Alcohol Use Disorder and Family/Marital Problems

Published On: September 13, 2022

When a person drinks alcohol excessively and is subsequently diagnosed with alcohol use disorder this can drastically impact their close relationships and have far-reaching effects on many aspects of their family life. (9,14)

What is alcohol use disorder? (AUD)


Doctor writing notes, with a laptop in the near field

A person diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder has been assessed by a qualified doctor or psychiatrist as being addicted to alcohol.

This means they are physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol, and are unable to stop or reduce their intake of alcohol even though they may want to do so.

In other words, they have lost control over their alcohol use. (3)

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Alcohol Use Disorder – Interpersonal and family factors

Child on swing with back to camera

To reach a diagnosis of alcohol addiction medical professionals consider the degree to which a person’s alcohol use affects their social, interpersonal and family relationships as part of their diagnostic process.

Several of the DSM5 criteria used for diagnosing AUD consider the effect a person’s drinking habits have on their family.

For example, whether they can carry out day-to-day tasks and responsibilities and how their preoccupation with alcohol affects everyone in their immediate family unit.

A parent plays a prominent role in family life and to play such a role effectively a parent needs to be physically fit, mentally healthy and well-organised, which can be very problematic for a person diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. (3)

Difficulty fulfilling obligations

Anyone diagnosed with AUD will find it hard to carry out designated duties and commitments that are important in providing for the family, or in helping the family to function at an optimal level.

This includes:

  • Having the motivation and discipline to hold down a job to earn money
  • Carrying out household maintenance and repair to provide a safe, warm living environment
  • Organising and taking children to medical appointments
  • Buying food and preparing healthy meals
  • Attending school events and organising leisure activities (3,11)

Spending time obtaining and consuming alcohol and recovering from its effects

A parent preoccupied with drinking alcohol will be distracted and unable to devote sufficient time and emotional energy to support his or her family and tend to their needs.

When one parent is unable to properly share childcare or other household responsibilities, this can put a lot of pressure on spouses to carry out these tasks.

Spending too much time away from the family, or not being fully psychologically present when in their company can lead to a lack of trust and tarnish relationships with family members.

Less time spent engaging in important activities

Alcohol use can also impact families’ social relationships, and the number of recreational activities the family can enjoy.

The quality of the relationships shared with friends and work colleagues may also suffer.

For example, not watching children in a school play nor supporting your spouse at a work event, both of which are vital for maintaining a strong family bond. (3,7)

Drinking alcohol in situations that could be hazardous – driving

If a parent is regularly consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, they are unlikely to be in a fit state to drive.

This may mean that children cannot get to school on time, or engage in other activities in the evenings or weekends.

If an attempt is mad to drive while under the influence, there is a strong chance of being over the legal limit, and this poses a substantial threat to individual and passenger safety.

If caught, there will also be legal consequences which can add to family woes.

Alcohol use disorder and declining health

Prolonged heavy alcohol use will eventually take its toll on a person’s health, and affect physical and mental wellbeing.

This can lead to parents being unable to support their spouse, or bring their children up to the best of their ability.

This will likely affect children’s education, and social and emotional development. (3,7)

Excessive alcohol use and marital relations

A great deal of evidence suggests that if one person in a marriage drinks heavily and is showing symptoms of alcohol use disorder, then this will severely negatively impact the marital relationship.

This can lead to frequent negative interactions, tension and arguments between spouses.

Statistics reveal that individuals diagnosed with alcohol use disorder are more likely to get divorced than individuals who do not drink alcohol to excess.

Alcohol is a chronic stressor in marriages and in marital functioning, with an increase in stressful interactions becoming commonplace.

This is mainly because of the greater likelihood of negative exchanges between the two parties.

Partners can feel and express criticism, jealousy and disapproval instead of support, encouragement and praise, putting further strain on the relationship. (11)

The emotional impact on the family

If one parent is spending a lot of money on alcohol and a lot of time drinking alcohol and recovering from its effects, then this is going to cause a lot of tension and arguments between partners.

It can be felt that a partner is not pulling their weight in the relationship, and neglecting important responsibilities.

Alcohol-related tensions in these situations can create a snowballing effect or added friction, and more drinking, making matters worse.

Conversely, if the partner who has taken on too much responsibility is unable to confront their partner about them not pulling their weight in a mature way, this can lead to a negative atmosphere in the family.

Living in an environment of arguments and unresolved tensions is emotionally damaging for both adults and children.

Lack of Trust

Often, people addicted to alcohol will frequently lie and deceive people around them to cover the extent of their alcohol use, and how much money they have spent.

Once this has been uncovered by those close to them, it can lead to a huge loss of trust, which can be very difficult to get back, and can damage the stability of the family unit beyond repair.

