Exclusive: The Unseen Holocaust of Alcoholism

Alcoholic’s/Addict’s Behavioral Effects on the Family


By Carol Duff, MSN, BA, RN

Editor’s note:  Military and veteran families are among those most victimized by addiction issues.  VT decided that the material “out there” was wrong.  Every day we deal with this issue, every third person we meet carries scars, open wounds.

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Up to forty percent of Americans are not living their own lives. They have been programmed though trauma sometimes beginning in early childhood, their experiences, their imprinting, their life with a drunk parent or spouse or child.

What we are addressing here is the insidious threat this represents as the addiction industry profits from coddling and yes exploiting as well, the addict, the drunk, the abuser, the user, the narcissist, the sociopath, all just words, but it is more than words.

The article addresses the nonalcoholic/nonaddict who finds him or herself in a partnership/family with an alcoholic/addict. This article does not offer help methods to deal with the alcoholic/addict in the family.  The author wishes to offer insight and empowerment to the nonalcoholic/nonaddict (adult child/spouse) partner in a codependency relationship.

Anyone involved in a relationship with a narcissist (typically the pattern for an alcoholic/addict) will find himself or herself without an independent existence. 

You may see a description of yourself in this article, but please also recognize that you can change how you chose to deal with an alcoholic/addict and that more importantly you are only responsible for YOU.

For the purpose of this informative article, the definition of the concept of co-dependency is as follows: “Co-dependency is an emotional, behavioral, psychological condition that develops when an individual is exposed to/practice of a set of oppressive rules which prevent the expression of feelings as well as the direct discussion of interpersonal and personal problems. Co-dependency is the self-defeating, learned behaviors or character defects that result in the diminished capacity to initiate or participate in a loving relationship” (Beattie, 1992).

What you will find and which exacerbates the codependency problem is when and if you (nonalcoholic/nonaddict spouse) reach the revelation of your codependency relationship, and its impact on your life. The huge drawback is that everyone who has a relationship with the alcoholic/addict (other family members, your children, aunts, uncles, and even a widowed mother) may hold onto the codependency relationship with a death grip and may turn on you.  Any treatment program involves accepting that moving on to a productive life may well mean abandoning those around you.

Forinstance, if alcoholics were terrorist kidnappers, there could be solace in following codependency relationships such as in the Stockholm syndrome, to keep immediate life on an even keel.  The manipulative abusive parent is the one who always has the power, controls all holidays and get-togethers and has spent a life time making sure that those around him or her will focus their lives/efforts on his or her needs while the alcoholic/addict formulates a complex set of systems of denial.

With extended family relationships, alcoholic codependency can not only flow down to spouses, siblings, then children and so on, but also climb up the age ladder as well.  So often it is the alcoholic or sexually abusive son- in- law that becomes the light of his mother- in- law’s eye. When the divorce comes, and be assured it will or should always come in these relationships, the dangling codependent mother- in- law, time after time is quick to turn on her own child.  What in many cases predisposes this and the infectious aspect of alcohol/drug dependency in a relationship is that when there is not a full-blown codependency relationship in place, often as not the seeds have been planted throughout subsequent generations.


After all, when America for the most part embraced Prohibition in 1919 there was more behind this law than simply women’s rights and Christian values.  In the earliest day of sociology as a study, there was a realization that families and alcohol could never coexist.  However, it took the flapper era and later the social realignments of WWII when millions had been going off to war, and massive urban migration, with women entering the industrial work place in the tens of millions, that brought alcoholism to the distinction as a disease that crossed gender lines in the mainstream.

Still, the old traditions and the images of Carrie Nation have carried forward nearly a century. The rules for men and women in America are quite different and the vast majority of the alcohol/drug related family meltdowns are still driven by social norms established long ago when factory workers would cash their pay checks at the corner bar and the family would go without food for the next week.

Where use of alcohol has declined, social drugs of the 1970s onward, initially brought into the mainstream as part of a cultural rebellion, have led to generations of substance addiction, too often justified by the addict as treatment for a real or imagined problem.  Whether it is due to chronic pain, depression, stress or simply boredom the addict is driven by the desire to take drugs. Alcohol is a drug, just not as strictly regulated.  Smoking a joint in college, these decades later, for some has led to a national epidemic of opioid abuse and endless cocktail mixes of designer drugs as well.

