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A Family Systems Lens on Addiction

Updated: Oct 28, 2019

"More often than not, our automatic and instinctual reactions to a person we love being in crisis lead us into reactive behaviours that tend to fuel and intensify the problem, rather than contribute positively to resolving it."


There are few things more distressing than watching someone we love head down a self-destructive path. Families of alcoholics/addicts often struggle to make sense of, and cope with, the crisis faced by their loved one, and find themselves at a loss in terms of knowing how to help.


Families are sensitive organisms, so when one member is caught in an addiction or other mental health crisis, the entire family is affected. A good metaphor for the complexity of connection and interdependence that exists within families is a web. If there is a disturbance in one part of the web, the impact of that disturbance inevitably ripples out and is felt in other parts of the web. How the disturbance is experienced in each part of the web differs, an intense disturbance in one part, a mild disturbance in another part, but all of the web will be affected in some way. Similarly, in families, when one member is in crisis, the crisis can be felt in varying degrees throughout the web of relationships that the family form.


Just as the alcoholic/addict impacts his family, the family impacts him. In this sense, the family’s power to support and invite change in their addicted love one is often underestimated and misunderstood. More often than not, our automatic and instinctual reactions to a person we love being in crisis lead us into reactive behaviours that tend to fuel and intensify the problem, rather than contribute positively to resolving it.


Families tend to put their time, energy and focus into getting the affected family member to change, rather than directing those resources where they are most useful…into managing and calming their reactions to their loved one’s plight. They tend to start perceiving their family member as not capable of functioning at the same level as others in the family, taking over their responsibilities and functioning for them, as well as absorbing the consequences of their choices for them. The affected person then regularly has reflected back at them the idea that they are not capable of managing their own life, an experience that drives further drinking/using/mental health episodes.


Paradoxically, the more family members become focused on and engaged in anxiously trying to change/save the alcoholic/addict, the less capable the affected person believes they are, and the less space and motivation they have to resolve their own issue. Addicts are incredibly sensitive to their family’s anxieties about them, and the intense pressure they are sometimes under to change so that the family can feel settled again. When family members can learn how to support, settle and look after themselves, in the face of their loved one’s crisis, they begin to be part of the solution.


Even if just one family member can manage to stay connected to the alcoholic/addict but also stay relatively calm, and allow the addict enough space to work out their problem, the entire family system can begin to settle down, and the conditions that invite and support recovery in the affected person are created. Learning how to set limits, allow consequences and keep one’s self safe, is an essential part of such a process.


Families facing alcoholism, addiction or mental health problems of any kind in a loved one tend to do best when they too are guided and supported through the crisis at hand. Participating in ongoing family therapy or Al-anon family groups can bring untold healing and change to families, and provide a significantly increased chance of the affected person becoming well. Families can learn how to effectively manage and navigate their way through the strong emotions, anxieties and impulses generated in them in response to their loved one’s choices and behaviour. They can learn how to be active participants and even leaders in the change process that must occur in order for the person they love to get well.

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