How do you help a loved one trapped in addiction?

Watching a loved one whether it be a partner, child, or friend go through addiction is as painful an experience as any other form of illness can be. Many feel overwhelmed by the situation and completely powerless as to what will help them to get their loved one to quit. It becomes all-consuming as the addict or alcoholic takes centre stage within your life. 


Many have tried to control the loved one, only to feel less in control. Many have tried every form of emotional support, or even emotional blackmail, to get the addict to try and see sense. Money has been given, lent, stolen, withdrawn and still no change.

Perhaps you’ve kicked them out of the house, only let them back in on the backend of promises about how they are going to change. They change for a period and you renew resolve of hope, for it only to be destroyed again by another bender or crisis.

You’ve listened to every reason why they drank and used again, you believed once again every promise made, that they will change this time around and things will be different, yet still no change from them.

For many, alcoholism and addiction is a taboo subject, which has been kept within the family only. The thought of others knowing brings about the fear of what others could say, who would they blame for this? What will others think of you?

So, how do you help the alcoholic or addict?

You can’t get them to stop.

You’re unable to make them quit, unfortunately; the desire to quit must come from them. As difficult as it may appear, you will need to take a back seat and wait till they come to you for help. By stepping back, this may give you the chance to work on building a better relationship, as you aren’t on top of them anymore. They may feel more receptive to come and open up to you about wanting help, and this could be the start of them trusting you and you trusting them again.

This can be referred to as 'tough love' or loving from a distance. This will require a huge amount of support on your part. It may even mean you seeking support from a counsellor or a specialist drug and alcohol service, so you’re able to share openly and honestly with someone what you are going through. 

Many loved ones feel a mix of emotions whilst they are waiting for a loved one to get help - anger, shame, sadness, disappointment just to name a few of them. Having specialised support will be crucially important for your own healing process. This can stop the cycle of shame within the family and give others a voice to speak up.

There is a lot of healing in talking about what you are going through and, by you taking the lead and speaking out, it will encourage other family members to find their voice and speak their true feelings of what is going on. Everyone is affected by addiction in a separate way. 

Understanding addiction

Engaging with specialised support will help you to gain some knowledge and awareness about addiction. They will teach you about the illness of addiction and its pitfalls. This will give you skills on how to have open and honest communication with your loved one. It may help you see and understand when they are lying, deceiving or trying to manipulate you.

Accepting certain realities about addiction isn’t a straightforward process. To know that your loved one’s life is at risk and that you can’t do anything to help or save them isn’t easy, however, there is some comfort to be found on the other end of the feeling of hopelessness. If you have and are doing everything you can to support them without enabling them anymore, then there is empowerment within that. 

Setting boundaries and no longer enabling their addiction

Whilst you are starting to make decisions about seeking help for yourself and getting educated about addiction, you will need to set new boundaries in place and not allow yourself to enable their addiction.

You will need to state:

  • What is and isn’t any longer acceptable from them.
  • What you will and won’t do to help them.
  • The consequences if they break the boundaries.

Once you’ve had an honest and frank conversation with them, you will need to ensure that, whatever you’ve stated, you follow through with. Otherwise, this disempowers the boundaries you’ve stated and keeps the cycle of their manipulation and addiction. They may get angry with you and hurt you with words or threats, however, they will thank you in the long run for holding your ground. 

Boundaries can be very basic. At the start, it might look like not being drunk or having used drugs if they want to see you or be in your home. It could be that you will no longer lend them money, you may say you will buy them food, clothes, cigarettes but will no longer hand over cash. Or perhaps they cannot be in the children’s company if they aren’t sober, etc.

If the boundary is broken, then it's best to stay calm and state to them something like:

  • “We’ve talked about this.”
  • “I love you but I’m not accepting this.”  
  • “I’m not about to go down this road once again.” 

This then must be followed up by the consequence you agreed on when you set this boundary. This could be stating you won’t see them for a period of time or indefinitely.

For alcoholics and addicts, the experience of their consequences can sometimes be the only way they will realise what they are doing, it can be a great motivator that will bring about the necessary changes needed for them. A reality check will sometimes help them reach the 'rock bottom' quicker. This is what I was referring to at the start as loving from a distance as, sometimes, “the greatest love is to allow them to hit the bottom.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hertford, Hertfordshire, SG14
Written by Gary Aldridge, Dip.Couns (MBACP) (FDAP)
Hertford, Hertfordshire, SG14

My background as a counsellor comes from working within the field of mental health and addiction. I have worked in this sector for over 8.5 years. I currently work as a team leader in a residential drug and alcohol treatment centre located within Hertfordshire and have a strong passion for helping those affected with addictions and mental health.

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