3 Reasons People Tolerate Secondhand Drinking

3 Reasons People Tolerate Secondhand Drinking

There are three key reasons people tolerate secondhand drinking – the most common of which is not understanding the term. The others relate to a lack of awareness of the causes of secondhand drinking – namely alcohol misuse – and the reasons some people are able to reduce the amount they drink while others cannot.

Not Understanding What It Is – Secondhand Drinking Defined

Secondhand drinking is a term to describe the impacts on the person who is on the receiving end of another person’s drinking behaviors.

One of the key reasons people tolerate secondhand drinking is not know what it is.

One of the key reasons people tolerate secondhand drinking is not knowing what the term means.

Drinking Behaviors are the behaviors a person engages in as a result of excessive alcohol changing brain function. These brain changes are caused by a variety of drinking patterns ranging from binge drinking to heavy social drinking to alcohol abuse to alcoholism. These drinking behaviors include:

  • Fighting with friends or family about the drinking; saying or doing things you don’t remember or regret.
  • Driving while under the influence; getting a DUI (DWI); riding in a car driven by someone who has been drinking.
  • Experiencing blackouts – fragmentary or complete; vomiting; passing out – not remembering what was said or while under the
  • Doing poorly at work or school because of the drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking.
  • Having unplanned unwanted or unprotected sex; committing date rape.
  • Being admitted to the emergency room with a high Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), in addition to the “real” reason (e.g., broken arm, feel down the stairs, auto accident).

For more detailed examples of secondhand drinking, check out “Alcohol Awareness Month – 2013,” and for more information on the reasons for brain changes caused by excessive drinking, check out “Understand How the Body Processes Alcohol – Reduce Secondhand Drinking.”

Not Understanding What Causes Secondhand Drinking – Alcohol Misuse Explained

As stated above, it is a person’s drinking behaviors that cause secondhand drinking. And alcohol misuse is the cause of those drinking behaviors. It refers to drinking patterns that exceed low-risk or “normal” drinking limits. For women, these limits are defined as no more than 7 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 3 of the 7 on any one day; and for men, these limits are defined as no more than 14 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 4 of the 14 on any one day.

Alcohol misuse patterns include binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism. When it comes to causing secondhand drinking, the label doesn’t matter. The label does matter when trying to determine how one will change the drinking pattern, however (see next sub-section).

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has developed a single question to screen for “at-risk” drinking, which may be an indication of any of the alcohol misuse patterns described above because the individual is not staying within low-risk or “normal” drinking limits:

  • For women: How many times in the past year have you had 4 or more standard drinks on any day?
  • For men: How many times in the past year have you had 5 or more standard drinks on any day?
  • Standard drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer and 1.5 ounces of 80 proof hard liquor.

An answer of once or more indicates “at-risk” drinking or alcohol misuse. To learn more about drinking patterns – including what is considered “low-risk” or “normal” drinking, visit NIAAA’s website, Rethinking Drinking.

Again, for the person on the receiving end of these behaviors, the label does not matter – whether it is binge drinking (defined as 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women and 5 or more for men), heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse or alcoholism. It’s all alcohol misuse and alcohol misuse changes behaviors because it changes the way the brain works.

Not Understanding When Drinking Patterns Cross the Line to Alcoholism – Which Requires Stopping Drinking Entirely vs Cutting Back

Although it’s all alcohol misuse when it comes to causing secondhand drinking, the labels do matter when it comes to changing a drinking pattern. An alcoholic, for example, cannot drink any amount of alcohol and treat their chronic, often relapsing brain disease, whereas an alcohol abuser may be able to learn to re-drink, to bring their drinking patterns within low-risk limits. These two short videos explain these distinctions: How Much is Too Much and Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.

Not understanding these differences often causes those on the receiving end of secondhand drinking to tolerate it for far, far too long. The longer it goes on, the more destructive it is to a person’s emotional and physical health. Check out “The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking.”

Further Questions

Browse through other posts in the Secondhand Drinking | Help for Families category and please feel free to send me a confidential email to lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com or call me at 650-362-3026.



Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

31 Responses to 3 Reasons People Tolerate Secondhand Drinking

  1. Great information here Lisa. It helps to share the information, because drinking can go on for years with the alcoholic and family members being in denial. So much of the negative behavior that families experience is caused by excessive drinking. When family members can have a clear understanding of the problem, it can make all the difference. Take care.

    • I agree. I know myself, I excused decades of secondhand drinking impacts because I thought drinking was either normal or alcoholic and was so afraid to label my loved ones alcoholics because of the stigma and shame surrounding the term. Thanks so much for your comment, Cathy!

