Living with an Alcoholic: Family Roles, Codependency & How to Help

Written by Erica Weiman

& Medically Reviewed by Danielle Boland

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Last Updated - 06/06/2023

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Updated 06/06/2023

Many people enjoy an occasional drink and are able to stop drinking alcohol without any problems. It does not interfere with their day-to-day lives and they are able to have a healthy relationship with alcohol.

But what happens when you or a loved one is not able to stop drinking? How severe is their alcohol misuse? Knowing the difference between someone who likes to drink and someone who can’t stop drinking can help you determine what to do.

What Is Considered an Alcoholic?

There are many different levels and types of drinking styles. Moderate alcohol use is most likely not harmful, but approximately 18 million adult Americans suffer from an alcohol use disorder, or AUD. Alcohol use disorder is categorized by drinking that is harmful to a person and can range from mild to severe.

Someone may be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder if they abuse alcohol to the point of not being able to fulfill their work or school obligations, are unable to function normally without alcohol, require more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect or have legal problems due to alcohol abuse.

Other types of alcohol abuse that may not be diagnosable as AUD are binge drinking, problem drinking or self-medicating with alcohol. While someone may occasionally binge drink, characterized by having more than five drinks for men and four drinks for women in a two-hour period, it does not mean they meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder. However, this behavior can lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder if continued.

Signs of an Alcoholic

There are specific signs to look for if you think someone may be an alcoholic. It is important to note the frequency, intensity and effect of someone’s drinking to determine if they are an alcoholic. These signs include:

  • Drinking more than planned
  • Unable to control the amount of alcohol consumed
  • The want to stop drinking, but can’t
  • Spending a lot of time and effort to get alcohol or drink
  • Physical harm or danger due to alcohol use
  • Ignoring daily responsibilities to drink or recover from the effects of drinking
  • Increase in alcohol tolerance
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when cutting back on drinking

Codependency and Addiction

Codependency is a psychological condition or relationship where a person has an unhealthy attachment to another person, who is often controlling or manipulative. The person who is codependent may have low self-esteem and a strong desire for approval from others.

This type of relationship is common among partnerships where one or both people have a substance use disorder, including alcohol. This behavior can come in many different dynamics and affect spouses, parents, children, friends and other family members of alcoholics.

Codependent behavior among alcoholics and their families can cause the problem to be ignored, prolonging unhealthy dynamics in that family. A codependent person in a relationship with an alcoholic may ignore their own needs and put all the focus on the addicted person. Their identity begins to revolve around that person and both people may form an unhealthy attachment to one another. They also may blame themselves for the other person’s addiction.

Living with an Alcoholic Husband or Wife

Studies have shown that spouses of alcoholics are the most affected by their spouse’s addictive behaviors. Spouses of alcoholics can experience various emotional states, including guilt, shame, anger, fear, grief and isolation. Living with an alcoholic can cause anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem.

There is also a risk of domestic and emotional violence when spending time with an alcoholic spouse. Other domestic issues include financial stress, job loss and the burden of the entire family falling on the other spouse.

Living with Alcoholic Parents

One in five children in the U.S. grew up with an alcoholic relative in their home, with many experiencing some form of abuse or neglect related to alcohol consumption. Children who grew up with alcoholic parents are at a higher risk for mental health disorders and four times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder themselves.

Common behavior seen in children of alcoholics include:

  • Failure in school
  • Lack of friends
  • Stealing, violence or other negative behaviors
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches
  • Aggression towards other children
  • Symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • Reckless behavior
  • Alcohol use or abuse

Adult children of alcoholics also report having difficulty in relationships and struggle with alcohol as well.

Living with an Alcoholic Son or Daughter

It can be difficult to parent a child who is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, and it can become even more complicated if the child is over the age of 18. A parent has more influence on treatment options for a minor, but once they are 18, someone cannot be forced to participate in treatment.

Parents may also enable their adult child by supporting them financially, making excuses for their addiction or hiding their behavior from friends and family.

Family Roles in Addiction

Addiction and alcoholism are family diseases because they affect the entire family, not just the person who is engaging in addictive behaviors. Family members tend to adopt unhealthy roles within the family dynamic to help themselves cope with the stress of living with an alcoholic.

The Addict

The addict is the person who is engaging in addictive behavior and becomes the focus of the family and main source of stress.

