Helping an Alcoholic Girlfriend
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) impacts many women across the country. In 2019, 8% of women ages 18 to 25 and 4% of women overall met the criteria for an AUD.1 AUD can contribute to many problems and can impact your ability to function on many levels. Alcohol impacts women differently than men.
If you are concerned about your girlfriend’s drinking, seeking help early can lower the risk of many problems, including physical and mental challenges and relationship problems. It is important to know that help is available to both you and to her. Addiction can feel lonely and hopeless. Fortunately, there is hope, and you don’t have to go through this alone.
What Is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic brain disease, and recovering from an addiction is a complex process. It isn’t as simple as “just quitting.” AUD is defined as a medical disease that results in an inability to stop or control your alcohol use despite significant social, medical, or job problems it causes.2 Symptoms of AUD can range from mild to severe and are based on several factors, such as the amount of alcohol used, length of alcohol use, age, and other variables.
The symptoms of AUD can present in behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. Because of this, symptoms of AUD can negatively impact others around you. If you love someone who is struggling with an AUD, you understand that addiction doesn’t just affect the person struggling with the disorder, it impacts the entire family. The negative effects of addiction are far-reaching and don’t remain confined to the person with the AUD.
Does My Girlfriend Drink Too Much?
Only a licensed mental health professional or doctor can diagnose someone with an AUD. But if you think your girlfriend may have a problem with alcohol use, there are warning signs you can look out for. Mental health and addiction professionals use the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- 5th Edition (DSM-5), to diagnose the presence of AUD.
Some examples of the criteria used to make an AUD diagnosis include:2
- Drinking more alcohol than intended or for longer than intended.
- Cutting back on activities that were once pleasurable and replacing them with drinking or drinking-related activities.
- Continuing to drink alcohol despite it causing problems in relationships with friends or family.
- Getting into dangerous or risky situations because of drinking.
How to Approach an Alcoholic Partner
Loving someone struggling with AUD can leave you feeling confused and powerless. You may be left wondering how to approach your partner and what to say about your concerns. It can feel like you’re walking a tightrope, not wanting to say something that will offend your partner but at the same time feeling desperate to help.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recognizes the difficulty loved ones face in communicating their concerns and offers resources to help you start the conversation. First and foremost, your loved one may not be in the best headspace, so it is essential to wait until they’re sober to have a conversation.
Other suggestions from SAMHSA include:3
- Pick an appropriate time and place. The setting should be private and calm, and the conversation should be conducted when you and your loved one are in a relaxed headspace.
- Be direct and discuss your concerns from a place of caring and love. Be direct and gentle with your concerns, and check in with your loved ones by asking them how they are feeling.
- Actively listen to your loved ones and validate their feelings. Don’t blame or judge your loved ones for their feelings.
- Offer to help. Ask what you can do to help and offer assistance where needed.
- Be patient. Change takes time, so be sure to set your expectations accordingly.
Understanding effective and ineffective ways to talk to your loved one can be the difference between your loved one hearing your concerns or becoming defensive. Below are some strategies to help you be as effective as possible when communicating with your loved one about their addiction.
What to Say to Someone with Addiction
As previously stated, effective communication with your girlfriend involves being an active listener and validating. Validating is acknowledging your girlfriend’s truth, including her feelings and thoughts. You don’t necessarily have to agree or like what your loved one says to validate it. Don’t judge your loved one. If they feel judged, they can become defensive, which can impede communication and recovery.
Effective communication statements include:3
- “Can we talk? I’ve been concerned about you.”
- “It seems to me like you are struggling with some things. What can I do to help?”
- “I feel like you haven’t been your usual self lately. Do you want to tell me what’s going on? I’m here to help and listen”
- “I love you and care about you.”
- “How can I best support you right now?”
What Not to Say to Your Loved One
Common pitfalls that can impact your ability to effectively communicate with your partner about alcohol use can include lecturing and being critical or judgmental. Communicating with your partner doesn’t have to be critical, aggressive, or hostile. Effective communication includes strategies mentioned above, such as offering help and support and expressing concerns from a place of care and concern.4
Things to avoid when communicating with your partner about their alcohol use include:4
- Don’t be aggressive, hostile, or negative. Keep a calm demeanor and voice, don’t name-call or judge your loved one, and adopt a perspective of hope.
- Don’t be confrontational or blame your partner. Remember that words such as “alcoholics” and “drunk” can be harmful. Instead, use factual observations to describe concerning behaviors. For example, “I have noticed that you have been going to the bar instead of going to your yoga class.”
- Don’t lecture or criticize. Lecturing your partner about past mistakes or what could happen in the future can be triggering and counterproductive for your partner.
- Don’t enable your partner. Enabling refers to protecting your loved one from the negative consequences of their substance use.
Support for Partners of Alcoholics
Loving someone with AUD is challenging and can take a toll on your mental and physical health. That’s why you must practice self-care. It is tough to be a source of strength and support to your loved one if you’re exhausted.
Counseling and support groups, such as Al-Anon, SMART, and Recovery Family and Friends, can be a source of strength and support for you. Support groups can be a great resource for you to learn how to care for yourself and to learn effective coping strategies to help you effectively deal with your loved one.6 Support groups can also help you to healthily detach from your partner’s alcohol use and stop enabling behaviors.6
Enabling behaviors that protect your loved one from the consequences of their alcohol use can include:5
- Lying for them.
- Making excuses for their behavior.
- Paying their bills or other financial assistance.
Setting boundaries is the opposite of enabling and communicates to your girlfriend what your limits are around her behavior. Using “I” statements is effective in setting boundaries. Examples include:
- “I will not lie to your friends, family, or coworkers about your drinking any longer.”
- “I won’t bail you out of jail.”
- “I will not pay your rent anymore.”
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
There are many different treatment options available to your girlfriend, including:7
- Alcohol Detox: Short-term, medical supervision during withdrawal to keep your girlfriend safe and as comfortable as possible while preparing her for the next phase of treatment.
- Inpatient rehab: 24/7 supervision that focuses on strengthening sobriety and learning how to live in recovery. Length can range from short-term to long-term, depending on the facility and your partner’s recovery needs.
- Outpatient treatment: This is the least intensive form of treatment. You attend therapy and other treatment sessions on an outpatient basis while adhering to your daily responsibilities at home.
The best treatment setting for your girlfriend depends on many factors unique to her, such as the severity of her AUD, her insurance coverage, and her physical and mental health. If you have tried to encourage your girlfriend to get help and she has refused, you could try the CRAFT approach.
The Community-Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) approach is a strategy that family members use to help motivate their loved one to enter treatment through contingency management, life enrichment, communication skills training, and motivation building.8 The CRAFT approach works with the family to develop the skills necessary to effectively communicate and motivate the loved one to get the help they need and how to respond when they refuse.
How to Find Treatment for My Girlfriend with AUD
American Addiction Centers (AAC) has alcohol treatment facilities and programs throughout the country. AAC can help your girlfriend find a suitable treatment program and will work with her to create a treatment plan that is specific to her needs and recovery goals.
Help is available to you and your girlfriend. Call to speak with a trained and compassionate admissions navigator today. Our admissions navigators can help answer questions you may have about the treatment process and can even help verify your insurance coverage. You and your girlfriend deserve help and support. Call AAC today.