Al-Anon as a Support for Family Members of the Addict

Contributor: Heather Purdin, M.Ed., RYT, writer for Addiction Hope

Friends playing at tug of warIf families are viewed as interconnected members, where the action of each individual impacts the entire family unit, addiction definitely classifies as a family disease. When someone develops an addiction, the consequences may cause the entire family to become sick.

You may have never taken a single drink, yet your life could be ravaged by an addiction plaguing your loved one. You may worry for their well-being, future, and even safety and find yourself covering up for their behavior. Eventually, the chronic stress may take a toll on your own health, even placing you at risk of substance use and dependence.

The Children of Alcoholics

Children of alcoholics are up to 4 times more likely to become addicted to alcohol. They also experience higher risks of depression and suicide. Adult children of alcoholics experience higher levels of anxiety than those who grew up on non-alcoholic families, all pointing toward genetic underpinnings.

In addition to impacting immediate family members, addiction also impacts extended family and chosen family, including friends, significant others, and partners.

Thankfully, there is a great resource for loved ones that has survived the test of time, Al-Anon.

What Is Al-Anon?

male and female hand holding each otherOften feeling isolated, most find Al-Anon at a rock bottom point in their lives. Very few people can be expected to handle the complexity of addiction alone. Al-Anon is a self-governing non-profit fellowship of individuals who share one common trait; their lives are impacted by someone else’s problematic drinking.

Founded in 1951, Al-Anon was inspired by Lois Wilson, the wife of Bill Wilson who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1935. After years of seeing addicts recover through AA, Lois decided families, too, could heal and grow from their own 12-step based fellowship.

Because Al-Anon closely mirrors the AA model, Al-Alnon may complement the 12 step work of loved ones, aiding mutual understanding. Al-Anon primarily offers support through free group meetings, but educational literature and private mentoring through sponsorship is also available. Younger family members can attend the Al-Anon associated Alateen meetings.

What Are Meetings Like?

Al-Anon meetings are generally an hour long and peer-led, meaning they are not facilitated by a professional therapist. Paramount to the success of Al-Anon, the groups are anonymous and private. To foster a safe space and sense of security, details from meetings should not be disclosed outside with others.

Most groups have rotating facilitators who lead a weekly discussion topic or an in-depth review of one of the 12 steps. Rather than give advice, members share their personal experiences and testimonies. You may choose to introduce yourself during your first meeting, but sharing is always optional.

While meetings are free, a donation basket may be circulated to help ease overhead costs, such as renting meeting space and printing materials. While the power of human contact can’t be underestimated, online meetings are now available.

Empowerment Focus

family holding handsOver half of Al-Anon members are spouses and many arrive either guilt-ridden or angry they couldn’t “fix” the problem. From the very beginning, guilt and blame are eradicated with Step One, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” It’s a relief for many family members to relinquish such a heavy sense of responsibility.

A popular slogan explains, “We didn’t CAUSE it; we cannot CONTROL it; and we cannot CURE it.”

Al-Anon gives loved ones an option for healing even when the addict is unwilling to recognize a problem or seek help. Al-Anon teaches a variety of helpful family topics including: co-dependency, enmeshment, protecting, care-taking, denial, anger, fear, trust, and healthy boundaries, all of which strengthen the one person you can control: yourself!

Increasing Understanding of Loved Ones

Al-Anon also teaches members how to increase understanding and encouragement of loved ones in ways that aren’t depleting. Increasing assertiveness and communication skills paves way for positive personal development. Because your growth can impact to the entire family system, anyone entrenched in the disease may feel threatened at first.

Therefore, the Al-Anon focus will never be stopping someone else’s drinking. Instead, Al-Anon encourages acceptance of both your family member’s shortcomings and also of how you have been unfavorably impacted by the addiction so you can heal those wounds.

Even when the loved one is unwilling to seek help, Al-Anon helps family members cope better. Al-Anon members also show marked improvements in quality of life, regardless of whether their loved one entered treatment.

Higher Power Focus

A common misconception of any 12-step based program is its association with religion. While compatible with many religions, the program offers a spiritual foundation reminding members through connection to a higher power, they are never alone.

The term “God” is used, “as we understand Him,” in an effort to welcome those who believe in both organized religion and alternatives of spiritual connection such as life-force energy, universal consciousness, nature, and respect of all living beings.


Happy female patient in 40s registering at hospital reception deUnfortunately, Al-Anon remains an under-tapped resource for men. Based on the same 12-Steps and Traditions as AA, researchers sought to understand why the disparity between male (16%) and female (84%) attendance rates.

Al-Anon Family Groups remains one of the most common referral sources for concerned supporting others (CSO’s), but men often have differing concerns than those commonly addressed in meetings.

It would be wonderful if more men would be willing to make valuable contributions to meetings to help Al-Anon improve its impact on both men and women, especially since the half the women attending are wives of men with problem drinking.

Why People Dropout of AA

Researchers also discovered Al-Anon dropouts tend to be strongly concerned with their loved one’s psychological health. Since the focus of Al-Anon is self-growth and development, rather than altering another’s behaviors, researchers proposed the needs of dropouts may have been incompatible with Al-Anon’s self-focus philosophy.

Caregiver burnout research suggests education should concentrate on helping relatives cope with strained relationships and improving ability to cope with the patient’s behavior, which seems to favor the Al-Anon approach.

Al-Anon’s low rate of engaging unmotivated problem drinkers into treatment may make the Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) approach more appropriate for families adamant about getting a loved one into treatment and less concerned with doing their own healing work.


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Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 21st, 2015
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