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Marriage Protection: What To Do If the Inlaws Are Alcoholic

By Hannah Jean Kahn 05/05/14

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. 


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. 


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.


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.

Family of Origin Versus Family of Marriage 

It turns out that it’s common for a new marriage to bring up conflicting duties between the new marriage and one’s family of birth. And establishing that marriage in the shadow of addiction and abuse? Even more difficult. 

According to Dr. Robert Ackerman, Professor of Sociology and Program Coordinator at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, those who love an alcoholic go through four phases as they come to terms with the situation: reactive, active, alternative, and family unit. 

During the reactive stage, family members of the alcoholic develop dysfunctional coping strategies. In my husband’s case, his childhood and young adulthood around his sister led to a native language of denial and enabling. He developed a particularly passive nature and a strong desire to keep the peace at any cost—even at the cost of her continued alcohol use and dysfunction. 

In the active stage, family members of an alcoholic acknowledge the situation and start to make a plan. They might think about cutting the cord and avoiding the family member entirely, or they might try to avoid the topic in hopes that it will get better on its own. Or they might, as we did, seek counseling for themselves to put together a plan of action.

When people who love an alcoholic reach the alternative stage, they move forward with the decision they’ve made: to end the relationship, to seek out an alternative living situation, or to place boundaries within the relationship. If successful, the alternative stage culminates in seeking help for the alcoholic and setting boundaries in one’s personal life. 

The family unit stage, the final stage, is one that some families may never reach: after establishing boundaries, embracing the addiction, and working together, the families or relationships begin to improve. Those who need it find health and support and the family reaffirms its bonds of love.

Helping an Addicted Family Member While Fortifying your Marriage

You can help your addicted family member while also setting boundaries on behalf of your new family by marriage. Here are three helpful principles to guide your decision-making that will also encourage a healthy marriage: 


Make a list of co-approved things you can do to help. Rather than work from a place of fear and individuality, come together as partners to decide what each member of your marital family is comfortable with. For example, it was my husband’s first instinct to call more and to be more available to his sister, but that didn’t sit well for me. It may take a long time to work out agreeable terms with your partner, but it’s important that each spouse has the space to decide what those terms are so that the solution has buy-in from both spouses. 

Stand up for each other. Feeling threatened by a sibling’s new relationship, the addicted sibling-in-law may lash out at the new spouse. As a spouse, I speak from experience. It’s difficult to watch your new husband bend over backwards to please a manipulative family member, especially when that family member insults you or is otherwise unkind. That’s where your spouse’s commitment to your new marriage must come in: your spouse must make it clear to his extended family that the new spouse is to be treated with respect and civility. Disagreements are allowed; insults are not. 


Detach to create space. How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics emphasizes the benefits and importance of healthy detachment. Healthy detachment—not manipulative detachment—promotes emotional consistency and provides a safe space in which to make decisions. The decisions you make when feeling detached come from a position of love and confidence, not from fear and pain. Use detachment to make decisions that will help your addicted sibling while respecting the boundaries of your new marriage.

Detach to be able to love the addict. Al-Anon Family Group’s reference book also emphasizes that “detachment with love allows us to hate the disease of alcoholism, yet step back from that disease in order to find love for the alcoholic.” This is an important step both for the sibling of the addict and the in-law of the addict. It’s not about bitterness, resentment, and condescension; it’s about emotional distance and life-giving decision making.


Seek non-inflammatory truth. In How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics, the authors make an insightful point while relating the dynamic between alcoholics and those who love them as a game of tug of war. If you’re holding one end of the rope and your alcoholic family member tugs the other, it seems natural to tug back. It takes a long time to realize that you don’t have to—that it takes two to play tug of war. Instead of continuing the dialogue of denial and superficiality, seek out ways to communicate openly and without inflammatory statements. Work as a team to plan out phrases in advance that can help your spouse express his disapproval without being out-right argumentative. Aim to be clear and kind, but to avoid judgmental or unkind statements. 

Focus on what you’re passing down. For members of a dysfunctional family, moving along with the status quo can seem far less dangerous than making waves. But as leading expert and author Tian Dayton, M.A., Ph.D., TEP, writes, “if the addict does not engage in a full recovery process, they are asking both themselves and their family members to live with emotional and psychological burdens that can keep the family and the individuals within it mired in dysfunctional patterns of relating that get passed along through the generations.” Commonly referred to as “passing on the pain,” not addressing systemic problems of addiction and dysfunction can have a dramatic and negative impact on everyone who shares in your family’s future: your nieces, nephews, and your own children. Thinking of the future generations to come is a great way to find strength in yourself to approach your addicted family member. 

I can’t say what the future holds for my sister in law, but I know what it holds for my husband and me: a life of honest communication, understanding, and open-handed love for his sister on her journey out of addiction. For those spouses battling with their conflicting emotions, I encourage you to take heart. In many cases, there is a way through—not over or around—an addicted in-law that will bring strength, compassion, and caring to your marriage and to your relationship with your extended family. By putting into place loving but firm boundaries, your new marriage will establish healthy relationships as a family value for you, your spouse, and future generations of your family.

Hannah Jean Kahn is a pseudonym for a writer living in Virginia.

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