Why don’t they change?
Recognizing a family drinking problem is not always easy. When you see a problem, there’s a tendency to want to fix it. Perhaps you have already tried to fix the drinking problem. How’d it work out? As you probably know, it’s not an easy fix!
Sometimes you may think you can make someone change. You really want them to change; you may think life in the family would improve if they changed. You may be right. But fighting to “be right” may not contribute to change. If “being right” increases the level of tension and conflict, well, you may want to rethink it. I know this terrain.
A story about taking responsibility
In the middle of my life, I went back to school for a master’s degree. I remember the first assignment – writing a specific kind of academic paper. Although I knew the material well and I did enjoy the writing process, I wasn’t clear about how the professor wanted the structure of the paper.
My attempt at remedying the problem was to write the majority of the paper and send it to the professor for feedback. I emailed it to her three weeks before the paper was due. After two weeks without a response, I asked her about giving me feedback. She said she hadn’t been able to get to the paper, and probably wouldn’t. I felt jarred. My expectation was that she would help.
I finished the paper and turned it in. A couple weeks later when the papers were returned, the professor pulled me aside and said, “You need to rewrite your paper.” I was shocked. I reminded her that I had asked for feedback early; I reminded her that I didn’t get a response from her. I wanted her to assume some responsibility. I asked her to change her mind. From my perspective, she didn’t do anything I had requested. I interpreted this as her not taking responsibility. I was pissed. Despite my frustration, I needed to rewrite the paper or my grade would suffer.
So, what’s the point?
The point is that when I focused on getting the professor to change her mind, I forgot to focus on and assume responsibility for my own feelings. I blamed her for being the source of my frustration. I developed a story in my mind, a story that highlighted her in the role of causing the problem, not taking responsibility, and myself in the role of the victim. The point is that my attempt to improve the problem by focusing on the professor resulted in no change.
How does this relate to the problem drinker?
If you’re trying to get the drinker to change (cut down drinking, stop drinking, do what they said they’ll do, etc.) and change is not happening, you may be doing just what I did in my little story: In an attempt to improve a situation, you/I try to get another person to change. If changing another does seem to work for you, it rarely works well for any length of time. Improved, lasting change with another (i.e. improve the drinking problem), often improves when you/I change how you react to their behavior. The how is critical.
Things to remember:
- Excessive drinking is a problem.
- Drinking alcohol changes how the brain processes information.
- At any given moment, don’t expect the problem drinker will think rationally, and don’t automatically assume that they’re not.
- The drinker’s thinking and behavior may not be consistent.
- An extended period of routine drinking leads to decreased functioning for a number of organs (brain, liver, heart) and eventually the disease of alcoholism.
I can safely assure you that just telling the problem drinker, “You’re not thinking correctly due to excess alcohol changing how you process information” will not help your communication. It will not help you to feel heard, nor will this stop the problem drinking. It will likely make things worse.
Considerations for you and the family
- Children are affected by the changes in behavior of a parent using alcohol in excess.
- You’ll want to gauge the effect the drinking has on the family.
- If the situation is unsafe or is an emergency, call 911 immediately.
- If you can accept that the alcohol has changed the thinking and behavior of the problem drinker, consider changing your own thinking and behavior to adjust for this.
- Anyone in the family who changes their behavior towards the problem drinking will begin change in the family. This change may be positive or negative.
Your behavior sends a message.
Solutions start with your getting clear about what in your behavior contributes to the drinking problem. And conversely, what in your behavior contributes to the problem improving. The problem drinker has gone through progressive stages of increased drinking, and the family has also gone through progressive stages of coping with the problem drinking. A first step in change is learning to cope differently.
You may be asking yourself, “Why do I have to be the one to change?”
Is there anyone else in the family in a position to change how they respond to the problem drinker? If there is, team up with them. If there isn’t, like it or not, you’re the one. It’s perfectly normal to have doubts, fears, and concerns:
- You may be scared that you won’t succeed.
- You may be scared that there will be negative consequences to your actions.
- You may hope and pray that things will just change on their own.
- You may feel hopeless.
Realize that these doubts, fears, and concerns tend to focus your energy onto the problem drinker and away from yourself. When you are without hope it’s because there seems to be no possibility of success with the problem drinker. In an attempt to regain hope, the tendency is to try to change our outside world so we feel hopeful inside.
Does changing another person ever work?
First, we can never really change another person. We may try. But if we do they may later make us wish we hadn’t. They retaliate. And back and forth it goes in this nasty cycle of finding fault with what we don’t like about someone else. If you’ve found yourself in this situation, think back: Were you ever really fulfilled when you got that other person to momentarily change? How long did the fulfillment last? Probably, until the other person did something you found fault in. This is a self-perpetuating cycle that isn’t fulfilling, at least not for long.
But, I’ve tried to get out of the cycle.
This in itself represents a willingness to better your situation and the situation for your family. Build on this willingness, fan the embers, or reach out to friends – whatever it takes for you to keep it alive. If you’re giving yourself a hard time, realize that being stuck in this cycle doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does prove is that when you’re stuck in the cycle very little is going to change.
Here’s what others have found:
Kathy had been in an 11-year marriage to Joe (not their real names), a marriage where they had two children and which had previously thrived. She felt comfortable in this relationship until Joe lost his job and couldn’t find another. He became depressed and started drinking heavily. She tried to get him to seek help, but he refused. In a painful argument, she even insisted. He still didn’t budge. Their intimate relationship suffered. The relationships in the family suffered. The kids avoided being around him. More than once, Kathy covered for Joe. After a night of staying awake until 2 a.m. when Joe came home drunk, Kathy called for an appointment.
Before she came into counseling, Kathy had felt angry, scared, and sad; she was also very apprehensive of the counseling process in general. Several months later:
- She had a better understanding of how she was affected by the problem drinking.
- She had a better understanding of how she had reacted to conflict.
- She learned how to express herself in an argument so her needs were heard.
- She started to do more for herself.
In summary, it doesn’t work so well to try to get others to change without directly addressing your own needs and feelings. Making these sorts of changes takes work to change habits and patterns. They may have become comfortable, but no longer serve you. Others find that changing how they respond is well worth the effort.
You can succeed at this too!