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"Do's" and "Don'ts" for Loved Ones

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” However, families whose loved ones abuse alcohol and drugs share in their unhappiness. They suffer as they watch changes occur through the disease. The person they love becomes enslaved by the addiction—lying, stealing, manipulating, denying, acting irrationally and frustrating the hell out of everybody. Healthy families rally around members in distress. But in families challenged by addiction the line between help and enabling is thin. In our misguided attempts to “help”, we can mistakenly support the addiction. We step in and rescue our loved ones by paying their bills, making excuses for them, or bailing them out of jail. Even when we recognize that we’re partners in this twisted tango, we keep the co-dependency dance going.

So how do we exit the dance floor and get on with our lives?

The National Council of Addiction and Drug Dependency provides information to family and friends of loved ones, including a list of “do’s and “don’ts” (

My husband abused alcohol and my adult son abused drugs. My efforts to “help” failed, but that didn’t stop me. I was convinced that I could fix both of them. My God suit fit me perfectly. If only they would obey my commands, everything would be just fine. It took a long time for me to come to terms with what I was doing wrong.

Don’t nag, preach, or lecture. I did my share of that. “Why can’t you stop this?” “Can’t you see that you’re destroying this family?” “I’m sick of your lying to me.” “You need to go back to those AA meetings.” “If only you’d just listen to me….”

Don’t use the “if you loved me” appeal. Just as loved ones try to manipulate us, I tried to manipulate my husband and son. “If you loved me, you wouldn’t steal money from my wallet.” “If you cared for me at all, you’d get home on time for dinner. Now it’s cold and I went to all of that trouble to prepare it.” “I’m heartbroken. How could you lie to your own mother?”

Don’t make idle threats. I did this over and over. “If you don’t stop this, I won’t let you live here anymore.” “If you drink and drive, I won’t lend you the car.” “If you continue to get drunk, I’m divorcing you.” More times than not, my husband recognized that I did not mean what I said. And more times than not I’d beat myself up for not following through. Learning how to “say what we mean and mean what we say” can be an ongoing challenge.

Don’t hide the liquor or dispose of it. I was never guilty of this. I never snooped around to find bottles or poured liquor down the drain. But when I discovered empty liquor bottles in my husband’s golf bag, I blew up and let him have it. Ditto when I found joints in my son’s bedroom.

Don’t be a martyr (even though you may feel like one.) Sometimes after a drinking episode, I’d give my husband the silent treatment. An Artic chill hung between us for several days. Then we’d thaw out, kiss and make up, until the next time. Depending on my mood, I’d either nag, plead, and preach or shut down and shut up. I also indulged in “pity parties” and compared my family to those happy ones who did not have to deal with all of this melodrama.

Don’t do for your loved one what he should do for himself. Of all the “don’ts", I believe this is the most difficult. When we enable, we prevent our loved ones from experiencing the consequences of their destructive behavior. We also deprive them of the opportunity to build their self-confidence when they face and solve their own problems.

Don’t expect an immediate 100% recovery. Relapse is part of the disease. After successfully completing a treatment program, my husband relapsed quickly. He managed to control his drinking and functioned for many years—never lost his job or the love and support of his family and friends. He wasn’t a nasty or abusive drunk. Rather he retreated into an alcoholic fog. Silent and unresponsive. Eventually, the alcohol took over completely. My husband lost hope and committed suicide. My son has had an up and down recovery journey. In and out of rehab, in and out of psychiatric treatment, in and out a desire to change and a fear of withdrawal. A complicated roller coaster ride.

Some Do's. Loved ones can do much to support recovery. They can learn about alcoholism and drug dependence, speak up and offer help, express love and concern, recognize that someone cannot stop without help, and support recovery as ongoing. Even if your loved one isn’t ready to quit, let him know that you believe he has the capability to recover.

Finally, loved ones may decide to detach. There’s no shame in this. If your health is suffering, if your boundaries are continually broken, or if your safety is threatened, you may decide let go. A very difficult decision. Whether you decide to hang in or let go, it’s essential that you seek help and take care of yourself. Leave a space in your heart for compassion and never lose hope.

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