Special Cases, Above the Law

The medical community is the worst policed, worst regulated, and most pampered of the high risk, high abuse groups that are identified.  For physicians, it is typically the abuse of stimulants, Ritalin or dexamphetamine, passed out like candy, from medical school to residency and beyond.  Medical associations, oversight boards, group partnerships and local law enforcement have for generations given drug addled medical professionals a pass until that day when they kill the wrong patient or the DEA kicks down their door. Only when getting caught for selling opioid prescriptions will the law be eventually obligated to step in and remove the medical license from the doctor.

The last four American presidents and vice presidents, have histories of illegal drug use with the 43rd president having a long history of addiction to drugs and alcohol.  What is important to examine here are the dynamics which destroy a family such as the patterns of control, abuse and interdependency can be duplicated in an office, hospital, or even at national levels where the selfish and extreme behaviors of the empowered narcissist can do untold damage and touch the lives of millions.

Cascading Disaster

You can see how far this can go.  How in every family there are the addicts, interdependency, and codependency patterns of abuse and what the failure to deal with these individuals has done to our culture.  In an alcoholic family system, a codependent spouse or child receives all his or her self-worth and value from the alcoholic.

Sharing a life with an alcoholic/addict (substance misuse) WILL cause harmful effects that can last a lifetime. According to U. S. Department of Health and Human Services and SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration) National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, seventy-six million American adults have been exposed to alcoholism in the family. Alcoholism is responsible for more family problems than any other single cause. According to Silverstein (1990), one of every four families has problems with alcohol. Can I say this again? Alcohol/drug abuse do have a negative impact on the structure and functions of the family.

Family and marital problems often begin because of alcoholism/addiction.  Spouses and children may contribute to the drinker’s/addict’s addiction and by doing so make it worse.  Sometimes heavy drinking/drug use is allowed to continue in order to keep the family together with denial of the issue becoming an essential problem for alcoholics/addicts and family members alike.

Family members use denial to rationalize the drinker’s alcohol dependency because they love the alcoholic and want to protect their family structure. The family may cover up drug addiction.  Eventually matters become so serious that the alcoholic’s/addict’s behaviors cannot be overlooked and the process of denial becomes very negative for family members. Repeated trips to jail for vehicular accidents while driving under the influence of alcohol eventually lead to some type of ultimatum being given to the alcoholic.  Perhaps it is in the form of going to an alcohol/drug rehab facility for month, giving up a driver’s/professional license, to avoid prison time. Hopefully no one has been hurt or killed while the alcoholic continues to drive while impaired.

Examining Codependency Patterns

Let us now understand the concept of codependency, which is an unconscious addiction to another person’s abnormal behavior (Wekesser, 1994, p.168). Codependency is a family illness.   Unwittingly, codependent family members will become “enablers.”  An enabler is “a person who unknowingly helps the alcoholic to get out of troubles caused by drinking” (Silverstein, 1990, p.65). The family may do everything they can to hide the problem, hence forgetting about their own desires and needs.  If the alcoholic stops drinking for periods of time, family members will grasp at this as a sign that the problem can be solved.

Outsiders may not suspect that there is a problem or if the alcoholic frequently exhibits erratic behaviors, the family may isolate themselves from friends to preserve family prestige and desire to look like a regular family.

The spouse and children may avoid making friends and bringing other people home, in order to hide problems caused by alcoholism. Family members may become emotional hostages.

A healthy relationship with another requires some form of codependency where both parties look out for the other. To have a relationship with an alcoholic/addict the nonalcoholic/nonaddict will have to become a codependent, in short you depend on that person to relate to you and he or she on you. It is only when you become too dependent on someone, and they on you, that it becomes unhealthy (the-alcoholism-guide.org, 2017). If you are making excuses for behaviors that are erratic, harmful, unhealthy, then you are being an enabler.  The relationship between an alcoholic/addict and the person who is placed into the codependent care giver role is never healthy for the nonalcoholic/addict half of the duo.

Behavioral traits that indicate codependency in relationships include:

Denial Patterns:

  • I have difficulty identifying what I am feeling.
  • I minimize, alter or deny how I truly feel.
  • I perceive myself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the wellbeing of others.

