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Marriage Protection: What To Do If the Inlaws Are Alcoholic

The challenges within the first year of marriage are tough enough—but can a young marriage overcome the shadow of an addicted sibling? This wife weighs in on how marital boundaries can save a marriage. 

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By Hannah Jean Kahn

05/05/14

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My sister-in-law was nice enough when my husband and I started dating. On the off-weekend, we’d work part-time for her small catering business and share jokes the way we shared cigarettes and martinis: warm from the belly up and sometimes dirty. She was sassy and savvy and just a little bit older than me. I couldn’t wait to be a part of her family by marrying her brother. 

But two years into our new marriage, my husband could no longer deny that there was a problem. His sister’s alcoholic dementia became more and more real each year, and this year he’d finally had enough. As she raged at him on the night before Thanksgiving, screaming and cursing into the phone, he looked at me with wide eyes and mouthed, “I don’t know what to do.”

That night, we just hung up the phone in shock. And when we saw her the next day, it was as if the outburst had never happened. She was all smiles, all hugs, and all about her double vodka, no ice. She was turning into two different people, and we had no idea what to do about it. 

Addiction Affects the Whole Family: Extended Family Marriages Included 

Dr. Patricia Olsen and Dr. Petros Levounis’ book Sober Siblings puts to words what we all understand: addiction touches the lives of everyone related to the addict. Seven out of ten US adults related to someone suffering from the disease of drug or alcohol addiction say that the family member’s addiction has had a major or minor effect on their emotional health. About a fifth of those who say a family member’s addiction has had a major negative impact on their marriage, family relationships, or emotional health say they sought professional counseling. My husband and I are a part of that latter group, and we entered counseling this year. 

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that we’re the lucky ones. Some marriages don’t survive the problems that pester a family addiction. We're even lucky that it’s only taken us two years to communicate effectively on the topic. Our communication had two particular barriers: first, the guilt my husband faces at being addiction-free in the face of his sister’s alcoholism; second, the pressure my husband faces of protecting his new marriage from dysfunctional family values. 

“WHY ME?”

My husband is relieved that he’s not inclined towards addiction, and so am I. Can you blame us? But that just scratches the surface of the conflicting emotions that come between siblings in a family of addiction.

He feels guilty. He wonders why she became addicted, but he and his brother did not. And until very recently, no one could answer that question for him. 

It turns out that siblings susceptible to addiction have an inborn predisposition to poor impulse control. The frontal lobe of the addicted sibling doesn’t mature as quickly, if at all, and leads important parts of the brain to remain poorly developed: the gyrus (impulse control), and the precuneus (awareness of self). My husband’s childhood indicated some of these developmental problems, but he did not succumb to the allure of drugs and alcohol. His sister, on the other hand, was another story. Her alcohol addiction and impulsive anger became more dangerous as the years progressed.

“WHOSE FAMILY ARE YOU IN?”

The louder, less subtle problem that followed was one of allegiance. As my sister-in-law’s habit became more pronounced, she felt my husband pull away from their dysfunctional, entrenched family. His withdrawal cut to the quick that every newlywed couple deals with in the first year of marriage, but that seems more amplified when addiction is present: Must I choose between my family of origin and my family of marriage? 

On some level, yes, you must make a choice to commit to and defend your spouse as your new family. But what feels amplified in a dysfunctional family is the sense that you’re moving on with a new family and abandoning your family of birth to its problems and addictions. And that’s not so easy. When it came time to prioritize our marriage over his family of origin, it’s not that my husband wouldn’t set boundaries—it’s that he couldn't. 

Al-Anon Family Group’s introductory reference book, How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics, stresses that those who grow up in abusive environments often lose the ability to say no: “We begin to agree even when we know that what is being said is wrong,” the authors write. “We do whatever is demanded of us to avoid conflict.” And while this trait appears to create a more peaceful home environment, it also leads to family values of denial, ignorance, and superficiality. 

My husband wants to help his sister, but the only way she’ll accept help is through manipulative, inappropriate displays of affection and allegiance. Something he gave her when they were children, but that he cannot—and will not—give her as a married, functioning adult. 

Which brings us back to Thanksgiving of last year. It’s hard to pinpoint what really upset her because when we asked to move the location of lunch she began screaming that his head was too far up my ass for her to understand him anymore. She drifted off and hung up, but not before berating him, in no uncertain terms, for not being home with his family. His family of origin, of course—the only family he had in her eyes. In our miserable confusion, we knew it was time to act. 

For the first time in his life, my husband had to take a stand. He had to acknowledge her addiction and choose to invest his emotional health into our marriage. But this turning point wasn’t the relief we’d hoped it would be. In fact, at first we felt defeated. There was so much work to be done, and we felt tied to the problem ‘til death. It seemed like there was no way over or around this hurdle. Then we discovered that the answer was through.

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