Financial implications

In the current financial climate with the cost of rent, energy bills and food prices significantly rising most of the country has had to curb their spending and budget expertly in order to survive.

As well as the devastating effects it can have on a person’s health, alcohol can have an equally devastating effect on a person’s finances.

If responsible for providing for a family, the dire consequences of one parent spending a large proportion of their income on alcohol will be felt by their close relatives as well.

Money spent on alcohol could cover essential living costs

Regular heavy drinkers of alcohol will find the financial cost of their alcohol use can set them back at £600 plus per month if not significantly more in some cases, depending on the severity of their alcohol dependence.

This means children may not be able to eat healthy nutritious meals or be properly clothed, and there will be a limit to their educational and leisure activities.

Engaging in fulfilling opportunities and relaxing pastimes are a key part of cognitive and social development, so being unable to take part in these can damage children’s chances to grow and learn.

If parents are unable to stop or reduce their drinking and fall behind on mortgage or rent payments the future financial implications can be as drastic as losing their property.

Poor living conditions

Losing a home and being uprooted can have terrible consequences for young children as they are forced to live in poorer conditions (cold, damp, and polluted).

This can again have a detrimental effect on their physical health as well as their mental health. (11,12)

Children will have a poor (Insecure) attachment style

Many developmental psychologists such as John Bowlby proposed that children build up a template of how relationships operate based on their early relationships with family members and caregivers.

This is referred to as the internal working model (1,10) where a parent who drinks excessively may never be fully present with their children or be able to fully meet their psychological needs.

When caregivers are preoccupied with alcohol, children can develop trust issues, leaving them with an insecure attachment style. (1,10).

This can be very damaging psychologically and emotionally for children, as a secure attachment helps children feel safe, content and confident in themselves.

The consequences of a poor attachment mean the child is vulnerable to being unable to deal with stress, and more likely to feel anxious and depressed when they are older.

People with an insecure attachment disorder can even become uncertain about how healthy relationships function when they enter early adulthood.

Children are more likely to have poor mental health

Children look to their parents for guidance in helping them understand and deal with difficult emotions, something people with an alcohol use disorder will struggle to do.

Children will therefore miss out on important information if one or both of their parents is not able to “model” a healthy way of dealing with emotions.

Children may grow up learning that drinking alcohol is the normal way to deal with anxiety, stress and tension rather than learning healthy ways of dealing with negative emotions from their parents.

Being unable to manage the emotions that occur in challenging times can erode self-esteem, and cause them to develop mental health problems.

These mental health difficulties will be further exacerbated if there is frequent discord between both parents, because of the financial consequences of one of them spending too much money on alcohol.

Children gain a negative view of how families function

If one of the parents has developed a problem with alcohol then this can disrupt the family system as there are unlikely to be healthy rituals and routines set up that offer structure and stability for children.

Alcohol can destroy the ability to engage in leisure activities that enable the family to bond, such as consistent mealtimes, helping children with homework and playing games.

If a parent is thinking about their alcohol cravings, they are distracted and unable to communicate fully with, and pay attention to the needs of their children.

As a result of this, children will experience an inconsistency in their relationship with that parent which could result in uncertainty about the nature of human relationships in general.

There will also be many negative behaviours brought into family life and communication patterns that children will absorb including secrecy, deception, loss, discord, emotional uncertainty and fear.

Extreme and prolonged negative emotions such as these aren’t healthy, and can lead to poor mental health in the future. (1,7,12)

Developmental problems in children

Poor and unsatisfying social interactions can result in poorly attached children who have difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships into adolescence and early adult life.

Researchers investigating families where at least one parent was diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder propose that this has a significant, negative effect on the development of children.

Young people subjected to this environment will experience emotional and behavioural problems as they grow up and be vulnerable themselves of developing problems with alcohol and/or drugs. (1,7)

Children’s Education

Children’s education is also more likely to suffer if one of the parents has an alcohol use disorder, and there could be several reasons for this.

Children need stable homes and healthy meals in order to learn effectively. Proper nutrition gives young brains the vital nutrients to learn, and a safe, reliable caregiver allows the mind to expand and grow properly.

Poor nutrition teamed with the anxiety levels associated with living in an uncertain family environment can stunt mental growth.

This can result in children having difficulty focusing, or maintaining the motivation to learn at school or home.

It is also likely that they may not get sufficient help with their schoolwork if one parent (or both) is preoccupied with alcohol and the other one is busy working harder to carry out all the tasks needed to help the family function adequately. (1,7,11)

Excessive drinking (Including binge drinking) and aggressive behaviour

There have been several research studies that have identified a strong association between alcohol and violence.

