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Confronting a loved one’s drinking problem often feels like an insurmountable challenge. It doesn’t matter whether the person in question is a spouse, parent, sibling, child, best friend or even simply a respected colleague. We recognize the harm created by their drinking problem, and we want to help. At the same time, we fear that trying to broach the subject will only spark feelings of anger and resentment on both sides. As a result, we remain silent. The drinking continues, and the pain of watching a loved one slowly destroy themselves begins to cut deeper and deeper. With every consequence they suffer, we feel just the slightest bit of guilt that we never said something sooner.
While talking to a loved one about their drinking problem might not be easy, there are a few methods of approach that can ease discomfort on both sides. If you feel that you can no longer watch your friend or loved one continue to suffer, now is the time to say something. Just make sure to keep the following tips in mind.
Do Some Preliminary Research
Alcoholics often recognize their disease long before admitting to it. They notice when the consequences of their drinking begin piling up, and may even entertain the idea of seeking help. Unfortunately, fear of stigma prevents many from saying anything. The fear of disappointing friends and family, or of being labelled as a moral failure, causes them to internalize their struggles.
Because they never voice their need for help, many simply assume that they do not care about the effects of their drinking. From the outside, they appear to act with reckless abandon. Few realize just how aware they really are of the harm they cause in their own lives and the lives of those around them. Even fewer realize that much of their drinking stems from the guilt they feel over these very transgressions.
Prior to bringing up the subject of your loved one’s drinking problem, try to develop a sense of understanding. Research the disease model of alcoholism and addiction. Read up on the effects of chronic substance abuse, specifically on the brain. This will allow you to address your concerns while making it clear that you are not judging your loved one as a person. You are simply acknowledging the effects of their disease, and suggesting they seek help.
Make Objective Observations
Your preliminary research will help with objectivity; however, you may feel the need to provide specific examples of the harm caused by their drinking. When citing examples of past transgressions, many find it difficult to set aside their judgments.
Objectivity will aid you in your cause by providing facts with which your loved one cannot argue. You may choose to start with the ways in which their drinking has caused harm in their own life. Lost jobs, broken relationships, hospital visits and legal issues all fall under this category. Citing missed obligations, such as a child’s baseball game or a friend’s wedding, will help you bridge the gap into ways their drinking has hurt others.
When addressing your own pain, it becomes harder to maintain objectivity. In this case, try using the standard conflict resolution format: “When you [action], I feel/felt [emotion].” Naturally, you should begin by relating the action to their drinking. For instance: “When you drink, you sometimes become verbally abusive and say things that make me feel unvalued.” This addresses the effects of their drinking, but does so in a way that focuses on your own experience.
Keep the Tone Supportive
Even the above conflict resolution method can lead the conversation into hostile territory. Your attempt at focusing on your own feelings may still be taken as moral judgment rather than genuine concern. To ensure that your message is received, try juxtaposing your concerns with positive messages. Every time you address a consequence or behavior related to your loved one’s drinking, try following it up with a note of encouragement. Remind them that you still love them, and that you haven’t forgotten how great they can be when they’re sober. Endeavor to point out specific examples of qualities you love about them.
Alcohol Abuse is Difficult – Finding Help is Simple
This positive focus provides necessary motivation to change. The guilt experienced by those who suffer from alcoholism often results in resignation. Not only does a supportive tone keep things from becoming too hostile, it also provides a glimmer of hope. It helps your loved one remember that people love them and want only the best for them.
Despite your positive message, your loved one may at first continue to lack hope for themselves. As a result, these confrontations sometimes lead to confessions of deep-seated fears and insecurities. Continue to support your loved one with examples of their better nature, but do not invalidate their feelings. As someone who loves them, you may regard their negative self-perceptions as melodramatic or even nonsensical. To them, however, these feelings are overwhelmingly real. Simple phrases such as “I understand” or “that must be hard” can go a long way. Once you’ve validated their pain, you can offer them help in overcoming it.
Emphasize Hope for Recovery from the Drinking Problem
Some people try to encourage their loved ones to enter treatment by providing harsh ultimatums. This sometimes proves effective, but can also result in hostile resentments that drive your loved one to drink more as an act of defiance. By following the above advice, you set the tone for a much more fruitful conversation. You have voiced your concerns, and possibly even acknowledged your loved one’s reservations about their chances of recovery. Now, you may turn to focus toward a more goal-oriented discussion.
Begin by discussing possible treatment options, and let them know that you will support their decision to seek help. Try to approach the issue with a long-term focus. This means to look beyond the immediate effects of treatment in helping them resolve their drinking problem; instead, go further, emphasizing the broader impact of sobriety on their life in general. Discuss the type of life your loved one wants to achieve, and how addressing their drinking problem now may help them to accomplish their goals.
We cannot promise that you will get what you want from this discussion. Even when you provide understanding, support, hope and compassion, your loved one may not be ready to seek help. Nevertheless, do what you can to establish a helpful tone now. Should they later decide that they feel ready to seek recovery, the tone you set during this initial conversation will make them feel much more comfortable opening up to you. A little love goes a long way. Demonstrating that love now just may open the door to a brighter future for both you and your loved one.