We talk a lot about having a healthy relationship with alcohol. But what does a healthy relationship mean exactly?
Research shows that having positive relationships helps people live longer, healthier and happier lives.
When alcohol is in the picture, relationships can get tricky. People commonly use alcohol as a way of managing relationship issues, and on the flip side, alcohol use can affect their relationships. Another issue that crops up is that when people decide to reduce their drinking, they often notice their friendships and relationships go through changes too.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
Most relationships require a few things to keep them healthy. Psychologists John and Julie Gottman developed nine components of healthy relationships known as The Sound Relationship House Theory. There are 9 key factors that go into making a relationship healthy:
- Knowing one another’s world
- Sharing fondness and admiration
- Turning toward instead of away
- Having a positive perspective
- Managing conflict
- Making life dreams come true
- Create shared meaning.
A relationship becomes unhealthy when it continues to cause hurt and harm to yourself or someone else.
A relationship with alcohol is unhealthy when it affects:
- Your health: blackouts, mental health symptoms (e.g. depression, anxiety), physical health issues (e.g. liver damage)
- Your ability to make good decisions: finding yourself in risky situations
- Takes you away from your life: you find you’re choosing alcohol over spending time with loved ones, doing the things you enjoy
- Your ability to be in control and set boundaries: are you able to stop drinking for a period of time or would that be a challenge? Are you finding that you are depending on alcohol for things (e.g. to help you relax?)
Your relationship with alcohol
A large part of being able to reduce drinking and stay on track has to do with your own relationship with alcohol. When drinking has started to impact your life in a negative way, it is likely that you have developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Like with social relationships, alcohol may have started out as an exciting and enjoyable ‘friend’, but there is a point for everyone where they realise that it is ‘just not working out’, and something needs to change.
Alcohol affects your mood and judgement both during and after drinking. Because of this, you have less ability to focus on the things that are required to keep a relationship healthy.
There are so many parts of our brain and body that are affected by alcohol that end up causing havoc with our thinking and emotions. Alcohol is a depressant of our central nervous system, which means it makes nerve cells in the brain less excited, causing them to slow down. This slowing down gives us fewer resources to think and act clearly.
Because alcohol affects the frontal lobes in our brain (these are responsible for thinking and decision making), it has the potential to make a person more impulsive (i.e. not think through things before acting).
Some common issues that crop up in relationships can be things like shouting and being in a bad mood with others, an increase in arguments, and failing to do something that someone was counting on you to do. Often when someone has been drinking heavily and doing this for a long time, they can become more distant in relationships. Others may feel hurt or neglected by your behaviour. Sometimes there is greater conflict when one partner has a different relationship to alcohol than the other.
Alcohol affects our hormones and our emotions. We become more emotionally reactive because alcohol affects this part of the brain. This means when under the influence of alcohol, we are more likely to have emotional outbursts, be impulsive and do and say things we might regret later.
There is so much that can be done to improve a relationship, but even before beginning to do that, just reducing your drinking is a great start!
By reducing your drinking, you’ll be gaining some of the benefits like greater clarity of thinking, and better moods which can put you in a better state to deal with everything that comes your way.
No matter where you are with your drinking patterns, there is a way to create more healthy patterns. The truth is, there are many ways to break unhealthy drinking patterns. The most helpful approach is to find a range of supports, services and strategies to assist you to make changes. Building your support toolbox is part of the journey of change.
To start with, you can begin to be curious about your relationship with alcohol and how it is affecting your life. Take a look at our ‘Navigating Relationships’ Activity Sheet to see which areas of your life alcohol is causing problems for you.
Let’s think about what is more important to you than alcohol. It is common for people to face some specific decisions after they have decided to change their relationship with alcohol. At Hello Sunday Morning, we call these ‘values decisions’. For example, if someone decides that they are going to stop meeting their friends at the pub for a drink on weekends, they are making a decision to value their drinking reduction goals over their social activities for a while.
Values decisions are some of the most powerful decisions because they motivate us to change in a way that is deeply important to us. So what is most important to you? Let’s look at your values using a simple exercise in our Activity Sheet.
How to deal with relationship challenges
A common experience of long term heavy alcohol use, is when relationships suffer.
When drinking heavily, we are less likely to be emotionally available to others and can end up spending a lot of time dealing with the fallout that drinking has caused in our lives. The fallout could be things like:
- Managing the lousy physical symptoms and mood swings after a hangover
- Dealing with the stuff that was put off when drinking
- Getting caught up in ongoing arguments that happen as a result of drinking
Making a decision to change can also open you up to some unwanted sticky relationship challenges. Sometimes when alcohol is involved in social groups or friendships, drinking can become part of the culture of connecting with one another.
When someone has decided they no longer wish to drink alcohol, it can be difficult to know how to be around friends who drink. It is normal to feel uncomfortable about this change. Going against the grain of group culture can create the need for some difficult conversations.
Check out our Activity Sheet for some strategies on how to have difficult conversations with friends.
You also might want to spend some time thinking about your friendships in more detail. Which ones do you value? Which ones would you like to spend more time on? Check out our Activity Sheet for a chance to look at your friendships in more depth called ‘The Social Universe Activity’.
Parenting is one of the most rewarding and challenging tasks in life. But throw alcohol into the mix and it can become even more difficult if you’re also going through a lot of stress, and difficulties with your children.
