Approaching a family member or friend struggling with alcoholism can be a delicate situation. It’s difficult to know how to respond when your loved one has lost the ability to control their drinking, or their excessive alcohol use has transformed them into an entirely different person. As much as you may want to help them, you may fear causing a rift in your relationship by calling attention to the elephant in the room. However, it’s crucial that you address your loved one’s drinking problem – for their sake as well as your own.
While communicating with your loved one is necessary, this talk can easily turn sour if you become visibly upset or judgmental. Knowing how to approach this conversation tactfully can help you strengthen your connection with your loved one in the long run – and potentially save their life. Here are five ways that demonstrate how to respectfully talk to an alcoholic:
“I’ve noticed that you used to do X, and now you do Y.”
It’s critical that your loved one realizes that their behavior has changed. They may have already noticed differences in their actions or thought patterns. Having their suspicions confirmed by someone they trust may provide the push they need to seek help. Be honest, but choose your words carefully to avoid causing your loved one to become defensive. Blunt statements, such as “you’ve changed” or “your drinking is out of control,” can be interpreted as an attack on their character, even if they hold some truth. This “tough love” approach may seem like the most effective option to motivate them to become sober, but it can also push your loved one away. To keep the conversation productive, avoid guilting or shaming your loved one with sweeping accusations.
Instead, calmly call their attention to what you’ve observed by noting shifts in the other person’s actions, using specific examples. For example, you can say something like, “I’ve noticed that you used to love playing basketball with your friends, but now you spend more time on your own.” Because the topic is still a sensitive one, your loved one may become agitated or dismissive anyway, but a point like this is harder for them to debate or ignore. Soon enough, they may recognize that they need to start working on themselves.
“When you do Y, I’m concerned about your safety.”
During this conversation, you should voice your concerns by showing your loved one how their alcoholism has impacted others. However, simply telling them you’re worried about their alcohol consumption may not produce real change. And if you enter full panic mode while you share your thoughts, they may shut down completely because drinking is the norm for them. As distressing as a loved one’s addiction can be, remember to keep matters in perspective, maintain your composure, and avoid catastrophizing.
Your loved one is less likely to brush off your apprehensions if you can draw from concrete instances where their behavior has affected you. By telling them that you’re concerned for their well-being – when they isolate themselves or stay out late partying, for example – they may start to better appreciate the harmful impact of their drinking.
“When you drink, we can’t ____”
Sometimes, setting boundaries for yourself can be one way for an alcoholic to reconsider their drinking and get help. What you say doesn’t need to follow the exact format above; it will be different for each person and relationship. For example, you might tell them, “If you continue drinking, I’d rather not go out to dinner together.” You are not forcing them to completely give up alcohol, but you are letting them know you’d prefer to stay home if they are going to become intoxicated at a restaurant.
Hopefully, this helps your loved one realize what’s at stake if they keep drinking. It might feel very uncomfortable to set boundaries, especially if this is your first time, but keep in mind you are doing it for yourself! You can’t force someone to quit drinking if they are not ready, but you shouldn’t make excuses for their behavior or enable them either. Establishing boundaries can be done in a kind, direct way and make an alcoholic realize that their drinking habits are affecting other people around them besides themselves.
“How can I help you get through this?”
Your loved one will feel more prepared to begin the recovery process when they have a support system rooting for their success. You can recommend different treatment programs and help them explore their options, but only your addicted loved one can make the decision to go to rehab. By posing the above question to them, you are acknowledging that they are capable of reclaiming their life, but you will still be there for them in their time of need. By asking your loved one for their feedback, you avoid passing judgment and instead show them that you respect their choices.
“I’ll be here to support you when you’re ready.”
If your loved one claims that they don’t know how you can help them, they may still be in denial about their alcoholism. Don’t force the issue if you’ve already approached the issue several times. Hopefully, they will be open to change after some time has passed, or after multiple people have commented on their drinking.
There is a possibility that they will never choose to pursue sobriety, but you shouldn’t fixate on matters that are out of your control. Focusing excessively on someone else’s troubles can harm your physical, mental, and emotional well-being over time, so it’s important to put your own needs first. By telling your loved one that you are available to assist them when they decide to stop drinking, you are letting them know that you will have their back, but you may also need to distance yourself from them – for your own sake – until they decide to take action.
When a loved one struggles with addiction, finding the right words to say can be challenging, but silence will not improve the situation. In order to truly help your friend, partner, or family member, you need to voice your concerns with honesty and empathy. By keeping the conversation as simple as possible and reminding them that you genuinely care for their well-being, you can provide your loved one with the motivation and support they need to build a fulfilling life in recovery.