Why Do Alcoholics Typically Relapse?

Recovery from alcohol abuse or dependence is an ongoing process. Sometimes individuals have lapses, in which they briefly drink again, but then return to their sobriety goal within a day or so. A relapse occurs when they stop working on their goal entirely and return to their previous level of use. A relapse usually features the same inability to limit drinking, trouble with relationships and prioritization of alcohol that led the individual to pursue sobriety in the first place. A 2014 study found that 40 to 60 percent of people treated for addiction or alcoholism relapse within a year. Relapses are even possible for individuals with years or decades of sobriety.

What Causes Alcoholics to Relapse?

Alcoholism is a chronic disease with no cure. Recovery is a daily process that takes ongoing work and maintenance. Certain triggers, stumbling blocks and adversity may cause relapse as individuals progress through their sobriety. Awareness of these signs can help us understand why relapses happen.

Ignoring Feelings and Emotions

Drinking may be a coping mechanism an individual used to avoid or suppress their feelings. Once in recovery, they must be aware of their emotions and how they respond to them. Stress, sadness, guilt and anger can all trigger a relapse as the individual seeks a way to handle overwhelming feelings. Resuming alcohol use may be a reflexive response. Recovering drinkers need to be aware of their emotions and develop healthy ways to cope with them.


Maintaining sobriety is a lot of work. Individuals working through their recovery should be proud of their accomplishments. However, success can breed complacency that allows thoughts like, “One drink can’t hurt” to enter their mind. While milestones should be celebrated, they can also be a pitfall for many recovering drinkers.

Unrealistic Expectations

Alcoholism recovery is a lifelong process. No one is ever “cured.” While many former drinkers feel euphoric or transformed in the first few months of recovery, stopping drinking does not solve all problems. Financial, familial and professional stressors still occur. Alcoholics can be discouraged when the hard work of recovery does not meet their expectations.

Loneliness and Isolation

Recovering individuals may feel isolated, especially if group counseling was part of their treatment. Those working through their recovery who remove themselves from situations with friends or relatives whom they used to drink with may feel cut off and isolated. Transitioning to life as a non-drinker upends social circles and can leave individuals feeling like an outsider if they’re hesitant to attend work functions or parties where they know alcohol will be present.

Unpreparedness for Sober Life

Those in recovery need to be aware that lapses and relapse are possible and a part of recovery. Those who haven’t examined ways that family dynamics, toxic friendships, social isolation and unhealthy habits can trigger drinking are more susceptible to relapse. Without a plan to deal with anticipated adversity, individuals may be caught off-guard.

Guilt or Shame from a Lapse

Lapses are a common part of recovery, but can quickly spiral for an alcoholic. An individual who is diligently focused on their recovery can become disillusioned and angry at themselves for a lapse. This may compound as they deal with guilt by continuing to drink or give up on their recovery over feelings of hopelessness.

Lack of a Support System

Recovering alcoholics need a solid support network immediately after treatment ends and throughout their recovery. Open communication with individuals the recovering person can rely on to hold them accountable is critical. Friends and family are important, but alcoholics need a broader network to prevent relapse. Twelve-step programs and sober groups offer a community alcoholics can rely on.

Not Prioritizing Recovery

The unending process of recovery requires daily work. Recovering alcoholics must make their recovery the center point of their life to maintain sobriety. Individuals are prone to relapse when they overlook their recovery due to other important life commitments. Those who pursued treatment to please a loved one or at the recommendation of an outside party, like an employer, are highly vulnerable to relapse.

Get Help for a Relapse

Every alcoholic and their support system needs to be vigilant about relapse triggers. If you or a loved one senses a relapse or has already relapsed, the best way to return to recovery is by reaching out to a counselor for help at 833-846-5669.