Low Self-Esteem Patterns:

  • I have difficulty making decisions.
  • I judge everything I think, say or do harshly, as never ‘good enough’.
  • I am embarrassed to receive recognition and praise or gifts.
  • I do not ask others to meet my needs or desires.
  • I value others’ approval of my thinking, feelings and behavior over my own.
  • I do not perceive myself as a lovable or worthwhile person.

Compliance Patterns:

  • I compromise my own values and integrity to avoid rejection or others’ anger.
  • I am very sensitive to how others are feeling and feel the same.
  • I am extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long.
  • I value others’ opinions and feelings more than my own and am afraid to express differing opinions and feelings of my own.
  • I put aside my own interests and hobbies in order to do what others want.
  • I accept sex when I want love.

Control Patterns:

  • I believe most other people are incapable of taking care of themselves.
  • I attempt to convince others of what they ‘should’ think and how they ‘truly’ feel.
  • I become resentful when others will not let me help them.
  • I freely offer others advice and directions without being asked.
  • I use sex to gain approval and acceptance.
  • I have to be ‘needed’ in order to have a relationship with others.

Children of an Alcoholic/Addict

Alcoholism/addiction of a parent will have severe effects on his or her children.  Children of an alcoholic (COAs) will have feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, feel lonely, fear abandonment, and have chronic depression (Berger,1993).  These children may even feel responsible for the alcoholic’s problems or think they have created the problem.

COAs may develop high levels of stress and tension and may isolate themselves from friends and become fearful of going to school. Bedwetting, crying, and frequent nightmares, seeking perfection and overachieving in school or failing classes may be a part of their world.

Seeking isolation, hoarding, obsessive perfectionism, and being excessively self-conscious with a poor self-image, problems in school, and an inability to express his or herself describes the typical behavior patterns exhibited by an older child of an alcoholic.

A United States government survey, “Exposure to Alcoholism in the Family”, shows that 30 percent of young women who didn’t complete high school and only 20 percent of males from an alcoholic family went to college (Berger, 1993, p.75). Behavioral problems such as fighting, truancy, lying and stealing are common COA behaviors.   Some COAs have such behavioral problems as lying, stealing, fighting, and truancy. Because they are unable to predict their parent’s mood, they don’t know how to behave themselves. “Children of alcoholics are people who have been robbed of their childhood” (Silverstein, 1990, p.75).

Adult Children of an Alcoholic (ACOAs)

Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) may have problems of depression, aggression, impulsive behavior, difficulty in establishing healthy relationships with others.  They often make poor parents themselves, making poor career choices, typically harboring feelings of failure and worthlessness, have problems with family responsibility, and have a negative self-image that they do not relate to being raised by an alcoholic parent (Berger, 1993, p.67). AOCAs may have problems with intimacy because they have been taught to not trust people, and believe if they love someone, that person will hurt them in the future.

Pay attention to this word “intimacy.”  This often misused term describes the difference between a full and empty life or what is often described as the difference between a house and a home. We will be touching on this and other aspects of intimacy as we go along.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), one in every five adult Americans resided with a relative who abused alcohol in their adolescence and have a greater chance of having emotional troubles compared to those children who grew up in sober homes. Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to abuse alcohol themselves.

Effects on the Spouse/Partner/Significant Other

Let us move on to discuss what deleterious effect an alcoholic has on his or her spouse.  The husband or wife may experience feelings of self-pity and hatred, avoid social contacts, and become mentally or physically ill (Berger, 1993). Very often the nonalcoholic spouse must perform the roles of both parents. Due to the increased amount of responsibility, the nonalcoholic parent may become demanding, inconsistent, and neglect the children.

The nonalcoholic/addict spouse may feel guilty about everything and feel like he or she has lost him or herself. Their (non-addicted spouse’s) own needs, creativity and sexual and aggressive urges are suppressed. These processes block the growth and development of the codependent care giver. In the cognitive, emotional and spiritual aspects of the individual, and over time, the codependent spouses may become prone to stress related diagnosable psychiatric disorders (Senthil, 2016).

Addiction and Personality

Psychologists consider personality as a unique pattern of thinking, attitude, and behavior which forms during childhood and stays stable over time (Barenbaum,2003, Goldberg, 1992, Caspi, 2005).  One of the most well-known approaches for studying personality is the five-factor model of personality. It includes neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (Costa, 1995, Costa, 1992).

