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Stages in the Alcoholic Family

A family with an alcoholic member will go through stages in dealing with chaos and disruption primarily caused by the alcoholic. These stages are described below in order of usual appearance but families can move back and forth between them.

Denial: Denial occurs early in the development of alcoholism. For example, "she doesn't have a problem because she goes to work every day." Episodes of excessive drinking are justified by both marriage partners. The assumption is that the drinking is due to fatigue, worry, or stress and is, therefore, not a problem.

Attempts to Eliminate the Problem: The non-alcoholic spouse realizes that the partner's drinking is not normal and tries to pressure the partner to quit, be more careful, or cut down. At the same time, the spouse tries to hide the problems from others. Children may start to have problems in response to family stress.

Disorganization and Chaos: The family balance is beginning to break down. The spouse can no longer pretend everything is okay and spends most of the time going from crisis to crisis. Financial problems are not unusual. At this point, the spouse is likely to seek outside help if the partner continues his/her drinking pattern.

Reorganization in Spite of the Problem: The spouse's coping abilities have become strengthened. He or she gradually assumes a larger share of the responsibility for the family. This may mean getting a job or taking over the finances. Rather than focusing on the alcoholic, the spouse is now taking charge of fostering family life.

Efforts to Escape: Separation or divorce may be attempted. If the family remains intact, it continues living around the alcoholic.

Family Reorganization: In the case of separation, family reorganization occurs without the alcoholic member. If the alcoholic achieves sobriety, reconciliation may occur. Either way, both partners must realign their roles within the family and make adjustments.

Recovery: Recovery can occur at any stage — provided key family members exhibit compassion, empathy and understanding, as the alcoholic seeks treatment. Family members must also seek support to become healthier — often in the form of counseling and/or Al-Anon or Alateen.