By Wesley Gallagher
In addition to establishing healthy habits as an individual, every person in addiction treatment recovery needs to learn how to have healthy relationships with family members and other loved ones.
If addiction thrives in isolation, recovery thrives in community, and whether it’s our family of origin, or the family we’ve created, these loved ones are often the closest community we have.
Addiction and recovery are extremely personal experiences. If you’ve experienced either, you know how isolating they can be. No matter what outside forces affect you, ultimately, you are the one responsible for your actions.
However, we are relational beings, and we require the company and support of others and society as a whole to survive. This is the idea behind the centuries-old expression, “No man is an island,” and its application to coping with addiction and recovery is clear. Family, whether biological or chosen, is especially impacted by your addiction and can play an integral role in your recovery.
What Is the Impact of Addiction on Family Dynamics?
The family unit is made up of individuals, but those individuals are deeply connected and affected by one another. When healthy, a family works as a balanced ecosystem with secure connections and well-established boundaries. But if one member is unhealthy, that ecosystem is thrown off balance. Addiction in families creates an unbalanced ecosystem where other family members adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms or family roles as they try to get back to some type of equilibrium. This often leads to blurring of boundaries and codependency.
The combined impact of addiction and family dynamics is complex and varied. The National Institutes of Health published a study on the emotional and behavioral effects substance abuse has on family systems, including unmet developmental needs, impaired emotional attachment, financial hardship, emotional distress, and abuse. Everyone in the family is affected by addiction, even if just one person is experiencing it personally.
Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, an expert on addiction and codependency, helps to explain why addiction is considered a family disease. Every dysfunctional or alcoholic family has members whose behaviors fit into a distinct role of some kind. In her book, The Family Trap, Wegscheider-Cruse identifies the six primary family roles in addiction as follows:
This is the person struggling with substance abuse, whose primary way of dealing with problems is through alcohol or drug use. An individual with mental health issues can function in the same way in a family. They become isolated and fracture relationships over time as they blame others for their problems and fail to realize how their actions affect others.
2. Enabler or Caretaker
This person tries to mitigate harm by making excuses or doing things for the addicted individual and is usually in denial of problems, including the addiction. They hide the addiction to hold the family together and keep things “in house.” This is often the spouse of the addicted individual, but can also be a child.
This is the responsible overachiever who tries to save face for the family by being successful. They seek control and are often a Type A personality.
This person is blamed for all of the family’s problems and often acts out to deflect attention from the addicted individual’s problems.
5. Mascot or Clown
This member tries to calm the waters through humor or getting into trouble, acting as the “class clown” and using humor as a defense against their own emotions as well.
6. Lost Child
This is the quiet loner who copes by avoiding attention and flying under the radar.
It’s important to remember that these are just examples of family roles in addiction, and not everyone falls neatly into one of these categories. But it’s likely to find several of these family dynamics at play when someone is struggling with mental health, substance abuse, and any co-occurring disorders.
How Family Roles Affect Addiction Recovery
While addiction is undoubtedly hard on families, recovery can come with its own set of difficulties. If a family has found an equilibrium, albeit unhealthy, with you and your addiction, your decision to seek recovery will naturally upset the equilibrium. This is just one reason why addiction treatment and family involvement should ideally go hand in hand.
In addition to establishing healthy habits as an individual while you’re in recovery, you also need to learn how to have healthy relationships with family members and other loved ones. Since relationships are a two-way street, the best results will come when both of you are seeking healing. And there’s likely to be a lot of healing needed in the family of a person recovering from addiction or mental illness.
So, while family members can be a great source of support, they may need to go through their own version of “recovery” before they can be there for you in yours. Family counseling or therapy services can help everyone in the family navigate the complicated and changing dynamics of relationships in recovery.
Fortunately, family members can also be your biggest champions in recovery, offering support, encouragement, accountability, and hope as you seek healing. They are the ones most likely to be there for you, no matter where you are in your journey. And their support can come in all shapes and sizes. Some family support examples include:
- Emotional support and help with goal setting
- Financial support during and after addiction treatment
- Stable home environment
- Accountability for coping with addiction and maintaining sobriety
- Unconditional love for inevitable missteps and mistakes along the way
If you haven’t lately, take some time to appreciate the family, biological or chosen, who has been with you through your addiction and supported you in your recovery. It’s good to reach out to those you love to tell them how thankful you are for them.
Healthy Change: Breaking Family Patterns
As an addiction persists, unhealthy family roles or coping mechanisms can easily remain entrenched for years. Consequently, breaking family patterns may be difficult to achieve during the addiction treatment process. However, with the right strategies in place, your whole family can take steps to establish a new, healthier equilibrium together.
To start, it’s important for your family members to set proper boundaries for themselves to prevent unhealthy patterns from continuing. Those who’ve played the family roles of caretaker or enabler should especially establish boundaries to prevent themselves from encouraging the longstanding addictions of the recovering family member. At the same time, recovering addicts may need to create their own boundaries with codependent or dysfunctional family members whose actions may lure them back into their addictions. In these situations, it’s key for family members to communicate their desires for healthy boundaries with others in the family unit.
Communicating your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences in therapy as a family member of an addict can also be vitally helpful to break free from dysfunctional family roles. Family counseling or support groups can be safe places for everyone to discuss the addiction’s impact on family dynamics and be heard by professionals who care. As a result, family therapy in addiction recovery can help the entire family, not just the addict, find healing and restoration.
Addiction Recovery and Family Support
If you are a loved one — especially a family member — of someone who has chosen to begin the important journey of addiction recovery, not only does it create a wave of emotions, it can also leave you wondering whether you can do anything to help. But for your loved one, addiction recovery and family support are two critical components of their long-term healing. So how can you provide much-needed family support during your loved one’s recovery process? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers some practical guidance:
- Express Your Support
intentionally communicate with your loved one that you’re there to support them along the way. If you express encouragement and love, you’ll create an environment for healthy conversation and openness.
- Be Transparent
if you have a family history of alcohol or drug use, be willing to share this with your loved one. This helps them feel that they’re not alone in their struggles.
- Show Empathy and Understanding
Coping with addiction recovery can be hard. Be patient with your loved one as the process can take some time. Show compassion and understanding if setbacks or challenges occur.
- Care for Yourself
Your loved one’s addiction recovery can certainly be a difficult experience for them, but it can be stressful and emotionally draining on you as well. Pursuing self-care (and even family counseling) can help you stay healthy as you navigate this together.
Contact Us Today for Personalized Addiction Treatment
If you or someone you love has been struggling with an addiction, it’s important you know that long-term recovery is possible with the right treatment program. At The Meadows Malibu, our residential treatment programs take a holistic approach to recovery, addressing not just your symptoms, but the true underlying causes of your addiction. And with only 12 beds in a private, luxury setting, you’ll get the personal, individualized care you need to accomplish your unique recovery goals. That means your long-term sobriety, and the healthier, more fulfilling life you deserve, can be finally within reach. If you’re ready to take the first step toward recovery, contact us today.