Alcohol & Drugs

Coping With a Friend who Drinks Too Much
If you are worried about a friend, or wondering how to handle situations that are likely to occur when he or she is drinking, this article is for you. What kinds of situations?
  • friend misses classes the morning after drinking heavily
  • friend picks a fight while drinking
  • friend picks a fight with YOU while drinking
  • friend engages in offensive sexual behavior while drinking
  • friend gets self into, or fails to get self out of hazardous sexual situations while drinking
  • friend drives while drinking
  • friend wanders outside in the winter and passes out while drinking
  • friend slips on the ice, falls off a balcony, breaks fist or otherwise injures self while drinking.
  • friend has no memory of the embarrassing or hazardous behavior he or she engaged in while drinking
  • friend denies or minimizes your concern about the behavior.
  • friend swears to change this behavior, or to reduce amount of drinking, but doesn't.
Friendship is based on trust and reciprocity. When you express serious concern to a friend about his or her behavior, you expect a serious response. If your friend blows off your concern, minimizes the significance of the problem or even denies that there is a problem at all, the friendship is in serious jeopardy.

Friends do watch out for one another, but we need to know that our attention is both welcome and effective. For example, a friend might ask to you to wake him up in time for class, and once or twice is fine. If he is asking you this repeatedly, because he consistently overdrinks, you might get the sense that your help is very welcome, but the more "help" you give, the less responsibility he seems to take. Another example: your friend asks you to watch out for her at parties, but her drinking seems to make it less and less likely that she will make good decisions about who she interacts with. Furthermore, she starts to argue with you when you suggest it's time to go home. You wonder both how welcome and how effective your help actually is.

Resentment is the feeling that arises when we sense that we are giving more than we're getting back. It's an important sign that things may be getting out of balance in the friendship. We can go to quite extraordinary lengths to help someone out - consider emergency response personnel, for instance - and as long as the help is both welcome and effective, we won't feel resentment. But to continue to offer help to someone who doesn't thank you for it, or keeps getting into the same kinds of situations, or seems to take you for granted - this is the recipe for simmering resentment.

Underneath all of this is the fact that each individual is responsible for how much he or she drinks. It is perfectly reasonable to expect friends to be responsible for their own drinking choices. Unfortunately, well-meaning friends can offer the type of "help" that actually masks or makes it harder to see that each person is responsible for their own drinking choices.

Friendships suffer greatly when one friend is a problem drinker. You may feel tied in knots or trapped by conflicting concerns: how to be a good friend, how to help a person stay safe and make good decisions, how to encourage a friend to take responsibility for their own drinking decisions. Have you found yourself thinking, "If I don't help her...who will?" If it is drinking-related behavior that needs to change, the only person who can truly change this is the drinker. Your friend may or may not welcome straight talk about this. But you are losing the friendship for sure if things stay the same. Risk doing the right thing:

  • Take a hard look at the type of help you are offering your friend.
  • Do the math, and see if the actual benefit is equal to or exceeds the resentment you've accumulated.
  • Consider letting your friend take full responsibility for his or her drinking and the consequences of it.
  • Talk about this with your friend - be direct and sincere.
  • See someone in Counseling Services or the Health Center for support for your position.
  • Look into Al-Anon literature, website or meetings.
Jan Munroe, PhD
Counseling Services