How Alcohol Destroys Relationships

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

Alcohol destroys relationships by causing the drinker to behave differently. Preoccupation with alcohol, and frequent intoxication, leads to: 

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Alcohol Abuse Leads To Reduced Quality Time

Excess alcohol consumption leads to reduced quality time spent with friends and family members.

Not only is the amount of time spent nurturing relationships reduced, but the quality of that time also deteriorates.

The quality of time is affected by:

Memory Loss

Alcohol abuse inevitably resuilts in some memory loss.

This lack of shared memories with loved ones ultimately leads to feelings of detachment[1].

Alcohol abuse numbs the user, leading them to feel disassociated from the people and things around them.

Avoiding Alcohol Contagion

Problem behaviours associated with alcohol abuse can become contagious to loved ones.

They may begin to avoid spending time with the one drinking, in order to protect themselves from also developing their loved one's addiction [2].

Self-Victimisation

In a relationship, playing the victim constantly allows the active alcohol addiction to continue unchallenged.

Playing the victim in everyday situations allows an alcoholic to reduce their responsibility for their addiction, or downplay their ability to get better.

Self-victimisation may manifest externally in behaviour such as increased aggression and agitation towards loved ones.

Personality Changes

As beliefs, underlying thinking patterns, and behaviours change to accommodate increasing alcoholism, the alcoholic can become a different person with increased tendencies for violence, disorderly conduct and risky behaviours, that can be off-putting for those close to the one drinking heavily [3].

Romantic partners are often left feeling guilty and responsible when their partner abuses alcohol.

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Transferred Responsibility

The partner of the alcoholic may feel they themselves have somehow caused the alcohol addiction, and engage in their own addiction treatment process [4].

This additional pressure that partners put on themselves to cure their partners' addiction puts excess strain on relationships, leading them to collapse eventually.

Co-Dependency

For those who drink heavily, alcohol can become such a focal point in their lives that they become co-dependent on those around them to fulfill daily needs, as the illness progresses.

A few signs of this would be relying on others to run errands for them and needing others to enable or facilitate their drinking, such as providing accommodation or transport [5].

Constant Drunkenness & Hangover

When somebody is in active alcohol use disorder, they will often find themselves in a perpetual state of either drunkenness or hangover.

Whilst drunkenness is associated with impulsiveness and lack of inhibition, the opposite is true for hangover.

These two extremes can become exhausting for those close to the user, and contribute to the conclusion that the drinker has become a different person.

Alcohol Abuse Leads To Secrecy

Those drinking excessively try to hide their alcohol-related activities [6], as a result of feelings of shame, guilt, or fear.

This, in turn, leads to a breakdown in honest communication between the person drinking and their loved ones.

This secrecy makes relationships, intended to be based on mutual trust, difficult to maintain.

Drinking + Secrecy + Relationship

Those who drink alcohol often engage in risky behaviours, and in extreme cases, this can lead to legal problems for the drinker, e.g. driving under the influence, which can lead to up to 6 months in prison in the UK.

All this is kept secret as they don't want the consequences of their behaviour to hurt their relationships.

Drinking heavily also bears a large financial burden. 

The average pint of beer in a UK pub is now £4.07, according to the British beer and Pub Association [17]. 

Meaning that drinking alcohol comes at the expense of other, more important things.

If children are involved, secrecy is especially prevalent and impactful. Instead of using the family budget towards helping children to go through school or to develop their own skills, the money goes towards alcohol [7].

The feelings of guilt this creates in the user often lead to a spiralling effect and a breakdown of their relationship with the child.

On top of this, drinking is correlated with expensive habits such as gambling and drug use.

The secondary financial problems this causes are then covered up by the user leading to more secrecy and furthering the spiral of negative behaviour [8].

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Alcohol Leads To Compromised Physical And Mental Health

Reduced Physical Ability To Tackle Basic Activities

Alcohol increases levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), resulting in a sharp decrease in physical capabilities [10].

Therefore those with a drinking problem may be unable to participate in activities they previously enjoyed, due to the physical exertion required.

This further isolates them, and depletes relationships, since simple activities like going for walks with family and friends become difficult.

Stress, Paranoia, And Anxiety Result In Personality Changes

Emotional adverse effects of alcohol abuse include increased stress, paranoia, and anxiety [11].

At this point, the drinker's personality has changed, and they are no longer the same person that entered the relationship initially.

As values, beliefs, and behaviours change to prioritise drinking, romantic partners become disaffected, and the mutual investment in the relationship decreases.

Reduced Sex Drive

Alcohol lowers sex drive of the user, which leads to romantic relationship problems.

The vaginal dryness and erectile dysfunction associated with heavy drinking lead to decreased sexual satisfaction and intimacy with partners [12].

Reduced Suppression Of Intense Emotions And Behaviours

Alcohol weakens brain mechanisms that normally restrain impulsive behaviours.

Although alcohol abuse is not the sole cause of domestic violence, it dramatically increases the frequency and severity of violent episodes [13].

This often results in relationship break down.

Alcohol Leads To Shifted Priorities

Prioritising Events Involving Drinking

Choosing alcohol over a relationship is one of the most common reasons for the increased resentment and eventual breakdown of a relationship.

Loved ones begin to resent feeling second best to the users' alcohol intake [14].

Participating only in events involving alcohol is noticed by partners and can strain relationships.

Those around the user will begin to conclude that the drinker is only present for the alcohol and not to spend time with them.

Missed Events

Those suffering from alcohol use disorder or drug addiction tend to miss important life events due to their addiction.

These events are missed due to the user being unable to drive whilst drunk, or as a side effect of the memory loss associated with alcohol.

Attending events such as weddings, funerals, birthdays etc, are essential for maintaining relationships, and this lack of availability eventually destroys relationships.

The increase in unreliability associated with alcohol can also put a strain on the users' relationship with their employers.

Prioritising drinking over personal responsibilities may lead to unemployment, as work is missed, or completed to a lower standard, due to a lack of motivation [15].

Further straining the family budget and, in turn, their relationship with their family.

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Alcohol Abuse Creates A Self-Sustaining Cycle That Destroys Relationships

Alcohol abuse creates a self-sustaining cycle of unhealthy behaviours that isolate users from those around them.

This isolation then leads to further substance abuse, exacerbating the issues and destroying both platonic and romantic relationships.

It also exacerbates many other issues in life that may not necessarily be caused by alcohol directly, but are made worse by its effects, leading to the destruction of relationships.

Alcohol abuse is the most common form of substance abuse in the UK [16].

Its prevalence has somewhat normalised the condition in modern culture, and leads those abusing alcohol not to enter treatment or find the right treatment for their condition.

The data rates in the UK show that a relationship is far more likely to end, when increased alcohol intake is present.

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Last Updated: January 18, 2023

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Peter also co-authored the new 6th edition of Drugs In Use by Linda Dodds, writing Chapter 15 on Alcohol Related Liver Disease. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.