This is likely to be intensified in high-pressure situations when combined with family tension, money worries and stress.

Prolonged, excessive alcohol consumption can significantly impair a person’s ability to control and inhibit aspects of their behaviour.

This makes it more likely they will exhibit impulsive behaviour (becoming violent) instead of being able to show restraint when involved in heated discussions.

People diagnosed with alcohol use disorder will also experience other cognitive changes as a result of their drinking patterns.

Too much alcohol can narrow their attention span which means they will be unable to appreciate other perspectives and contributory factors when engaged in a discussion.

They are also more likely to misread the behaviour and intentions of other people as aspects of their social cognition and perception have been affected.

For example, they may feel they are being persecuted when their spouse was making a valid point, and they can react angrily because they fail to understand their partner’s perspective. (2,5)

Domestic Violence

The World Health Organisation has acknowledged an increasing body of research that indicates that high levels of alcohol consumption and domestic violence against women have a strong correlation.

Many researchers propose that the more frequently a person drinks large amounts of alcohol, the higher the probability that they will be physically aggressive and violent towards their spouse.

This violence can escalate over time if the perpetrator does not curtail their alcohol consumption.

Crime surveys have revealed that people who are victims of violent behaviour feel that their attacker was strongly influenced by alcohol in nearly half of all cases.

Women are the most vulnerable to experiencing violence at the hands of partners who consume alcohol excessively.

Those in the 16-24 age group are at even greater risk, with likelihood increasing for women whose partners have also been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

Alcohol-related violence towards a spouse is also highly prevalent in social housing areas or where poverty is a significant issue. (4,5,6)

Foetal alcohol syndrome

Women who drink heavily during pregnancy can cause serious permanent harm to their baby which can cause huge emotional turmoil for the whole family.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder occurs when the chemicals of alcohol present in the bloodstream find their way to the baby’s developing brain via the placenta. (13)

If this occurs, then the woman can lose the baby, or if the baby is born it can be left with lifelong problems including:

  • Difficulty learning
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Speech and language difficulties
  • Issues with key bones, joints and organs

Support for families of people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder

An aerial shot of three people writing and having an informal meeting, reading notes at a table

Al-Anon runs weekly meetings throughout the UK to support spouses, children and other family members who have been adversely affected by a relative’s drinking.

These meetings offer a platform for attendees to talk about their feelings and experiences in the company of other families who have been through similar experiences.

The meetings are free to attend, and anonymity and confidentiality are assured and you do not have to give your name or any other personal details.

Details of the day, time and location of meetings close to you can be found on their website.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.


(1) Barnes, P. (ed) (2005) Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, Blackwell Publishing, The Open University.

(2) Beck, A, Heinz, A. (2013) Alcohol-Related Aggression: Social and Neurobiological Factors. Deutsches Arzteblatt International. 110(42) pp711-715

(3) Black, D., Grant, J. (2013) DSM5 Guidebook: The Essential Companion to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. APP. London.

(4) Gadd et al (2019) The Dynamics of Domestic Abuse and Drug & Alcohol Dependency. British Journal of Criminology. 59(5) pp1035-1053

(5) Graham, K., Livingstone, M. (2011) The Relationship between Alcohol and Violence: Population, Contextual and Individual Research Approaches. Drug Alcohol Review 30(5) pp 453 – 457

(6) Institute of Alcohol Studies (2014) Alcohol, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault

(7) Institute of Alcohol Studies (2022) Alcohol and the Family. available@ Microsoft Word – Alcohol and the family.docx (

(8) Javaid, A. (2015) The Role of Alcohol in Intimate Partner Violence: Causal Behaviour or Excusable Behaviour. British Journal of Community Justice. 13(1) pp75-92.

(9) Lander, L. et al (2013) The Impact of substance use disorders and families and children: From theory to practice. Available@The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice – PMC (

(10) Leonard, K. & Eiden, R. (2007) Marital and family problems in the context of alcohol use and alcohol disorder. available@Marital and Family Processes in the Context of Alcohol Use and Alcohol Disorders – PMC (

(11) Marshall, M. (2003) For Better or for Worse: The effects of alcohol use on marital functioning. available@For better or for worse? The effects of alcohol use on marital functioning – PMC (

(12) National Institute on alcohol abuse and alcoholism (2022) Alcohol Problems in intimate relationships: Identification and Intervention – A guide for marriage and family therapists. available@ Alcohol Problems in Intimate Relationships: Identification and Intervention – A Guide for Marriage and Family Therapists (

(13) National Health Service (2022) Foetal Alcohol spectrum disorder. available@Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder – NHS (

(14) World Health Organisation (2006) Intimate Partner Violence and Alcohol


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