According to this model, neuroticism refers to the degree of negative emotions, insecurity, vulnerability and anxiety. Extraversion includes energy, assertiveness, sociability, and positive emotions. Agreeableness is seen as a tendency to be kind and cooperative. Conscientiousness is often perceived as self-discipline, hard-working, and diligent, and openness reflects one’s curiosity, creativity and flexible outlooks (Panaghi, 2015).

As noted these are all areas of vulnerability for the non-addictive spouse. Deviations made in any of these areas, to accommodate the needs of the alcoholic/addict, will alter how the spouse will conduct his or her life.  Feelings of insecurity, anxiousness, lack of willingness for social interaction, hostile reactions to stress, feelings of inadequacy, self-consciousness, and more will result from attacks on the personality of the non-addictive spouse.


  • Victimization and Addiction: Everything that happens either to the codependent or the loved one is a reflection on the codependent. Such people usually feel victimized and powerless and do not understand their role in creating their own reality.
  • Fearing rejection and being unlovable: The codependent fears that if he or she is not successful at everything, or indeed expresses his/her feelings or needs, he or she will be rejected. In a codependent’s way of thinking, he or she will be unlovable. A codependent does not trust others easily or share openly because he or she will be exposed (recoveryconnection.com, 2017).

The nonalcoholic spouse will feel anger, that he or she must prove worth as he or she has been made to feel not good enough. The sense of self will be lost as the nonalcoholic spouse strives to accommodate the needs of the alcoholic/addict.

The nonalcoholic spouse may reject compliments or praise.  A fear of rejection is an ongoing issue.  The alcoholic/addict is never the same person all the time so there is no continuity of feelings. The nonalcoholic/nonaddict partner loses the ability to trust that each day will be the same when it comes to interacting with/trusting the actions of the alcoholic/addict. 

Even after a divorce, a new person in the life of the former codependent spouse is treated as if he or she will hurt the former codependent and trust is not part of the relationship. This leads to marginalizing the new partner who will view this behavior as defense of the former alcoholic/addict spouse and feel as though they are being viewed as the alcoholic/addict even though they have no such issues.

Waiting for “the other shoe to drop”

For the nonalcoholic/nonaddict spouse there may be an extreme fear of abandonment. The nonalcoholic spouse will have feelings of guilt and shame, and frequently say “I am sorry” and explain actions, even when he or she is not required or requested to do so. Making decisions about what others think and not necessarily what the nonaddict feels is common practice. There will also be episodes of feeling responsible for others’ actions, thoughts, and reactions and in doing so lay all blame upon him or herself.

There may also be anger expressed at the children as the nonalcoholic codependent pushes relationships away due to lack of trust.  Holidays, with all the anticipated joys that will come with them, become a time to be harmed and the emotional guard goes up.

The nonalcoholic codependent continually “manages expectations,” thus there are no holidays to be celebrated, just a few days of decorating, cooking, baking, gift buying, etc. that will hold no joy for the codependent spouse and possibly children as well.  The feeling of dread at the thoughts of preparing for an elaborate celebration brings with it the feeling of always waiting for bad things to happen. 

Taking everything personally”

Because there are little to no boundaries in the codependent’s life, any remark, comment or action is a reflection back upon the codependent. This makes the need to feel in control paramount. If not addressed, this will carry over into subsequent relationships and cause harm to that partnership.

You cannot be a person when you must always think about saying and doing things that will not upset the alcoholic/addict.  For instance, if the alcoholic/addict does not like loud noises, such as watching TV with the family, the family must listen at the volume that does not upset the alcoholic/addict even if the sound is too low for others to hear.   This will create a pattern for the future for the nonalcoholic/addict.


Three stages of recovering from being a codependent of an alcoholic/addict are 1.) The beginning and process of becoming a codependent with loss of control/hyper functioning, 2.) Dawn of awareness by acknowledging the escalating toll on self with critical life events and receiving an outsider’s perspective and support, and 3.) Claiming of self with revision of relationship to self, family and spouse.

The positive move for the codependent spouse is to come out of the darkness of the harmful relationship and move toward saving oneself.