  2. Great article, Lisa. I’ve been sharing an apartment with someone who is an alcoholic…although he says he’s not. I’ve tolerated this for 3 years and an now looking to move out. Thank you for bringing light and understanding to this topic.

  3. Great post Lisa! Being educated is so important! I know personally I never thought about secondhand drinking or its effects. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks, Angie – the term, secondhand drinking, is really helping people open their thoughts to the idea that a person’s drinking and resulting drinking behaviors have an impact on others – especially family members and friends. Thanks for your comment!

    • Thanks, Angie – yes, the term is helping people better understand the consequences to others of a person’s drinking behaviors. I appreciate your comment.

  4. Shari says:

    This is interesting and useful information, Lisa. Good distinction between alcoholism and alcohol abuse as well. Thanks for sharing this.

    • It really helps people to stop tolerating secondhand drinking sooner rather than later – especially as people understand what can and cannot be done depending on which one it is. Thanks so much for your comment, Shari.

    • It’s really helping people take a stand sooner rather than later because they’re not as afraid of the label, alcoholic, and are more understanding of “it” as a progression. Thus the earlier it’s interrupted the better. Thanks for your comment, Shari!

  5. Sharon O'Day says:

    I have watched families being torn apart as a result of second-hand drinking. What’s most devastating is when you see it sliding generation to generation … where you hold your breath in hopes that the problem won’t repeat itself. Yet you know that there’s comfort in the familiar … so patterns repeat themselves all too often.

    • You’ve got that right – hopefully as this information becomes more widely known, people can understand the importance of exploring their family history (risk factors) and from there taking necessary steps to avoid repeating the pattern. Thanks for the comment, Sharon!

  6. Sherie says:

    There is so much harm in alcohol misuse. Your post is a great resource to help people recognize when their drinking (or that of someone close to them) has gotten out of control. You are doing very important work, Lisa, I will be sharing your post.

    • There really is, Sherie. I so appreciate you sharing this one – hopefully it can help someone avoid years of heartache and pain by seeing what they need / can do sooner rather than later.

  7. Lisa, understanding the difference between alcohol abuse/misuse and alcoholism is not something the average person understands. Thank you for sharing these differences. Education is key, the more we share this information the better!

    • Thanks, Meryl. It’s been so rewarding to see how understanding these distinctions has helped people make decisions to do something sooner than they’d likely have done otherwise. I appreciate your comment.

  8. Great post… raise the bar. So many in denial… Sharing this on my fb profile. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Norma. One of the big surprises early in my research was to learn addiction is a developmental disease and that a person does not have to “hit bottom” before they can | will seek help. Hopefully this kind of information helps people experiencing SHD raise that bar! Thank you so much for sharing on your FB profile – really appreciate it.

  9. Tom H says:

    Great information Lisa, many people do not realize that they are crossing over into a problem area due to denial or they use their family/peer group as a reference. Thanks for sharing

    • Boy – denial is a huge factor, as is the social environment, like you’ve described – the family or peer group. When a person lives or works or socializes with heavy (or alcoholic) drinkers, they often consider that “normal” and model it (like you said). That level of drinking may not work in their brain the way it works for their peer or family member. Regardless of whether they cross the line to alcoholism, however, the SHD impacts they cause are devastating. Thanks so much for your comment, Tom.

  10. Excellent information here Lisa – I’ve always said that awareness is the first step to resolving a problem but that can only happen when there is no denial… I think your sharing really shines the light on an area that’s been hidden for a long time for many.

  11. Great information above Lisa. I did not know much about second hand drinking prior to reading. I think alcohol misuse as you stated above is commonly accepted in society because of media examples which is quite unfortunate.

    • Secondhand drinking is a new concept – hopefully a term that will help all of us better understand there is a huge consequence of another person’s drinking behaviors. Thanks so much for your comment, Daniele!

  12. Pat Moon says:

    Thank you for the thorough explanation of second-hand drinking.. it is good to have that information.

  13. Interesting article, in my town people drink all the time. I was never a drinker so I am the odd one out.

  14. Another brilliant article on second-hand drinking Lisa. I think that so many people put up with their partners/family member’s alcohol abuse without realising that they can actually do something about it. The more information they have like this, the more empowered they will become.
    Thank you!

    • Thanks, Carolyn!! I agree – so, so many people put up with the unacceptable behaviors because they do not understand what they or the drinker can or should do to change the situation. Let’s hope this approach helps!

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