Communicating With a Loved One Who is Addicted: 5 Useful Skills

In families with addiction, negative and unpleasant ways of communicating are all too common. Problems with communication are amplified when one of the family members has a problem with drugs or alcohol. It’s hard to have a wife or husband who isn’t pulling his/her weight in the marriage or a son or daughter who can’t seem to take care of him/herself. When alcohol and drugs are involved, marriages tend to get negative and distant; parents tend to get frustrated and argumentative. Ultimately, these cycles escalate and things become unmanageable.

How Well Do You Communicate with Your Loved One Who is Addicted?

Think about your interactions with your loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. How often do you find yourself yelling, nagging, begging, negotiating, arguing or simply being silent? Unfortunately, these ways of communicating don’t work to get a loved one sober, and further contribute to making everyone miserable. See if any of these statements sound familiar to you:

  • “Why can’t you just stop drinking?! I’m tired of it!!”
  • “Honey, don’t you think you’ve had enough to drink already?”
  • “If you don’t use tonight, then I promise to get off your back.”
  • “I’m leaving you if you don’t stop drinking!”
  • “I’m taking the kids and divorcing you if you don’t stop using!”
  • “You’re a drunk!”
  • “If you don’t stop using, I’m kicking you out of the house.”
  • “Can’t you see what you are doing to the kids and our family?”

If you have a loved one with an addiction, you have probably said some things like this – perhaps many times. Or, maybe you have all but given up on talking and rarely speak. All of these ways of interacting represent communication breakdowns; the communication isn’t helpful and it continues to feed negative cycles of relating.


Breaking the Cycle of Ineffective Communication

In this series of posts, we will discuss ways to break out of this cycle of negativity, failed communication and hurt feelings. The key is positive and effective communication. Staying positive in communication and communicating effectively is hard, especially in situations where there are hurt feelings, resentment and negativity. However, it can be done.

If you give these communication skills a chance, we are confident they will make a difference in the way you relate to your loved one – whether that’s your husband, wife, son, daughter or good friend. Effective communication is a skill. Like any skill, it can be learned and improved with practice. Everyone has room to improve their communication skills.


Your Communication Tool Kit

At Sober Families, we teach several communication skills that have been proven through research to be particularly helpful in talking to an addicted loved one. In this series of posts, we will focus on five specific skills:

  • Be positive.
  • Use “I” statements.
  • Offer to help.
  • Express understanding.
  • Be specific.

We will give a brief description of each skill. This is followed by an example of a communication breakdown, and another example of using the skill to communicate effectively. Before we discuss the communication skills, we want you to meet Sally and Jonathan. They have been married for 10 years and have two kids (ages 4 and 6).

 Jonathan was a bit of a “partier” when they first started dating, but Sally hoped that he would grow out of it when he became a husband and father. Much to Sally’s disappointment, Jonathan continued partying after they were married. This included staying out all night to drink with the guys at least once a week, usually on a weekend night. Jonathan’s reason for this weekly night out was that he needed to “blow off some steam” from the stress of his work.

 After his youngest child was born, Jonathan started going to happy hour after work. He said he went to happy hour to network and get ahead in his company. This resulted in often missing family dinners; when he did show up, he would be tipsy and continue drinking at dinner.

 Sally and Jonathan have been arguing a lot, usually about Jonathan’s drinking. Sally has tried everything she can think of to get Jonathan to drink less: screaming, begging, nagging, even bribing – yet none of it has worked. Sally often feels guilty about their arguments because she doesn’t want her children to grow up in a home filled with unhappiness and anger.

At Sober Families, we would work with Sally to use more effective communication skills with Jonathan, particularly when communicating about his drinking. These skills  can improve their situation in several ways, including:

  1. Decrease conflict.
  2. Strengthen their relationship.
  3. Help Sally more effectively express her feelings.
  4. Empower Sally to be a positive influence on Jonathan’s drinking.

As the saying goes, “you can catch more bees with honey.” Maintaining a more positive relationship with our loved one can actually more effectively influence him/her to make healthy choices in his/her life. In the next post, Effective Communication Skills: How to Do It, we will get more specific about these five skills.