If someone you love has an alcohol use disorder (AUD), you may wonder how you can support them on their journey to sobriety. Whether they’re a partner, family member, or close friend — and whether they’re still consuming alcohol or have stopped drinking completely — you can play an important role in their recovery.
In fact, having the support of friends and family is often critical for people trying to maintain sobriety, says Niloufar Nekou, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in treating alcohol use disorder and is the clinical director of Alter Health Group in Dana Point, California. Your support may provide external motivation to stay sober, as well as emotional support.
Patrick Cronin, an addiction specialist who has been in recovery from an AUD for 16 years, agrees. “There are so many relapse stories out there that could have been prevented with the help of a loved one or support group,” says Cronin, who is the director of business development at Bedrock Recovery Center, one of four addiction treatment facilities operated by Ark Behavioral Health in Quincy, Massachusetts.
“Someone in recovery is in recovery every single day of their lives, so it’s important for loved ones to be kind, supportive, and to not consume alcohol around them,” Cronin adds.
How to Support Sobriety in Someone in Recovery
Supporting someone in recovery from AUD may feel frustrating, confusing, and overwhelming at times — and that’s totally understandable, experts say. Here are six tips to help you and your loved one through the process:
1. Seek Support for Yourself First
Even the most patient, compassionate, and empathetic people need to take care of their own well-being, especially if they’ve taken on a supportive role for someone in recovery.
“It’s impossible to properly support someone in recovery from AUD unless you have the proper support for yourself,” says Nekou.
Cronin agrees, adding that this can mean finding a trusted person to talk to, maintaining friendships independent of your loved one, and getting support from groups designed for the friends and family of people with AUD or other substance use disorders.
Resources you may want look into to include:
- Al-Anon, a 12-step program for family and friends of alcoholics
- SMART Recovery Family and Friends, which has meetings available in-person and online that provide concerned significant others science-based tools for effectively supporting their loved one, without supporting their AUD or other addictive behavior
2. Learn About Alcohol Use Disorder
Stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about alcohol use and addiction are abundant. Sometimes we have these false beliefs without realizing it — false beliefs that can negatively affect our interactions with the person in recovery.
For example, the misconceptions that AUD only happens to certain “types” of people or that they just need to hit “rock bottom” to “snap them back to reality” can unintentionally be interpreted by the person in recovery that you don’t think they’re trying hard enough or that you don’t care to understand what they’re experiencing.
Nekou suggests educating yourself on potential triggers, health issues, enablement, the recovery process, and the psychological changes that addiction causes. “Loved ones will find it much easier to relate to and assist a recovering loved one if they understand addiction, and they will also be much better equipped to help prevent relapse,” Nekou says.
3. Don’t ‘Babysit’ Their Sobriety
It’s generally not a good idea to “babysit” someone’s sobriety, says recovery advocate Amy Liz Harrison, the author of Eternally Expecting: A Mom of Eight Gets Sober and Gives Birth to a New Life … Her Own. Harrison has been sober from alcohol for a decade.
While you may have good intentions, it’s best to treat them like a normal person, she explains. “Babysitting one’s sobriety means taking control and making decisions for the person, including which events they do or don’t attend,” says Harrison.
A better approach is to ask how you can best support them, Harrison notes. “Be clear that you’re available if they need to talk, but as they rebuild a new life they will need to create new habits and most likely don’t need unsolicited advice from people not going through the same thing.”
It may also be helpful not to bring up the topic of sobriety unless the person in recovery wants to talk about it. “Not drinking is personal,” Harrison says. “Also, don’t tell their story to others. Try to remember if it’s not your story; it’s not your story to tell.”
4. Be on the Lookout for Old Patterns
At some point in the recovery process, your loved one may start talking about returning to alcohol use. They may say they’ve learned their lesson, can drink normally now, or have figured out how to control their consumption.
“While respecting any boundaries, observe their behaviors and keep an eye for any familiar patterns,” suggests Cronin. “If you know the person enough to understand that going back to consuming alcohol under control can be a huge trigger, talk to them and make them understand that you are concerned.”
Cronin acknowledges it’s hard to trust someone who once had no control over their alcohol consumption — and knowing when and how to step in can be tricky. “Always stay alert and know when you need to request professional help,” Cronin advises.
Seeking professional help can include reaching out to a family intervention specialist to discuss what you’re noticing about your loved one’s behavior and get advice on next steps. This is not that same as babysitting their sobriety, but rather, it’s stepping in when your loved one is engaging in concerning behaviors.
5. Have Realistic Expectations
“There is a belief that alcohol use disorder is the source of all the problems in the person’s life, and it is commonly assumed that simply by seeking treatment they are ‘cured.’ Unfortunately, neither is true,” says Nekou.
This misconception can leave many loved ones feeling disappointed by a loved one in recovery and the progress they’ve made or haven’t made, especially if a relapse occurs, Nekou explains. “It is definitely best to avoid statements or comments conveying disappointment, as it will likely be received as guilting or shaming and may even incite or exacerbate a relapse.”
Bear in mind that stopping drinking isn’t the whole treatment. Recovery involves examining the underlying reasons for the person’s behaviors and shifting to healthier strategies to cope with difficult emotions, Nekou says.
6. Remember That Recovery Takes Much More Than Willpower
“When a loved one has AUD, it is often difficult for the people around them to understand what’s going on and why the person simply can’t stop. ‘If they wanted to, they’d just quit,’ is a common statement,” Nekou says.
Recovering from an AUD involves much more than willpower because addiction is not a choice, Nekou explains. “This is where the myth of willpower overcoming addiction originates,” she says.
While people often make a conscious decision to use substances, the domino effect of addiction begins once these substances start to alter brain and bodily functions, creating an uncontrollable pattern of compulsive use. “No amount of willpower can completely combat this result,” she says.
While every person is different, Cronin agrees that having willpower is rarely enough in recovery. “I can say that after 16 years, willpower is a very important key,” he says. “But you need it alongside other tools such as treatment and a good support system.”