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Addiction as a Family Affliction

In family systems, addiction affects everyone.

CC0 Public Domain / FAQ
Source: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ

Families form systems that are much more than the individuals who comprise them. Every family has its own “organization,” and family members develop particular ways of acting and reacting with each other and with the outside world. These patterns of interaction between family members give each family system a particular equilibrium and style related to such areas as expectations (spoken and unspoken); how feelings are expressed (or not); how conflict is managed (or avoided); how family issues are communicated in the world outside the family system; and what roles and responsibilities family members are assigned—consciously and unconsciously. These factors help shape the personality styles and behaviors of each family member.

Change in any part of the family system leads to changes in all parts of the system.

Think of a mobile hanging from the ceiling or over a crib in a child’s room: each part is inextricably connected to the other parts such that, when one part moves, all of the other parts move in response to it. As it relates to families, this process can work in a variety of ways.

For example, when one family member—for instance, a parent—is overly responsible and controlling, this influences the attitudes and behaviors of other family members. Adult partners and children both typically respond by becoming somewhat less responsible.

Conversely, when a family member struggles with active addiction, he or she usually under-functions and behaves irresponsibly. This, too, shapes the behavior of other family members. They typically respond by becoming more controlling and overly responsible. Whenever a family member struggles with any serious ongoing condition, everyone in the family is significantly affected. The equilibrium or balance of the family system shifts as each member changes and adjusts accordingly. These changes usually occur incrementally, subtly, and unconsciously.

The havoc active addiction creates in families and relationships stresses everyone in these “systems”—parents, children, siblings, spouses, partners, close friends, etc. Active addiction destabilizes the home environment, disrupts family life and muddling relationships, and often compromises finances, as well as mental, emotional, and physical health. Without assistance and unless family members and significant others learn and practice how to do things differently, these effects can be chronic and long-term.

The addiction of a loved one brings up many difficult questions that may leave you unable to understand what is happening and why, and feeling like you are riding an emotional rollercoaster you can’t get off. You may find yourself struggling with a number of painful and conflicting emotions, including guilt, shame, self-blame, frustration, anger, sadness, depression, anxiety, and fear.

No one, and no family, is immune from addiction. Like any other chronic disorder, addiction to alcohol and other drugs afflicts people regardless of age, income level, educational background, race, ethnicity, religion/spirituality, sexuality, and community. Anyone can become addicted, and anyone can become affected by another person’s addiction.

No one comes into this world knowing how to deal effectively with the addiction of a loved one. Fortunately, a process of recovery is also available to the family members and significant others of addicts to promote their own health and healing. This process involves becoming consciously aware of the specific ways in which addiction affects families and relationships and learning a new set of skills that must be practiced on an ongoing basis.

Recovery for family members

You may be thinking, Why do I need to change anything? He/she’s the problem! Among the greatest challenges family members and significant others face in getting help for themselves is that they believe the problem rests exclusively with their addicted loved one and/or their situation and that everything will be okay if only their addicted loved one gets “fixed.” And as long as they stick to this belief, the problem usually continues to get worse.

Obviously, you didn’t cause your loved one’s problem, and experience demonstrates (often painfully) that you can’t control the problem—however, there are ways in which family members often unknowingly contribute to the problem.

For the family members of those struggling with addiction, the basic foundation of recovery is the conscious awareness and non-judgmental acceptance that everyone is responsible for their own behavior in any situation, and the only part of the problem that you have 
the ability to change is your part. The only thing you can change is you, and this is the essence of the recovery process—whether for someone in active addiction or their family members and significant others.

Recovery involves learning, growth, and healing. It is a process by which a person learns and practices new patterns of living—developing the awareness and building the skills to live a whole, healthy, and healed life. Being in recovery means that a person is participating in life activities that are healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling for them.

Similar to working out physically, progress in recovery requires learning how to go through a certain degree of discomfort and pain—as in no pain, no gain. Like other areas of life, the greatest growth comes from pushing yourself to go beyond the boundaries of the boxes of familiarity and comfort that you have constructed for yourself.

This is a journey that can help you learn how to be okay within yourself no matter what is going on outside of you, and regardless of whether or not your addicted loved one ever finds their own recovery.

Copyright 2016 Dan Mager, MSW All Rights Reserved.

I am the author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain.