The Addicted Family - Addiction and the Family

Let’s contrast the family described above with one that is dealing with addiction. This family is also task oriented, but the primary task is different - it is no longer the promotion of the emotional growth and well-being of its members but has become one of dealing with the addiction and coping with the consequences of the addict’s behavior.

To this end, a number of mechanisms develop. While the addict is trying to manipulate the family so that he or she can continue to use alcohol or drugs, the family is trying to manipulate the addict into stopping. The addiction has taken center stage, but the other tasks, such as raising children, making a living, and meeting physical and emotional needs, are still important and must be tended to somehow. The family develops a variety of ways of completing necessary tasks while being taxed by the addiction. But because addiction stresses the family’s emotional resources, members often compromise by putting aside what appear to be less important needs in order to meet more pressing ones. These compromises lead to what addiction professionals call dysfunctional patterns of interaction.

The term “dysfunctional,” though, should be be seen in the proper perspective. The ways in which various families cope with addiction are so similar that one wonders whether this is a “normal” way for a group or a family to adapt to the presence of an addiction. The dysfunctional nature of the patterns and coping skills tends to become more apparent when individuals raised in addicted families attempt to function in other settings, such as at school, on the job, or in relationships outside the immediate family. It is in those situations that the impairment in emotional and interpersonal functioning becomes most apparent.

The specific manifestations of the dysfunction in the addicted family depend on the circumstances even if the overall patterns are similar. Those circumstances might include the position of the addict in the family (spouse, parent, child), whether or not there is abusive behavior, how vital the addict’s role is in the overall functioning of the family, and outside resources the family can use in adapting to the addiction.

In some families the dysfunction is subtle and in others it is quite blatant.

Nonetheless, there are some characteristics that are common to most addicted families. These include denial of the addiction and an emphasis on the appearance of normality to outsiders; a tendency to assign and displace blame; an unspoken ban on the expression of strong negative emotions, especially anger; confiict about how to deal with the addict’s behavior, which may split the family into factions; problems with boundaries in relationships and between generations; difficulties with trust and intimacy; and the adoption of characteristic roles that reflect the pathological demands imposed by the addiction.

Denial of the Situation
The addict’s behavior is often embarrassing and leads to embarrassing consequences, such as encounters with the law, lost jobs, or social ostracism. As we have seen, the addict develops a system of denial that allows for a disconnection between the memory of a negative consequence and the associated emotion. The family does much the same thing.

For all the turmoil caused by the family’s frantic attempts to control the addiction, members also try their best to maintain appearances, to put their best foot forward. In the face of the addict’s deteriorating behavior, families will go to great lengths to minimize and justify the situation and to present a positive image to the outside world. This is a family with a secret, and with a secret comes deception.

Facing the truth about the addiction is often just too painful. That would be the healthiest course of action in the long run, but it is not the one that many families take at first. What develops instead is an unspoken agreement that the truth about the addiction will not be discussed or revealed to outsiders. In some families this deception becomes so pervasive that family members themselves are unable to perceive that the addiction exists, and they proceed with life as though it is not present at all.

But one of the consequences of building a system of denial is that the family has to deal with the frequent crises that accompany addiction while ignoring a large chunk of reality - that of the addiction itself. If the alcoholic father loses his job, the family does not permit itself to recognize that it was because of the addiction to alcohol. It has to be someone else’s fault. Enormous effort is sometimes expended on the wrong problem, while the family system continues to move toward disaster. It’s not unlike what happened when the captain of the Titanic chose to ignore the icebergs.

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