I often say to clients that problematic drinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Problematic drinking usually affects most areas of a person’s life, from work obligations, to family responsibilities, to recreational activities and personal care. If you have a spouse, friend or family member who wants to stop drinking or just drink less and move to a moderate drinking lifestyle, it can be helpful to know how you can support them – subtly and overtly.
A high percentage of heavy drinkers are not encouraged by loved ones to reduce their drinking. Talking about your concerns about the drinking habits of your spouse, family member, friend or co-worker seems to break a social taboo. This can reinforce the sometimes-secretive behaviour of heavy drinking socially or when alone. So what can you do?
You can begin by opening communication. Plan what you want to say, then find a safe, nonthreatening environment where you can voice your concerns privately at an appropriate time.
Some ways to break the ice could include:
“Are you concerned about your drinking?”
“You seem to be drinking more recently. Is everything alright?”
Avoid the use of guilt, bribery or threats to encourage change. Instead, use “I” messages to share how you feel and the objective concerns you have.
For example, you might say:
“I felt upset when you cancelled our coffee date because you were hungover.”
“I was looking forward to going to the mall with you and I felt disappointed when you stayed at the bar.”
“You were confrontational when you were drinking and I felt scared.”
This warm and honest approach can also provide an opportunity to encourage your loved one to explore the meaning of their drinking- they might experience anxiety, depression, another mental health issue, or have challenges with managing stress. Gently ask if there could be a cause that supports their drinking habit to open up the communication and show your genuine concern. Offer to help.
It is not your responsibility to change your loved one’s behaviour, and at the same time, supporting their change to drink less or stop drinking might take an emotional toll on you. Social, emotional and informational supports can be helpful sources of strength and encouragement. Social and emotional supports might include family and close friends, or even co-workers with whom you feel a sense of love, belonging and connection. Informational resources can include professional agencies or individuals who provide resources and support programs. Online therapy can be an indispensable emotional support that provides a safe space to voice your concerns. Support groups and online communities can also provide a forum for sharing information and helpful tips.
Avoid drinking alcohol around a loved one who is trying to drink less or stop drinking. Storing alcohol in difficult-to-access areas and removing alcohol from the home are other strategies that can help reduce drinking and exposure to alcohol triggers. Stock up the refrigerator with non-alcohol beverages. Including non-alcohol beer and cider can help to ease the transition and normalize sobriety for the individual who is trying to drink less. Just like decaffeinated coffee, the only differences between zero-alcohol and regular alcohol beverages are how your body reacts (the physiological changes that happen to everyone), and the subjective experience (your evaluation of the body’s reaction).
One way you can support a loved one to drink less in a social setting is to order water once you are seated in a restaurant. Where it’s available, ask to have a pitcher of water on the table. You can also ask to have the wine list or drink menu withheld and try to avoid drinking alcohol yourself to normalize being social without alcohol. In the beginning stages of drinking less, you can support your loved one by opting out of some group social events like work parties or other celebrations. As they become more comfortable and you attend parties together, have a dry night or bring a non-alcohol option. If you are supporting a work colleague to stop drinking, suggest to have meetings during the daytime hours when alcohol is not typically served, and hold meetings in coffee shops or other establishments where alcohol isn’t available.
As your loved one begins to make changes to their drinking habit, it can be helpful to remind yourself that long term change will come from their use of new habits in their everyday life. Try not to take on all of your loved one’s responsibilities so that they can learn how to manage tasks and face any arising stress with their new coping skills. You might feel compelled to provide financial support, however this can be a slippery slope that leads to enabling behaviours. Set boundaries on tangible supports like financial help, such as offering to help with treatment costs, or with a caveat that you must be repaid within agreed upon terms.
ALAViDA has a special program from those who are supporting a loved one to stop drinking or reduce their drinking. The Help A Loved One, or HALO Program, provides evidence-based support to help you as your loved one struggles with alcohol. This program is designed to help families heal by teaching skills to support your loved one undergoing treatment. Progress is amplified when there are positive supports. We’d love to join your team.
[Editor’s Note: The author of this post is a content contributor to Alavida, and this contributor was paid for their writing. The opinions, views, results and experiences are theirs alone.]
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Ashley Greensmyth is a Registered Clinical Counsellor. She completed a Masters of Counselling Psychology at Adler University Vancouver Campus and has completed Level 1 of Gottman Method for Couples Therapy. Her therapeutic approach integrates psychodynamic principles with mindfulness and cognitive-behavioural interventions.