Spouses of Alcoholics Benefit From Online Help

Online Involvement Reduces Stress, Anger

Woman with Laptop
Online Support Can Help Spouses. © Getty Images

An estimated 7.7 million adults in the United States are currently living with a spouse or partner with a severe alcohol use disorder, which often causes them a great amount of emotional and psychological distress.

As love ones deal with living with someone who is progressing into greater depths of alcoholism, they are often affected by the experience in ways that they may not even realize.

On one hand, when someone with an alcohol use disorder finally decides to seek help, their is a vast array of treatment options and programs readily available to them, most of which are covered by their medical insurance plans.

On the other hand, if their love ones, who have been psychologically affected by the experience, seek help, they may find their options limited. They might seek professional counseling, but specialized help specifically for partners of alcoholics is not widely available, and insurance coverage for such treatment can be limited.

There are other barriers that can stand in the way of a spouse seeking help because their partner is alcoholic. The stigma attached to admitting to someone outside the family that there is an alcohol problem can cause a family member to hesitate before reaching out for help.

Also, there can be the fear of retribution from the alcoholic if outside help is sought and the resulting turmoil it will cause in the family. Many spouses of alcoholics who do seek help feel that they have to keep it secret from their partners or face consequences.

Internet Coping Skills Training

Because of these and other barriers to seeking help exist for the families of alcoholics, researchers at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) developed an online coping skills training program aimed at those who might otherwise be reluctant to reach out for help.

The self-pace Internet program included narrated instruction, animated presentations, and video dramatizations demonstrating the most effective ways to deal with problems that arise due to the partner's drinking.

The program also provided "coaches" - certified counselors - who were available to the participants via computer chat or telephone.

Spouses Have Needs Too

The RIA researchers tested the program with a group of 89 women who were currently living with an alcoholic. They were divided into two groups, one that participated in the 8-week Internet coping skills training program and another control group for whom treatment was delayed for 8 weeks.

According to the study's lead author, Robert G. Rychtarik, PhD, the goal of the program was to help the women learn to "focus on their own needs, reduce stress, and talk to their partners in a more effective way."

Less Stress, Less Anger

The study found that women who took the 8-week training program:

  • Exhibited a significantly higher level of coping skills
  • Reported significantly few depressive symptoms
  • Reported less situational anger

The RIA researchers are seeking funding to evaluate the Internet coping skills training program on a larger scale.

They also are trying to determine the best way to provide access to the program, when it becomes available to the public. The options Rychtarik and his colleagues are looking at include: social services agencies, treatment programs or health care providers - or as a "standalone for women to access themselves."

Online Support Works for Families

The fact that online support programs are a popular and effective way of helping family members of alcoholics comes as no surprise to those who are involved in online Al-Anon Family Groups. The Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee, that maintains a website which lists available online Al-Anon meetings, has been helping families members deal with alcoholism since January 1998.

Thousands visits the Online Al-Anon website each week looking for help with dealing with an alcoholic loved one. They find a list of email meetings and live chat meetings where they can learn coping skills and reduce stress and anger by participating in meetings where other members share their experience, strength and hope.

Some of the visitors to the website are already members of Al-Anon who are looking for online meetings to supplement their recovery program. However, the vast majority of the site's visitors are newcomers, reaching out for help for the first time.

Online Al-Anon Helps Families

Many times, for newcomers to online Al-Anon, finding out that they are not alone and finding someone else they can talk with about their situation - without stigmatization - greatly reduces the stress involved in living with an alcoholic.

Some of the online Al-Anon meetings listed on the Online Al-Anon Outreach website have been active since the early 1990s. Many of the meetings have hundreds, if not thousands, of active members.

Online Al-Anon meetings, as well as regular, face-to-face Al-Anon Family Groups meetings, are free and require no insurance coverage.

Full Disclosure: BuddyT, the About.com expert on Alcoholism, is also a founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee, and the webmaster of the group's website. BuddyT is also administrator for StepChat.com, one of the oldest and most active online chat meeting sites on the Internet.

Source: Rychtarik RG, et al "Web-Based Coping Skills Training for Women Whose Partner Has a Drinking Problem." Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 27 October 2014.

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