Rebuilding Relationships With Your Relatives After Being the Family Drunk
Recovering from alcoholism means having a lot to live down. And having a reputation to rebuild as a worker, a community member and a family member.
Of the three, “family member” is both the easiest and the hardest. Easy, because these are people who know you personally and see your commitment to change, not just your record with past employers and the law. And hard, because these are people you’ve subjected to a lot of personal pain, a lot of broken promises and a lot of hard-to-forgive experiences.
There are two categories of family members your sobriety journey requires you to rebuild relationships with:
THOSE OF YOUR OWN HOUSEHOLD
These are the people you actually live with (or, in some cases, have lived with recently). Your spouse or partner. Your children. Perhaps your parents or other older relatives. Proving yourself to those who see you on a daily basis means they will be the first to see and judge how sincere you are about finally keeping your promise to change.
Hopefully, they will be fully supportive: understanding their own roles in your alcoholism and where they need to change, helping you make a relapse prevention plan, holding you accountable without making unreasonable demands, attending therapy and support groups with you. Your share of the responsibility is to:
- Do your fair share of household maintenance, including cleaning up after yourself.
- Make a budget and stay accountable for your use of household income. (Have your paycheck deposited directly into the bank, to reduce temptations toward spending it on alcohol.)
- Reserve time to spend with your family and to get to know them again. (Make that time the same hours you used to spend at the bar, and it’ll be easier to replace a toxic habit with a good one.)
- Be open and honest about your concerns and struggles. Stay empathetic toward others’ concerns. Avoid becoming defensive if someone expresses worry that you’re drifting back in the wrong direction.
- Make amends for the hurt you’ve caused your family, preferably in ways they find personally meaningful.
YOUR EXTENDED FAMILY
Family members you see less frequently—including in-laws, and your own parents if you’re an independent adult—will have been less directly hurt by your actions. They may also be less sympathetic to your struggles, or less understanding of what not to do and why. It does happen that alcoholics, their immediate family having taken action to stop enabling, turn to doting aunts or easygoing cousins to take up the slack. If this is a possible risk in your case, you may want to remove extended family’s numbers from your own phone, or otherwise arrange to talk to them only in the presence of another household member.
Also, let every extended-family member you see with any regularity (even if only once a year) know about your problem. Whichever member of your household they’re closest to, is likely the best person to explain the situation to them and request their support.
Other possible problems with extended family, and what to do about them:
- The established large-group gathering where wine is always served (there may even be a special bottle kept for such occasions). The host, understandably, may not want to disappoint 20 other family members just to accommodate you. One possibility is to offer to watch the children: it’s a safe bet they won’t be drinking alcohol either. Or volunteer for another task that will keep you too busy to drink. And have your spouse or another supportive family member keep an eye on you.
- The in-laws who won’t forgive what you did to their daughter/son and grandchildren. Parents often feel fiercely protective of their “babies” long after the children are grown. Don’t let yourself be drawn into fights: stay polite and do whatever you can to make amends. Let your partner take the lead when you can: s/he knows the parents best, and it’s also a way to demonstrate you’re now treating her/him with respect.
- Extended-family members who are alcoholics themselves, still in the denial phase. They may even try to tempt you back to drink, to reduce their own guilt. Limit your contact with them for now: try to see them only in the presence of other, sober and supportive, relatives. And don’t nag them to stop drinking: it didn’t work with you, and it won’t work with them. They may come around eventually if you set a good example and avoid enabling their habit.
The worst-case scenario, of course, is having a family that not only fails to support you, but seems determined to sabotage your recovery. In such a case, you may have no choice but to cut ties with them and find your support network elsewhere. Don’t give up. You can’t control your relatives, but you can choose your own actions. In the end, we all have to take responsibility for ourselves.