If you or your loved one is battling addiction, you may have experienced feeling that once addiction permeates a family dynamic, there’s no going back. However, family therapy can help. Family therapists are specifically trained in reconciliation, trust-building, communication, and boundary setting, and while family therapy may not be an addiction treatment in itself, it provides a framework for healing the families of people in recovery.
Addiction in Family Dynamics
Untreated substance use disorders (SUDs) permeate the whole household, poisoning relationships and cutting both ways. No person or single event is responsible for the long line of decisions that leads to addiction, but at the same time, our families can hurt us as much as we hurt them. Watching a loved one struggle with addiction can negatively influence friends and family - causing frustration and anger to rise to the surface.
Unaddressed family issues can crop up as powerful triggers at any point in recovery. A person in recovery returning home to an environment that does not feel safe and supportive is far less likely to keep up the sober practices they learned in addiction treatment.
Some behavioral trends in family members of people in recovery can be challenging if not dealt with in a productive and healthy way, and a specialized therapist can help you approach these openly and improve your communication skills in order to deal with them.
Two of the more damaging behaviors are:
Enabling refers to a kind of help we offer our loved ones that protects them from the consequences of their behaviors and is common with a mental health condition like an addiction.
These behaviors may include:
- denying or avoiding the fact that there is a problem.
- covering up for their actions to other family members, friends and work colleagues.
- helping them through financial difficulty.
- allowing them to use their drug of choice inside the home.
- helping them to access prescription medications, drugs, and alcohol.
In the short term, enabling behaviors may seem necessary to help a family member get by; however, in the long term, enabling delays an addicted loved one’s acceptance that there is a problem with their drinking or substance abuse.
This refers to a two-sided relationship of excessive reliance, either emotionally or psychologically. A person struggling with addiction may be relying on an enabling partner’s supportive actions, but more often than not, the second party is also extremely dependent on the addicted partner. Once codependency takes hold, families of loved ones will find it extremely difficult to set healthy boundaries. They may start to assume some of the unhealthy attitudes of their addicted family member or unwittingly adapt their core beliefs to give space to their loved one’s addiction.
Family Therapy for Addiction
Family relationships are a powerful force in our lives. The strength of these bonds can be helpful resources in addiction recovery, and family therapy is an approach that uses this viewpoint to help support loved ones in recovery. It encompasses parents, children, siblings, and partners as a complete unit or family system. The unit is the subject of treatment, and dysfunctional relationships are the problems being treated. That said, contextual factors influence the approach your therapist chooses. For example, a treatment for a family whose child is addicted will not be the same as treatment for a family in which an adult partner is addicted.
Family therapy has a few different schools of thought and methods, not all of which require full family attendance. Many benefits of family therapy can be delivered in one-on-one sessions between a trained therapist and just one member of the family, utilizing techniques such as:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Addiction education for family members
- Written reflection (including journaling, letters to others, or oneself)
- Identifying roles in the family unit
- Learning to articulate emotions with family members
- Communication techniques
- Step-by-step restructuring of family dynamics
- Work on holistic self-care for individuals
Outcomes for Family Therapy
These techniques are extremely positive additions to traditional substance use disorder treatment. They enable members of the family unit to reframe their negative emotions in the context of family functioning and addiction recovery. Simply understanding the basic workings of a dysfunctional system can help people improve their relationships in tangible ways. The interventions of family therapy can support:
- Better communication
- The healthy setting of boundaries
- Independence over codependency
- Emotional literacy between family members
- Improved self-care for the whole unit
Addiction shakes our families to their core, and these relationships deserve and need healing; however, while the people who know us best and love us unconditionally can be your closest support group, they can also be an inescapable set of triggers. In either case, family therapy can help you heal, reconnect, and redirect your relationships in a positive and nurturing way.