Knowing what to do when an alcoholic relapses can be difficult – especially when that alcoholic is someone you love. Through years of experience, here’s what we’ve learnt about how to talk to an alcoholic who has relapsed. 

The Do’s – What to do when an alcoholic relapses

Show kindness

While you might be angry, distraught and at a loss as to what to do, the truth is, you don’t have to know what to say to an alcoholic who has relapsed. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply offer empathy and let them know you love them and care about them. Offering words such as, “I can see this is painful for you and I’m sorry,” or “I love you and I’m sorry this has happened,” can go a long way. No one is harder on an alcoholic than themselves and while putting up healthy boundaries is completely acceptable, ranting and raving, begging and pleading doesn’t usually have the desired effect.  


Be prepared when they ask for help

After a relapse, there is often a small window when an alcoholic is open to help. After a spree, they will often dust themselves off and the cunning part of the disease will tell them, “It wasn’t so bad, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.” The best thing you can do is be ready when they ask for help. They may need Social Detox to stop drinking or they may need a 30-day residential rehab programme to help them get back on solid ground. They might need to get to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or call their sponsor. Be armed with options and know who to call when they are ready.  


The Don’ts – What not to say to an alcohol who has relapsed

Don’t shame them

Remember they are sick, not bad. While an alcoholic’s behaviour when they are drinking may be unacceptable, it is important to remember that once they pick up that first drink, they lose the power of choice. A compulsion kicks in which makes it virtually impossible to stop on their own willpower. For most alcoholics, they are just as baffled as to why they picked up that first drink as you are.


Don’t blame yourself

It’s not always easy to recognise alcohol relapse symptoms, and people often fall into the trap of thinking that if they’d only done X or said Y then their loved one wouldn’t have relapsed. There is a helpful saying in Al-Anon Family Groups (the 12 Step fellowship for those living with the effects of alcoholism) that “You didn’t cause, you cannot control it and you cannot cure it.” No one makes someone else an alcoholic.


Don’t sugar coat it

When an alcoholic relapses they can cause all manner of destruction – from crashing cars and breaking up relationships to the physical impacts of drinking to excess. Loved ones are often hurt, confused and distraught. It’s not always easy to know how to talk to someone about their drinking but it is OK to say, “I love you, but this behaviour is unacceptable.” It’s also OK to say, “I love you, but you can’t stay here anymore.” Finding that balance between compassion and putting up healthy boundaries is not always easy, in fact, even if you are able to put up a boundary, it can be painful and distressing.


If you are living with someone else’s alcoholism, there is hope, not only for them, but for you. For free resources on understanding alcoholism and getting support for yourself, visit our Family and Friends page.


Have you tried everything to get your loved one sober and nothing has worked? For just $250 you can book a 1 hour Intervention Discovery Call for up to 6 people, with our accredited Love First Interventionist. Find out how a Love First Intervention can help get your loved one the help they need.  Contact us on 0800 276 237 – help is just a phone call away.

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