Unhealthy Roles in Alcoholic Families

January 4th, 2011

In Practical Help for Families of Alcoholics we looked at how alcoholism is a family illness that needs us to change our behaviour to assist the alcoholic in beginning to accept treatment and recovery.  In this article we look at the unhealthy roles that we can play in alcoholic families and how these can ‘enable’ the alcoholic to continue drinking.

It’s paramount to realise that unless we change our behaviour there’s very little chance that the alcoholic will have some form of ‘spontaneous insight’ and make the necessary recovery changes by themselves. When we make healthier choices and begin behaving differently we put the patient into a position of having to accept responsibility for their illness and accept rehab at one of the many quality alcoholism treatment centres. 

These “roles” are generally not as defined or extreme as they are described here. The non-drinking partner may fit into one of these roles, or may swap roles intermittently. All of the roles encourage the alcoholic to continue drinking. For simplicity we’ve chosen a common gender set below and this isn’t meant to reflect codependent enabling as a solely female role.

The Role of Rescuer

The “rescuer” does not allow incidents to become “problems.” She cares for the alcoholic, cleans him up, and puts him into bed. She never mentions any of the incidents to him or anyone else. If it is spoken of, she denies that there is a problem. She lies for him, hides his mistakes, and protects him from everyone. As the problems increase and his drinking worsens, she assumes his responsibilities. She works out ways to make ends meet and should he be in trouble with the law, she somehow comes up with his bail.

Codependent enabling partners will lie to other family members and employers in an attempt to cover up for the alcoholic, she’ll do all she can to alleviate the negative consequences of his drinking.

The Role of Provoker

The “provoker” punishes the alcoholic for his behaviour by berating, ridiculing, and belittling him. She nags and insults him in company. She complains about him to her friends. She lets everyone know how angry she is with him.  Alternatively she gives him the silent treatment. She threatens to leave and her anger and resentment builds up with each new incident. She doesn’t allow him to forget his wrongful behaviour and she bears a grudge, forever throwing it in his face.

The Role of Martyr

The “martyr” is ashamed of the alcoholic and tells him by her actions or words. She sulks and withdraws. She either tearfully tells her friends about her misery caused by him or she evades her friends and tells them nothing at all. She becomes depressed and passively tries to make him feel guilty. Although she may not say much to the alcoholic, he knows by her actions that she is ashamed of him.

Enabling the Alcoholic

The “rescuer” is easily recognised as an enabler. She is enabling him by not permitting him to face the consequences of his actions. He never has to admit that he has a drinking problem because she is always protecting him. He never feels the pain of his alcoholic behaviour and so why would he want to stop drinking?

However, the provoker and the martyr also enable the alcoholic because their negative responses to his behavior allow him to concentrate on their responses rather than his behavior. Both of their actions manipulate him with guilt. As an alcoholic, his reaction will not be to take responsibility, but to try to flee straight to the bottle. An interesting benefit for the codependent enabler is that whilst they’re so busily focused on the alcoholic they don’t really have to pay themselves all that much attention.

A Healthier Reaction to the Alcoholic’s Behaviour

The best way to react to a drunken situation is to not protect the alcoholic from the negative consequences of their drinking and behaviour. Naturally should the alcoholics drinking place them in a dangerous situation it would be helpful to do all you can to minimise the potential for damage. It is best not to allow someone else’s inappropriate behavior to incite your own inappropriate behavior, so overreacting and adding fuel to the fire isn’t wise.

However acting as though nothing has happened is not OK either, something did very much happen! Waiting until he’s sober and disusing what took place may be appropriate. This will allow him the chance to face his behavior, some of which he may not even remember.

Any embarrassment or shame resulting from his behaviour belongs to him. His behavior is the problem, not anyone’s reaction to it. Allowing the alcoholic to feel the full consequences of their behaviour and not alleviating the negative effects of their drinking is important, let them face their pain and shame.
It’s often assumed that only once the pain is strong enough, that when the alcoholic asks for help, then treatment will be effective, this is entirely untrue….

Most alcoholics are pressured, forced, cajoled into treatment by family and friends and this external pressure can actually assist in the patient staying in rehab and getting well, so don’t think that unless they say they’re ready and want help that alcohol rehab will not work, it does!

Once the patient is in a suitable alcohol rehabilitation facility beginning to defocus from the alcoholic madness and taking care of the family is an important shift. Helping the other family members to practice a healthy detachment by not being drawn into his alcoholic problems and learning to continue their lives is best.

The addiction treatment consultants at wedorecover.com can help you to devise the best stance to adopt to help a person with drug addiction or alcoholism.

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