to use “tough love” by withholding support, shelter, or connection to motivate the person to get sober. But even if the person abusing alcohol is temporarily scared into abstinence, this external threat is unlikely to create lasting change.

Many in the person’s orbit may feel helpless and confused. They may be unable to understand why their loved one can’t control their drinking, even after they’ve suffered consequences.

Even if a loved one leaves or becomes estranged from the person abusing alcohol, they may later find themselves in a similar predicament if they don’t work on themselves. Many people who live through the abusive behaviors of a partner or loved one become conditioned to abuse. It’s not uncommon to wind up attracting others with addictive behaviors and to be victimized in all-too-familiar ways. This cycle can repeat again and again over a lifetime of emotional pain.

Fortunately, there are answers.

It may take a lot of work, support, individual therapy, reading, and self-reflection to detach in a healthy way from a loved one’s abusive drinking patterns, but it is possible.

Understanding the pitfalls of codependency and pathological altruism can help a loved one learn to set boundaries for themselves and ward off resentment. Resentment is an indication a loved one has said “yes” too often when they wanted or needed to say “no.” Giving in, being a doormat, or staying in denial can take a large toll. The longer a person struggles to cope with the pain of life with a loved one who abuses alcohol, the deeper the scars grow.

Attending Al-Anon, CoDA (Co-Dependents Anonymous), or similar support group meetings can help loved ones find a community of people in similar situations. Reading online resources about codependency and pathological altruism can also be helpful in identifying when the desire to assist or “rescue” someone is taken too far.

For some people, focusing on their own needs and dreams may feel selfish at first. As I remind concerned loved ones in the therapy room, “It’s like having your hand in ice water for a while and then putting it in lukewarm water. The water will feel artificially hotter than it is because of the relative temperature.”

Likewise, self-care may feel uncomfortable. When a person has spent time, energy, money, and emotional reserves trying to help someone who abuses alcohol, redirecting those things back to themselves may feel heartless. It may feel like a missed opportunity to finally get their loved one “over the hump” of sobriety. This is codependent thinking, and it’s harmful to caring people whose hearts are in the right place but who cannot affect the change they want.

It may take a lot of work, support, individual therapy, reading, and self-reflection to detach in a healthy way from a loved one’s abusive drinking patterns, but it is possible. The first step is to know you deserve peace whether the person in your life who abuses alcohol stops or not.

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  • Tracy

    April 27th, 2018 at 11:05 AM

    The hardest thing I had to realize was that by supporting him (financially and emotionally mainly) I was enabling him to continue drinking and ruin our life together. It’s bad enough to lose my husband. Why doesn’t someone teach us about co-dependency before we lose ourselves in it?

  • Bethany

    April 27th, 2018 at 10:01 PM

    Story of my life :(

  • Adriana

    June 2nd, 2021 at 12:09 PM

    What great words! It makes transparent the cruel grip of our emotions that lay behind the toxicity of co dependency, the natural forming bond between couples.. just taken to an extreme that one would ever wish themselves to be in….awesome insights…thank you

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