Human relationships are a constant connection between the partners.  These relationships take trust, confidence in the other, knowing that each day the other person will be the same person, sharing feelings and hopes, honesty, being in the moment, “being a person.”  This is “intimacy,” a closeness built of trust, of continuity of relationship and feeling, a life no longer subject to “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“Hit the road Jack…”

Some relationships cannot or will not follow these patterns and must be ended for the sanity of the nonalcoholic/nonaddict. Everyone deserves to live a life worth living.  You have the right to be your own person.

You must take responsibility for your choices after knowing when to say yes, and when to say no.  Key principles of keeping boundaries, letting go, forgiveness for yourself for changing your feelings for others, loving and taking care of others without losing the very important ability to take care of and love yourself are all important.

Professional counseling, often in a group environment, can be helpful, perhaps necessary.

When you have gained an understanding of and caring for who you are, independent of other people, and have developed your practice of self-care so it has become second nature, and you no longer turn to jelly or rage when an under-functioning person tries to suck you in, then you are capable of real intimacy with another (www.neilneil.com 2017 Generate Press).

Whether you have been in a codependent relationship for weeks, months, years, and yes, even decades you can regain your life. You did not consciously decide to become a codependent to an alcoholic/addict.  Finding groups who discuss their codependency roles may be the route back to “being you” for yourself.

You did not set out to become a caregiver for an alcoholic/addict, but events in your life led you to this path.  Perhaps it was growing up with an alcoholic parent or being picked out by the alcoholic/addict for your caring/nurturing nature.  The need to rescue yourself from a codependency relationship may not come to you like a clash of thunder and perhaps you feel quite stupid for not seeing what was happening to you.  You might have not even realized you have the need to take your life back until someone else has pointed it out to you or you have had a serious life event.

Know who you are and what you want.  Learn to say no.  Stop pleasing people. Do not take responsibility for anyone else. You are allowed to have opinions that may differ from others. Define your own intentions. Think before offering.  If you slightly fall back into old habits, immediately stop and move forward.  You have permission to be YOU!

Some codependency help groups on the Internet are:









All Psych Journal  https://allpsych.com

American Addiction Centers https://americanaddictioncenters.org

Barenbaum NB, Winter DG. Personality. In: Freedheim DK, Weiner IB, Editors. Handbook of Psychology, History of Psychology. New York, NY:John Wiley & Sons; 2003.

Beattie, Melody, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself  (1992).  Hazelden Foundation

Berger, G. (1993), Alcoholism and the family. New York: Franklin Watts.

Caspi A, Roberts BW, Shiner RL. Personality Development: Stability and Change. Annual Review Psychology 2005; 56: 453-84.

Costa PT Jr, McCrae RR. Domains and Facets: Hierarchical Personality Assessment Using the Revised NEO Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 1995; 64(1): 21-50.

Costa PT, McCrae RR. Normal Personality Assessment in Clinical Practice: The NEO Personality Inventory. Psychology Assessment 1992; 4(1): 5-13.

Goldberg LR. The Development of Markers for the Big-Five Factor Structure. Psychology Assessment 1992; 4(1): 26-42.

Naylor, Mavis E. & Bonnie K. Lee. The Dawn of Awareness: Women’s Claiming of Self In Couple Relationship with Substance Abusers, International Journal Mental Health Addiction (2011) 9:627–644.

Panaghi, Leili PhD, Zohreh Ahmadabadi MSc, Najmeh Khosravi MSc, Mansoureh Sadat Sadeghi PhD, Ali Madanipour PhD, Living with Addicted Men and Codependency: The Moderating Effect of Personality Traits, Addict Health 2016; 8(2): 98-106.

Recovery Connection, www.recoveryconnection.com 2017.  Lakeview Health

Senthil, M., et. al. International Journal of Research-Granthaalayah, “Family Interaction Pattern and Co-dependency in Spouses of Alcohol Dependence in Comparison with Normal Control”, Vol.4 (Iss.2): February 2016].

Silverstein, H. (1990), Alcoholism. New York: Franklin Watts.

The-Alcoholism-Guide.org  http://www.the-alcoholism-guide.org/codependency-in-relationships.html, 2017.


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and SAMHSA’s National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. Retrieved October 15, 2003, from http://www.health.org/nongovpubs/coafacts/

Wekesser, C. (1994), Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc.



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