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How can I ask a relative who drinks a lot to limit his intake around me?

This can be a challenging time of year for many. Miss Conduct shares ideas for setting boundaries.

I used to drink, but haven’t had a drink since 2005. My brother drinks A LOT. How do I politely ask him to only have a couple of drinks and then drink water or soda?

Anonymous / Boston

“Politely” isn’t really the issue here; the problem is that your brother likes to drink, a lot, and there’s a real hard limit to what you can politely reason someone out of. Your brother’s drinking might be a country mile past that limit. It’s still worthwhile to ask, because that will give you a sense of how to deal with the situation in the future. Tell him you increasingly don’t like to socialize with people who are drinking heavily when you aren’t (in other words, frame it as a general issue, not a “him problem”), and ask if he doesn’t mind keeping to nonalcoholic beverages when you’re together. Ask him to abstain rather than attempt moderation — your idea of “a couple of drinks” is almost certainly not his, and you’ll just wind up arguing over the gray area.

This request isn’t unreasonable, and doesn’t single him out or accuse him of anything. All the same, be prepared for him to react badly, or be unwilling to stop his drinking, or agree quite cheerfully and then go back on his word and drink anyway. If this is how things play out, you need to figure out your boundaries. You can’t control your brother’s drinking, but you can say that you’re only willing to meet at dry venues or occasions; you can refuse to serve alcohol in your own house; you can leave when he gets drunk. All easy to say, I know, but so very hard to do — so don’t do it alone. Look into Al Anon and similar communities to find support and help for specific situations. (And congratulations on your sobriety!)


And let me take the opportunity to offer some general advice to readers as the season of overindulgence begins. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — everything in moderation including moderation, after all. But this can be a challenging time of year if you have a hard time saying “no” to temptation, and/or if your family or social circle includes a lot of people who have a hard time hearing that “no.” Preparation is key! Mentally rehearse for any tricky situations or spiked-eggnog pushers you’re likely to encounter. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in arguments or made to feel that you need to justify turning down a drink or a third helping of dessert or that fruitcake with nuts that would put you into anaphylactic shock. (You also don’t need to justify having that third helping of dessert if you want it, even if Aunt Slimfast is side-eyeing you.) And for heaven’s sake, don’t be the fruitcake-foister or cookie cop yourself, even if you’re quite convinced it’s for everyone’s good.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.