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If you have a friend, spouse, or loved one that is an out-of-control alcoholic, what can you say to them?
Here are some of our typical pleas:
“You have to stop drinking.”
“You’re going to kill yourself if you keep drinking.”
“Your drinking is killing me.”
“Your drinking is tearing apart the family.“….and so on.
First of all, none of the above is actionable for the alcoholic. They are trapped in a cycle and probably can’t even bring themselves to care about many of the consequences you are threatening.
The truth of the matter is, you have very little verbal control over an alcoholic. Things that you say will have very little control over them, even if they are sober when you say them.
So what can you do?
The healthiest decision you can make is for yourself. That decision is for you to be healthier in terms of your relationship to the alcoholic.
There is nothing you can say that will make someone magically stop drinking.
However, there are several things you can do. Some of what you can do involves verbalizing your intentions to an alcoholic. Your intentions. Not verbalizing demands for them to change their behavior. Merely what you intend to do, given their behavior and/or their drinking.
Photo by jb_brooke
Assessing your relationship with the alcoholic
Ask yourself this gut-wrenching question: “Is my intention to continue in this relationship with them regardless of whether or not they continue to drink?”
If you don’t intend to continue associating with this person, then set a limit. This limit is for your sanity, not theirs. For example, “if you don’t get help by the end of this month, I’m walking away from the relationship.” This is a firm limit with actionable consequences. Don’t make this type of threat unless you fully intend to follow through with it though.
Remember that there are essentially only 3 possible outcomes between you and the alcoholic:
1) They recover and stop drinking.
2) You leave.
3) The relationship continues with the alcohol and the chaos.
So you might stop and do some thinking. Long term thinking. Do you really want to be in this same situation, say, 10 years from now? Given the possible outcomes, there are essentially only 3 things you can say to an alcoholic:
1) “Keep drinking.”
2) “I’m leaving.”
3) “Get help by next Tuesday or I’m leaving.”
Let’s take a closer look at #3, which is setting limits and boundaries. Unfortunately, many people are not in a position to be making ultimatums. There might be things that are holding them back from doing so. Financial concerns, breaking the family apart, having no place to go–these are all things that might keep someone trapped in an unhealthy relationship. There are 2 steps to overcoming these types of fears that hold you back:
1) Build self-esteem
2) Find support (outside of the dysfunctional relationship)
If and when you decide to make the healthy decision to stop the madness, you will then have to determine exactly what is acceptable to you and what isn’t:
Decide on your boundaries and set limits
Decide what your limits are, then discuss them with the alcoholic. Your limit might not be “I’m leaving,” but rather “I’m not bailing you out of jail any more” or “I’m not going to be around you when you’re drunk” or something similar. Your limit is not a punitive consequence–instead, it is a limit you are imposing to save your own sanity. Don’t make it about them. It’s about you staying healthy. The limit you set should directly reduce the amount of chaos you have to experience due to their drinking.
Make your intentions clear, and be prepared to follow through with them. Don’t make threats that you don’t have full intention of carrying out if necessary.
Isn’t there some other way to change someone’s behavior?
No, there isn’t. Consider the following thought experiment: Say you enjoy taking walks in the park every day. The weather is nice, it’s good exercise, and you have plenty of extra time for these walks. But then someone in your life demands that you stop taking these daily walks. You resist. Conflict ensues. You think to yourself “I should be able to keep taking my walk every day if I want to!”
That is the exact same reaction that the alcoholic has when you tell them to stop drinking. “But,” you say, “Drinking is so bad for them, and it’s destroying their life! My walks are healthy for me!” That doesn’t matter. Just because you think you know what is best for someone doesn’t make a bit a difference. It all has to do with a little something called free will. You wouldn’t let someone else control you….so what makes you think you can control someone else?
Alcoholism is not logical. Therefore the alcoholic will not listen to reason. They will not hear your well planned arguments about why they should recover and live a better life. You can promise them the world and it won’t matter. They are trapped. They are stuck. They cannot hear your arguments.
Save yourself first and stop contributing to the cycle. More help here.