The Enabler

The enabler is the person who tries to cover up the alcoholic’s behaviors and take responsibility for them. They usually will make excuses for the person with a substance use disorder and try to keep everyone happy. By not making the person take responsibility for their actions, they are helping them continue their destructive behaviors.

The Hero

The hero tries to maintain the appearance that their family is “normal.” The hero is normally seen as over-responsible or a perfectionist. There can be a lot of pressure on the hero to be the “golden child” which can lead to a different kind of struggle.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is the opposite of the hero in a family dynamic. They are the “problem child” who distracts the family from the person with a substance use disorder. The scapegoat is an outlet for the family to direct some of their anger and frustration while neglecting the real problem.

The Mascot

The mascot is the family member who tries to lighten the situation through humor. They may try to prevent moments of discomfort that the person with an alcohol use disorder may cause.

The Lost Child

The lost child gets lost in the chaos and essentially slips into the background. They stay out of everyone’s way and try to avoid interaction and potential conflict with the rest of the family.

Coping with an Alcoholic Partner or Family Member

Understanding how to handle alcoholism in your family can be difficult, but there are things you can do to help create boundaries with this person while maintaining your own mental health:

  • Try to avoid becoming an enabler
  • Have a support system
  • Limit access to money and avoid lending money
  • Remove yourself from dangerous situations
  • Practice self-care
  • Hold an intervention
  • Speak to a therapist or licensed professional
  • Engage the help of an addiction specialist

How to Talk to Someone About Their Drinking

Talking to a friend or loved one about their drinking habits can be scary, but there are some ways you can prepare to help the conversation go as smoothly as possible:

  • Practice what you’ll say
  • Keep it short and simple
  • Find a calm and quiet time to talk
  • Use positive language
  • Talk about the benefits of change
  • Give specific examples of how their drinking has affected you
  • Be supportive
  • Use positive language
  • Offer to help

Resources and Support for Families of Alcoholics

If you have a loved one who is suffering from alcoholism and you need support, there are many resources out there. There are support groups for people whose friends or family live with an alcohol use disorder, and individual therapy helps develop and promote coping skills for handling an alcoholic family member.


Al-Anon is a support group for people with an alcohol use disorder, and for those who are affected by someone else’s drinking. Al-Anon meetings are encouraged for people who have a family member who is an alcoholic and use the bond of a collective experience to help support one another.


ACOA, or Adult Children of Alcoholics, is a support group specifically for children of parents with an alcohol use disorder. ACOA is a traditional twelve-step program for people who grew up with alcoholic adults in their home. The three pillars of ACOA are:

  1. Identify and heal core trauma
  2. Experience freedom from shame and abandonment
  3. Become your own loving parent

Individual Therapy

If you prefer a more individual and private approach to getting support for coping with an alcoholic in your life, individualized therapy is a great option. The Nobu app can connect you with a therapist for a fee. The Nobu App also has many free resources to help you cope with an alcoholic family member.

Addiction Education

Many counties and states offer addiction education courses for families to help them better understand addiction, including alcohol use disorder. They are taught by licensed professionals and include topics on understanding addiction, how addiction affects a family and how to get a plan in place. This can be helpful for families who want a more in depth understanding of addiction.

Getting Help for Alcoholic Family Members

Once a family member agrees that they need treatment for their alcohol use disorder, it may be overwhelming to understand where to start. The level of treatment needed depends on the severity of alcohol use and their willingness to participate.

There are various differing treatment options available to someone who is looking to get help for their alcohol use disorder. Depending on what is available in your area, inpatient and outpatient options can be considered.

Alcohol Rehab Treatment Options

If you are looking at alcohol rehab treatment options, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is a multidisciplinary facility that offers a full continuum of care in alcohol use disorder treatment. The levels of care include:

  • Inpatient treatment
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP)
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP)
  • Outpatient Treatment
  • Aftercare
  • Family programs

Depending on the level of care, indoor and outdoor amenities at The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake include but are not limited to:

  • Heated swimming pool
  • Two fully equipped exercise gyms
  • Basketball court
  • Sand volleyball court
  • Squash court
  • Pickleball court
  • Yoga therapy
  • Drama therapy
  • Walking trails
  • Mountain views

The staff is comprised of physicians, nurses, therapists, mental health counselors, psychiatrists, behavioral health technicians and many others.

If you suspect a family member is abusing alcohol, contact the admissions team at The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake today.


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