How To Talk to A Loved One About Their Drinking

Worrying about a loved one’s drinking habits can be confusing. It can be difficult to establish when it’s appropriate to be concerned. And then, of course, the ensuing question of what can I do about it? 

How to Navigate a Loved One’s Drinking Habit

Have you suspected that your loved one has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and thought about bringing it up? You may feel fearful of your loved one’s reaction, scared of how the conversation will go, or you may be second-guessing yourself (i.e., is it really a ‘drinking problem’?). As a first step, it’s helpful to understand the signs of an unhealthy drinking habit.

Learn more about alcohol use disorder

There is no single definition of unhealthy drinking. There are, however, common symptoms to look out for that indicate someone you love has alcohol use disorder.

So, what is alcohol use disorder (AUD)? Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, is measured based on 11 criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). AUD limits a person’s ability to control their alcohol consumption, despite the negative consequences experienced from excessive drinking and alcohol dependence.

Based on the DSM-5 criteria, below are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Have there been times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  2. More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  3. Experienced craving – a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  4. Found that drinking often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  5. Continued drinking even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem?
  6. Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, alcohol shakes, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating?

DSM-5 criteria

In brief, if your loved one has experienced two or more of these criteria, they are on the clinical spectrum for alcohol use disorder. You may notice any combination of these signs, and naturally, it could be affecting you and your loved one’s relationship. The way you are feeling is valid, and you both deserve your needs to be communicated and met.

It’s also important to note that even if your loved one doesn’t fall on the spectrum for alcohol use disorder, they still might be drinking in unhealthy ways. Additional signs of unhealthy use might look like them being irritable when not drinking, experiencing memory loss and blackouts due to binge drinking, and continuing to drink to avoid withdrawal symptoms. If alcohol is getting in the way of their physical, emotional, and social wellbeing, having a conversation about their drinking can be an incredibly meaningful step in encouraging healthier habits.

Confront Your Loved One

Previously, you might have been asking yourself, ‘what does an alcohol problem look like?’ and ‘when is it appropriate to have an intervention about a loved one’s drinking problem?’ Now, hopefully it’s clear that unhealthy drinking exists on a spectrum, and that your loved one doesn’t have to ‘hit rock bottom’ to warrant a conversation about building healthier habits.

If you’re having trouble starting the conversation about your loved one’s drinking, these tips can help guide you as you cultivate a stronger, healthier relationship.

How to Talk to Someone About Their Drinking: 6 Tips For Having the Conversation

1. Authentically express your feelings about your loved one’s drinking.

Try to use “I” statements. For example, “I feel sad when you go to sleep in the recliner after you drink” or “I am worried because it is the 3rd time you missed work. I love you and want you to keep your job.” Using “I” statements keeps the focus on the drinking itself, and how it affects you. 

2. Prepare specific instances where their alcohol use has made you worried or scared for their safety and well-being.

Offer examples of how their alcohol consumption has contributed to an unsafe environment while maintaining that this is not about their character. Recall instances in which the negative consequences of drinking alcohol have affected your relationship.

3. Express your concern in a genuine and loving manner.

Be mindful of belittling language, preaching, lecturing, forcing, bribing, or even begging them to pursue help. Offer to attend therapy, support groups, and doctor appointments with your loved one. Go over options with them and help make a plan of action if they show willingness and/or interest in an alcohol treatment program.

4. Do your best to maintain compassion while your loved one is trying to quit or cut down on drinking alcohol.

This isn’t easy for them, either. Remember that alcohol use disorder is a medical condition, not a moral failing.

5. Be conscious of enabling your loved one, such as supplying them alcohol or pushing any boundaries of having it in the house.

Another example of enabling unhealthy alcohol use is attempting to protect them from the negative consequences of drinking by trying to remedy the situation yourself. Practice setting personal limits while letting them know that you love them and are there for them.

6. Be prepared for your loved one to disagree with you.

Your loved one may be in denial about their drinking or tell you that they will quit or cut down on their own. Give them a suggested timeline and of course, always have options for alcohol treatment on hand. If they are unable to cut down or quit their unhealthy or heavy drinking habits on their own, professional help can provide guidance and relief.

Making progress together: For family, friends, and those in recovery

One of the most effective strategies for achieving sobriety or moderation is engaging with friends and family. This group is for those looking to cut back on drinking and those supporting them. Join the discussion about how to better understand one another and support each other throughout this journey.
Check out the Schedule

Advocate for Treatment

As your loved one navigates this journey, knowing about treatment options is a great way to provide guidance and support. Understanding how an alcohol treatment program can support their goals for sobriety or moderation, while taking into account co-occurring conditions, can help you gain a more holistic understanding of the treatment landscape and provide informed suggestions. Aspects that may impact alcohol misuse can include mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, and it’s important to address these issues in treatment as well.

At Monument, we connect members with licensed physicians to go over their treatment goals and discuss medication options to stop drinking, and licensed therapists to address psychological influences. As part of their online alcohol treatment program, members meet with their Care Team to personalize their treatment plan in a way that empowers them to reach their unique goals.

Care for yourself while caring for someone in recovery

If someone you care about has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it can be incredibly stressful. When learning more about alcohol use disorder (and why there’s no one definition of a ‘drinking problem’), remember that a fundamental part of being able to support your loved one is related to your own wellbeing. It’s important that you are emotionally ready before having these conversations. Are there any ways you can start putting more care toward yourself and your needs today?

Continue learning about alcohol use disorder, lean on your own support network, consider exploring treatment options for your loved one, such as medication and online alcohol therapy, and lastly, join in our support group “Caring for yourself while caring for someone in recovery.” Come just as you are, camera on or off, to listen, share, and find community.

You are not alone in this, and it’s not on your shoulders to “solve” unhealthy drinking behaviors. There are many resources to assist you and your loved ones while navigating the alcohol recovery timeline, including tools for identifying signs of codependency, and guidance on how to build healthy boundaries. We are here for you. Join friends and family of people navigating sobriety or moderation to discuss how to support yourself and your loved one’s recovery.

Even if a conversation seems nerve-wracking at first, you have options and support. No matter where you are on the journey, making the decision to find a new path will empower you and your loved one toward a better future, one you both so deserve.

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Avatar photoI have been in the mental health field for the past 20 years. I have been licensed in Marriage, Family, and Addiction Therapy for the past 14 years. I specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Crisis intervention Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, Compassion Focused Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, Interpersonal Therapy, Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Systemic Family Therapy, Mindfulness Therapy, Group Therapy and Play Therapy. I have worked with ages 5- 85 who have had alcohol, gambling, and drug issues, low self-esteem, family and relational discord, PTSD, depression, anxiety eating disorders, grief and loss issues, anger and rage issues, domestic violence, sexual abuse, cultural issues, ADHD, abandonment issues, attachment issues, aging and geriatric issues, codependency, life-threatening health issues, communication issues, compulsive issues, elder abuse, and Family of Origin issues. I have worked with people diagnosed as Antisocial, Narcissistic, Bipolar, Dual Diagnosis, Schizophrenia, and other mental health issues.