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Living with an Alcoholic: How to Support and Not Enable

5 minute read

Living with someone struggling with alcoholism can be stressful and chaotic. If you’re concerned that your loved one has a problem with their drinking, there are ways you can be there for them. First, it’s important to learn about the addiction. Then you can learn about effective ways to support them without enabling their behavior.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

An estimated 17 million Americans aged 18 and older struggle with alcohol use disorder. Someone with alcohol use disorder has a problem controlling or stopping their drinking even after it negatively affects their health, relationships, or occupation. Signs that someone may be struggling with alcohol use disorder can include:

  • Experiencing cravings or a strong need to drink
  • Drinking is causing problems related to family, work, or school
  • Wanting to cut down or stop drinking more than once but not being able to
  • Continuing to drink despite problems at work or at home
  • Having to drink more than before to get the same effect
  • Neglecting other activities that were important in order to drink

Navigating how to discuss your concerns with the person with whom you live can be difficult. And it’s hard to know how best to support them while also making sure you’re paying attention to your own wants and needs.

How to Talk About Your Concerns

Having a conversation with someone about their drinking can be the first step in helping them tackle their addiction. These conversations are sometimes scary and uncomfortable, but it might save their life. Make sure to:

  • Be knowledgeable. Learning about addiction to alcohol and treatment options is beneficial when bringing your concerns to your loved one. It shows that you care and helps you to stick to facts rather than shaming them.
  • Time it well. Talking to your loved one at the right time can be key. Approach them when they are sober and can better digest the information.
  • Be honest, and direct. Emphasize your feelings and concerns, but avoid blaming or using labels.

Keep in mind that it may take more than one well-intentioned conversation. If you live with an alcoholic who has been struggling with addiction for a while, there may be many things in place that stop them from changing their behavior.

Be Aware of Barriers to Change

Making long-lasting changes is difficult for anyone. For those dealing with alcoholism, giving up alcohol may be one of the hardest decisions they’ll ever make. Often, alcohol is used as a coping mechanism to deal with feelings or experiences that are too difficult to face.

When someone gives up alcohol, that’s just one of the changes they make. They may also have to change:

  • Who they spend their time with
  • Where they go in their free time
  • How they deal with difficult thoughts and emotions
  • And more

The idea of making all these changes can be scary and daunting. So the person you live with might have a lot of excuses for not wanting or needing to stop drinking. Denial can be a large barrier to making changes and seeking treatment. If you live with an alcoholic, you might notice denial as the person:

  • Minimizing or rationalizing the seriousness of their drinking
  • Blaming outside factors for their drinking habits
  • Denying they have an alcohol problem at all

There are many things that can keep someone addicted in denial. Sometimes it’s fear of the unknown. Not knowing what sobriety will be like can keep someone from changing even though their alcohol use has caused them problems. They might want to avoid feeling shame or embarrassment when admitting they have a problem. Complicating matters, sometimes family and friends enable their behavior to continue.

Avoid Enabling!

When supporting your loved one, it is important to avoid enabling their alcohol abuse. Enabling someone with an addiction is when you prevent them from fully feeling the negative consequences of their addiction. This could look like:

  • Making excuses for their drinking habits
  • Lying about how much or how often they drink
  • Paying bail funds or legal fees if they suffer legal consequences from their drinking
  • Turning a “blind eye” to how much or how often they drink

Avoiding enabling can be especially tricky when you live with an alcoholic. Sometimes ignoring the problem feels easier than facing it and potentially rocking the boat of your living situation. Because enabling behaviors can contribute to your loved one’s resistance to change, it is important to avoid them. Learning to set healthy boundaries and enforce them can be one of the most beneficial ways to support someone dealing with alcoholism.

Set Healthy Boundaries

Whether you’re married to them, friends with them, or simply living with an alcoholic, co-dependency can develop in the relationship. This is when you become so concerned with the addicted person’s problems that you neglect your own wants and needs. You can avoid co-dependency by setting boundaries. Boundaries are the rules and limits you set to protect your own well-being.

Boundaries around alcohol use can include things like:

  • No alcohol in the house.
  • No help paying for or getting alcohol.
  • No lying about their drinking or helping them cover up how much they’re drinking.

These are just a few examples. Your boundaries should be unique to your living situation. Figure out what you’re comfortable with and state these clearly to your loved one. It is important to state these boundaries and make sure to enforce them when needed. Holding firm to your wants and needs may be difficult at first. That’s okay! If you’re not used to enforcing boundaries, it is normal for it to be uncomfortable in the beginning. It may also make your living situation feel awkward for a time. But look at it as an opportunity to support the person with whom you’re living while also taking care of yourself.

How to Live Well with an Alcoholic

Taking care of your own mental health and well-being is crucial when you live with an alcoholic. Supporting someone struggling with alcohol abuse can be emotionally and physically taxing. Practicing self-care could include:

  • Getting regular physical exercise
  • Journaling
  • Reaching out to your support system
  • Seeking out your own individual counseling

In particular, individual counseling may be helpful for you because you’ll learn more about setting healthy boundaries and coping strategies to use when you need them. And because you may have experienced negative effects of living with an alcoholic, participating in counseling allows you the space to process those experiences. You can also learn more about how to handle alcohol addiction and how to have production interactions with someone who’s addicted.

You may want to seek out a support group for spouses, family, or friends who have been negatively affected by alcoholism. These are called Al-Anon groups, and they can be beneficial because being surrounded by others that have had similar experiences gives you an opportunity to build your support system and process your experiences.

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on yourself when you live with someone who is struggling. Do your best to support them, and also pay attention to your own well-being. If you’re interested in learning more about treatment for alcohol addiction, contact us at Footprints to Recovery, where we have many treatment programs to help those struggling with substance abuse.


Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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