The Alcoholic's Mindset and Effect on Family Members

Drinkers do not understand the impact of their behavior

Woman at window
Compassion Is Slowly Killed Off by Pain. © Getty Images

If you are a friend or family member of an out-of-control drinker, you might be searching for ways to better understand the alcoholic's mindset. It can be challenging not to internalize the drinker's hurtful behaviors, but the reality is that alcoholics have no idea how their drunken actions affect their loved ones.

Use this overview to get a concise portrait of an alcoholic and to improve your responses during your interactions with a drinker.

This may mean setting ground rules and joining a support group such as Al-Anon, designed specifically to meet the needs of families of alcoholics.

Support Groups for Family Members

Women and men married to alcoholics openly weep during support groups about the pain of loving someone who is slowly committing suicide by drinking. These men and women feel helpless as alcoholics not only hurt themselves but destroy their marriages and families in the process. As the alcoholic self destructs, spouses gradually lose the ability to feel compassion towards the drinker. Many feel they their efforts to help the alcoholic have been carried out in vain. While it's understandable that loved ones of alcoholics increasingly feel less empathy for them, it's also important to understand how the alcoholic brain works.

Alcoholics Are Essentially Brain Damaged

Alcoholics have no conception of the depth and breadth of the pain their drunken behavior inflicts upon those who love them.

How can they? Their cognitive abilities are impaired; in essence, when drunk, they are brain damaged.

In fact, their thinking ability, emotional stability, and mental capacity are all adversely affected to such a degree that most bonafide treatment facilities will not even entertain the idea of hiring a recovering alcoholic without at least two, preferably three years of being continuously and completely sober.

And that's no guarantee they've found sobriety.

Anger, Rage, and Fear

Sure, high-functioning drunks who are quiet, peaceful, and drift off into semi-consciousness do exist. Sharing space with them is like being with the living dead, but at least they're quiet. More often than not, however, drunks find some way to be abusive or even to terrorize their families. After a while, this leads the sober spouse to feel anger, rage, and fear rather than compassion for the drinker.

The Spouse as the Enemy

To the alcoholic, their sober spouse is the enemy. Those who are not drunks by nature are a threat to the alcoholic's lifestyle. By attending Al-Anon, "the enemy" has made it difficult for the alcoholic's denial to continue. Somehow, even after alcoholics stop drinking, that enemy mindset continues. 

Al-Anon meetings have humorous moments as well, but it's wry and often dark. Family members mostly laugh at themselves for how addled their thinking becomes as they try to maintain a sense of normalcy.

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