Addiction and the Family System

addiction hurts the whole family

Addiction hurts the whole family


A family is sometimes referred to by therapists as a system. That might sound overly analytical or technical, but maybe it will help to think of it this way: remember the mobile you hung over the crib for your baby to play with? Lots of different toys hang down on strings, but they are all attached to each other, directly or indirectly. If the baby bats one toy, all the toys will move.

But think about this: sometimes if the baby sets one toy spinning, another toy that isn’t even close by may be affected in such a way as to swing or spin even when the ones in between aren’t moving around much. All are connected, sometimes in ways that seem tangential or indirect and when one starts spinning or swinging, any or all of them can become upset too.

Don’t like that analogy? Consider a knitted sweater. If you get a pull or a loose thread in the sweater, the tension or scrunching up of the fabric can be seen inches away form the loose thread – and that problem can affect the whole garment. Similarly, a family is one whole made of several interrelated parts. A problem, illness, or addiction in one member affects everyone.

Drinking is a Disease that Effects the Entire Family

Professionals in the field of addiction treatment will often refer to families of alcoholics or addicts as dysfunctional families. This can be upsetting or even feel like an attack until you come to understand what is really meant by the word dysfunctional. The prefix “dys” means painful. Think dyspepsia (stomachache), dysmenorrhea (period cramps), or dysphoria (sad/bad mood). The family continues to function (dinners get made, holidays get celebrated, parents go to work and kids go to school), but the functioning happens within a context of pain. People get hurt, promises get broken, misunderstandings occur, but the family soldiers on, often hiding much of the hurt and pain so that to the outside world, it looks like the family is indeed highly functional.

One aspect of this painful functioning has to do with the unspoken rules families dealing with addiction insist upon. These rules are so ubiquitous among families struggling with addiction that they can be listed out, like symptoms of a disease. Often family members, when confronted with this list of family rules, heave a collective sigh of relief and disbelief – how is it that my secret inner life is so knowable to the rest of the world? But that is how consistent these unspoken rules are. These rules are:

  • Don’t talk about anything real. This is where the saying “don’t mention the elephant in the living room” came from. The elephant is the addiction, and like an elephant it is so obvious you have to walk around it to go anywhere – everything you do involves managing it. But you never address it.
  • Don’t express your emotions. Don’t be honest or open. In fact, don’t have emotions if at all possible. If you do, you risk breaking the first rule, which is to address the addiction.
  • Don’t trust. Don’t trust anyone, not yourself, not your family members, not your therapist, or your pastor or even God. The pain of addiction and the rollercoaster of hope and disappointment lead to this rule.

At Odds With the Values You Were Raised to Believe

Clearly these rules are at odds with basic Christian values. How can a person of faith get so lost? While that issue is dealt with in other articles, it helps to remember that addiction is a disease affecting brain chemistry. When a person develops an addiction, the family and community around that person see changes in behavior and may misunderstand and make judgments, but the truth is that behaviors (including following these dysfunctional rules) are symptoms of a disease, just like a fever is a symptom of an infection.

Lots of more specific spin-off rules follow from these three rules that seem to guide the interactions in a family dealing with addiction. While most families do have rules or at least ways of handling each others’ emotions and behaviors, the issue with these rules are that if a family member breaks the rules, all the family members (not only the person with a drinking or drug problem) will unconsciously work to reestablish the rules and get the renegade back in line. Why? Because as painful and uncomfortable as dysfunction may be, it is familiar, known, and in an emotional sense, not risky. Being real, open, and direct is a huge emotional risk to alcoholics and their families.

This is where the notion of codependency comes in. In dysfunctional families, codependency is the pattern of behavior that supports or even needs the addiction to continue. Sometimes the spouse, and sometimes a child or parent becomes codependent – essentially addicted to the addict’s addiction. Most alcoholic or addicts need help maintaining their addiction. They need someone to cover for them, to call in sick when they are hungover or make excuses at the Little League games or parent-teacher conferences. They need an ally and a partner to overfunction in terms of family needs, to compensate for their underfunctioning. This unbalanced and unhealthy balancing act is very common among families struggling with alcoholism or addiction and often once the drinker enters recovery, the person having the biggest struggle to grow and change along with the drinker is the person who has been in this codependent role. Sometimes the addiction so takes over the codependent’s life, they too need treatment to help re-find themselves as a sober person.