THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Art of Communicating with the Alcoholic/Addict - Part 1

Is there an art to communicating with the alcoholic/addict? Absolutely! It is almost like learning a new language. In this series of blogs I will discuss concepts that can help the family member or friend find new communication tools when relating to their loved one; the alcoholic/addict.

Today we will look at the concept of saying what you mean and meaning what you say! a simple theory to understand, but often very difficult to execute.

As mentioned, future entries will discuss specific words and phrases to implement in your conversations, but without the ground level building blocks of your commitment that your word is your bond; all other communications techniques you try to implement will fall short if this concept is not mastered to perfection.

The first "test" is being honest with yourself about your ability and fortitude in being able to enforce the ramifications you have placed upon the alcoholic/addict if they don't uphold their end of the bargain. If you don't feel that you can follow through with this wait until you can, but try to push yourself and then trust that you are doing the right thing. If you find that you are apprehensive or fearful of the outcome because you don't want to experience the wrath or uncertain behavior of your loved one, try to remind yourself that what you were doing before wasn't working, so now it's time for plan 'B'.

It all comes down to credibility - the alcoholic/addicts' as well as your own. And if you can't follow through on the promises, demands or consequences that you expect, then the alcoholic/addict will know this and learn to exploit it. They will come to understand that your word is built on quicksand and not to be taken seriously.
Start with small, little expectations. This is not a contest to see who will "say uncle" first; or to prove that you can go toe to toe with the alcoholic/addict. That motivation will only amount to disappointment, wasted energy and you will lose.

Here's an example of a small doable expectation;
You and the alcoholic/addict have decided to get together for dinner and a mutually acceptable time is established by both of you. You state in a quiet, respectful way that you expect a clean and sober partner and what the ramifications or consequences will be if that commitment is not met. Not a lot of fan-fare on your part; business as usual. Do not mention past experiences that have failed. No need to say..."yea and you better be there, not like last time when you were 2 hours late."

Explain to the alcoholic/addict that if you don't hear from or see them by 6:00 that evening you will assume that they have made other plans and so will you. A phone call at 7:00 that night with an excuse is unsatisfactory (other than a real emergency). In addition, if the alcoholic/addict comes to dinner in an inebriated or "high" state, then you calmly share that you are disappointed, but their behavior is unacceptable. They have broken their side of the agreement and therefore the plans for that evening are terminated.

The alcoholic/addict might be angry, defensive, combative, sullen or punishing in response to this posture. Your stance is probably new to them and they are uncomfortable that you are holding firm to your commitment. It may be that you never have before, and when you did try the alcoholic/addict knew only too well what buttons to push to make you change your mind. Trust me, they will try and pull many a rabbit from their hat in the hopes that you will feel guilty and frightened that they did not adhere to the plan. DON'T BUDGE! You don't have to get angry, be rude or scolding; just act matter of fact. Show them that you meant what you said and that this is how you are starting to take care of yourself.

This new back bone of commitment is a stepping stone for both you and the alcoholic/addict as you are paving a fresh road to new found strength and dignity. In turn, they will have to learn about their accountability and respect for your word or not be a participant.

In time, the success you have with these little goals will give you confidence with larger ones.
An example of a stronger boundary comes from a couple that I counsel. My client was uncomfortable with her husband's alcohol intake and had not been shy in letting him know. They were planning a camping trip over Thanksgiving. She was anxious about him drinking too much in a place that was desolate and where she would have no escape if he became too intoxicated and displayed out of control behavior.

We devised a plan that she would implement if she felt compromised or uncomfortable with his drinking. The key was that she was confident in her ability to carry out that plan if necessary.
Before leaving she packed two suitcases and put them by the door. He was relaxed and cold sober, as she advised him that both suitcases were going in the trunk and one was for the planned camping trip (which she reiterated that she was looking forward to) and the other were clothes for Palm Springs. Since they had discussed several times how uncomfortable she was with the level of his drinking, she simply stated that if at anytime she was feeling anxious about that, she would switch suitcases take the car and head to the desert. She would be taking the car, hence leaving him to pack up the gear and somehow get home.

Her husband was stunned at hearing this plan and found himself quietly smoldering, for she had never thrown down a gauntlet of this magnitude before. Because she conveyed confidence and strength with this plan, her husband heeded her words and took them seriously. At our next session, my client reported a wonderful Thanksgiving camping trip and though her husband drank, he was respectful of her wishes and even stated that he enjoyed himself more since he had put constraints on his own alcoholic intake.

He appreciated that she would be true to her word and respected her more because of it.

Please remember that it is not important that the alcoholic/addict adhere to the line in the sand that you have drawn. Though it would be gratifying, these are important boundaries and consequences established for your own dignity and respect and the alcoholic/addict is going to have to accept these terms or not be part of your landscape.

If I can be of service to you or your family, please e-mail me at Carole@familyrecoverysolution.com or go to http://familyrecoverysolutions.com/free_one_hour_session.html

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