It can be difficult to know when or just how drinking got out of hand but somewhere along the line, drinking can go from a glass or two of wine per day to take the edge off, to polishing off a whole bottle of wine or two, and feeling like you can’t get through the day without it. At some point, drinking alcohol becomes more of a reflex or habit than a choice.
For parents, realising you may have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol is particularly challenging because it can bring up guilt about how it may affect your children. Not being able to be totally present with your children due to being under the influence or recovering from a hangover can heighten feelings of guilt and sadness.
Making changes can also be especially difficult when there is a history of unhealthy relationships with alcohol in the family, or other things like conflict in the family as a result of a parent drinking.
When you have reached the point where you don’t like the way your drinking is affecting your children, this can be a great motivator to start making some changes. Take a look at the ‘Navigating Relationships’ Activity Sheet to think through how drinking affects your parenting.
Talk to your children
Depending on the age of your children, they will most likely notice your changes in mood and behaviour when you drink and when you don’t drink. At some point in your journey, when you feel comfortable enough in the decision you have made to start reducing your alcohol intake, it can be helpful to let them know that you are starting to make some changes. Older children will appreciate knowing that you are taking charge of your health and making steps to make a difference.Younger children may not need to know the details of what you are doing, but it can still be helpful for them to know that it’s okay to talk about mum or dad’s drinking if the subject comes up.
Set some structure
When alcohol takes over, a lot of other things can fall by the wayside, including house rules, chores and general ways of treating each other at home. You might want to sit down with your family and host a discussion about how you’d like to make some changes to the way things are done at home. You might also want to let them know about any new boundaries you’d like to set up.
Set aside time to play
Often arguments and conflict can be easier to resolve if there is a stronger bond between parents and children. Have a think about how you might spend some quality time with your children in a way that they most enjoy. Older children will have particular activities they enjoy doing and you might want to focus on doing some of those with them.
Get support from other people
There’s a great saying that goes along the lines of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. To a certain extent, this is true, and it is happening anyway. Children are influenced by other family members, their teachers, and later on their friends. Sometimes asking for extra support while you’re going through change can be helpful.
Here are a few suggestions to get you thinking about how you might support yourself as a parent:
- Stay connected with relatives and friends
- Identify people who can help when you’re not doing well
- Organise child-care or people to take care of your children for a while
- Enrol children in afterschool programs
- Make time for self care and find time for things you enjoy.
Most intimate partner relationships have their ups and downs. In fact, relationship counsellors will tell you that many couples will have very similar issues, they just need to be dealt with in different ways because we all respond in our own personal way to events that occur in life. When it comes to dealing with relationship concerns, it takes a bit of time to work out what is needed first, and for whom.
Alcohol can often be used by one or both partners to deal with issues that are coming up. Feelings of loneliness, frustration, anger and resentment can be overwhelming – and many people will find that alcohol helps them to temporarily cope with those feelings. This doesn’t work in the longer term, since those issues are still there tomorrow. Drinking only helps to delay those negative feelings.
If alcohol is fueling conflict in your relationship, there are some great tips to manage conflict. Because your feelings are heightened and your inhibitions have been reduced, it might be tempting to let rip on all the things that you have been feeling or call your partner out on the things that have been bothering you. This usually gets either of you nowhere. Instead, you might like to try some of these strategies:
- TALK SOBER: Talk the next day or when you are both sober. If you think your partner has drunk too much, speak to them when they are sober about it, rather than in the moment.
- TAKE CARE: Try not to criticise your partner when either you or your partner is drunk. Try to sober up if possible. Drink a coffee, eat something or drink some water and go to bed. Tell your partner that this is what you are going to do for them, or yourself.
- TAKE CHARGE: When you get a chance to talk, you might want to come to an agreement on what you are going to do when the other person is drunk. Having an agreed upon plan beforehand is helpful so that both of you know the drill and don’t have to try and make one when one of you is having trouble thinking straight. Include some sober activities into your plan (e.g. evenings out or in that don’t include drinking).
For many people, conflicts with their partners can arise when alcohol is involved. Alcohol reduces our inhibitions and makes us more likely to become emotional and volatile. While most conflicts need to be resolved, the best time to work on them would probably be during the day, with time, patience, and when sober.
- Heavy alcohol use can have a negative affect on your relationships
- There are many ways to start improving your relationship with alcohol and relationships with others
- Knowing what you value in life can help you in changing your relationship with alcohol.
Want to learn more?
Organisations and Services
- Relationships Australia – 1300 364 277
- Relationship Education courses(Couples and Family Counselling Service)
- 1800 Respect – 1800 737 732 (For concerns with family violence)
Books and Articles
There are lots of great books and articles offering help. We have selected a few to get you started:
- Dealing with Conflict – Article by Russ Harris
- 6 skills of conflict management – by Gottman Institute
- ACT with Love – Book by Russ Harris
- NonViolent communication – Book by Marshal B Rosenburg
- How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk – Book by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
- How to be Sober and Keep Your Friends : Tips, Hacks & Drinks – Book by Flic Everett
If reading this brings up tough stuff for you, please talk to a trusted family member, friend, GP or one of the services there to support you. You can find some of these contacts on our Get Help page. For additional support, we encourage you to follow the recommendations provided to you in your Personal Snapshot Report.