Bend or Break: When to Keep or Adjust Your Boundaries in the Face of Their Relapse

Relapses are a common aspect of recovery from alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Among other things, this means that the loved ones of people in recovery often face a very important question: How to deal with alcoholic relapse in a way that acknowledges the seriousness of the situation but does not make things worse. There is no surefire way to answer this question with a solution that works in all situations. However, you will almost certainly benefit from an understanding of the general principles of how to cope with a relapsing loved one.

Alcohol Relapse Essentials

Knowledge of addiction recovery can provide considerable comfort when it comes to determining how to deal with alcoholic relapse. One key aspect to note is just how frequently such relapses occur during recovery. Less than one in five people with serious alcohol problems who stop drinking manage to maintain their sobriety for an entire year. Risks for a relapse are also quite high (roughly 40%) for people in recovery trying to maintain a second full year of sobriety. Individuals affected by alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism) have a fairly solid chance of remaining sober long-term if they can avoid drinking for at least five consecutive years. However, no one who goes through treatment has a 0% chance of experiencing a relapse.

Why Relapses Happen

Relapses happen for a variety of potentially overlapping reasons. Common examples of these reasons include:

  • The ongoing mental/emotional impact of everyday stress
  • Poorly developed stress coping skills
  • An inability to cope successfully with ongoing or recurring drinking urges
  • Exposure to specific situations, settings or people associated with past drinking
  • Personal friction with co-workers, friends or family, and
  • Simple boredom brought on by the availability of ample free time

How to Handle the Situation

If your loved has a relapse, you may experience a number of reactions, including disappointment, anger and even guilt. This may be especially true if you’ve gone through the same situation in the past. Instead of allowing your initial reaction to overwhelm you, you can turn to a range of methods to help yourself and your loved one. Helpful tips include:

  • Not downplaying the seriousness of the situation
  • Remaining supportive and optimistic about the long-term chances for a lasting recovery
  • Remaining encouraging of your loved one’s efforts to seek appropriate help and bring a current relapse to a close as soon as possible, and
  • Keeping in mind that the key to sobriety lies within your loved one, not in you

It’s also vitally important that you take care of yourself and your own needs by doing such things as eating properly, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep and maintaining your interest and participation in favored activities. When considering how to deal with alcoholic relapse, it also helps to know the kinds of things that can worsen the situation for you and your loved one. Examples of behaviors that can have a significantly negative effect include:

  • Treating a relapse as a casual fact to be accepted without any real examination or reflection
  • Trying to nullify your loved one’s relapse-related feelings (e.g., guilt, shame or anxiety)
  • Trying to purposefully make your loved feel bad for relapsing, and
  • Getting or remaining discouraged over the fact that a relapse has occurred

A consultation with an addiction expert will provide you with much more detailed information on how to help your loved one through an alcohol relapse while maintaining your own sense of well-being.


Medscape: Alcoholism Follow-Up National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal and Relapse                                                                    Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: Part 1 – Dealing With Your Teen’s Relapse from Drug and Alcohol Addiction Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: Part 2 – An Overview of Relapse

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