Alcohol Addiction and Women

I suspect that in our society we have a stereotypical idea in our heads of what an alcoholic is supposed to look like.  Perhaps the best way to describe the image is as a middle-aged man, in a dead-end job, with very little future.  In our environment, TV, movies, etc., we seem to have that image reinforced.  But don’t let that stereotype fool you into thinking that that middle-aged man is the face of alcoholism.  The truth is that men and women, young and old, professional or laborer, and black and white are all potential faces of alcoholism. It’s interesting to me that a movie from the early 1960s offered a much more accurate representation of who and what alcoholics are, perhaps even more believable than the representations we’re offered today.  When The Days of Wine and Roses was released to movie theaters, society got a good look at Lee Remick’s portrayal of an out of control woman who, when drunk, was every bit as offensive (if not more so) as Jack Lemmon’s was in his portrayal of the alcoholic man in her life.

As much as we might look to deny it, women also become alcoholics.  It’s not a gender-biased disease.  Having said that, however, there are certainly elements of alcohol addiction in women that are somewhat different from what men tend to experience.  Lex (1991) notes the following aspects of alcohol addiction that seem to characterize women’s struggles with alcohol:

  1. Family/Genetic Factors – Women with alcohol problems are more likely to have an alcoholic role model in their nuclear families and to have alcoholic spouses than are alcoholic men.
  2. Onset – Women usually have drinking problems at later ages.
  3. Consumption patterns – Women typically consume less alcohol than men and are less likely to drink daily, to drink continuously, or to engage in binges.
  4. Course of illness – Women progress rapidly from onset of drinking through later stages of alcoholism (known as “telescoping”).
  5. Attribution of Etiology – Women often attribute their drinking to a traumatic event or stress.
  6. Co-existing Mental Disorders. Women with alcohol problems tend to have affective disorders (mood disorders such as depression, mania, and bipolar disorder), whereas alcoholic men are more likely to have antisocial personality disorder.
  7. Societal Response – Women experience more social disapproval for alcohol use, and women with alcoholism are more stigmatized.
  8. Social Consequences – Disruptions for women are more likely to occur in family life and more likely to result in separation or divorce. Disruptions for men tend to occur in the job arena.
  9. Medical Consequences – Women have more liver cirrhosis than men.
  10. Personal Response to Illness – Women with alcoholism generally feel more guilty, anxious, or depressed than do men with alcoholism.

As a society, we are probably becoming much more aware that alcoholism is as much as a problem for women as it is for men.  Perhaps women go to greater lengths to hide their use of alcohol, given their own awareness that society seems to be more critical towards women who become alcoholics.  Sadly, addictions take a truly equal opportunity to gender. Our grandmothers, mothers, wives, daughters and sisters are just as likely to end up struggling with alcoholism as any young or old man in our life. The odds are that will will show up a bit later, but that may be changing as our stereotypes allow women the freedom to express themselves more openly. Perhaps that may mean earlier treatment. Compassion, kindness and thoughful caring support is the recomended approach. It may be a great time for family members to get supportive counseling to learn how to most effectively share feelings and talk openly about concerns.

David L. Christopher, MS is one of San Diego County's premier counseling & marriage and family therapy providers. W/ over 30 yrs experience, his comprehensive approach to individual psychotherapy and couples counseling has helped thousands become effective communicators & develop stronger relationships. Specialties: self-esteem, relationships, ADD, depression, addiction, stepfamilies. His website is
David Christopher, M.S., LMFT

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