Addictive Family Relationships: Healing Destructive Patterns

In my last blog, I identified characteristics of addictive family relationships. In this blog, I’ll discuss how we can change these addictive patterns by focusing not on individual family members, but on the family unit as a whole. This approach is based on my work with families and extensive research showing individual dysfunction cannot be properly treated without considering the contextual basis within which it arose.


Here’s an example to clarify this point:


A high school honor student began failing classes at school. His parents sent him to me for treatment. The boy refused to engage in therapy and sat through our entire session playing games on his cell phone. In a subsequent meeting with the parents, I discover they are “temporarily living apart until they can sort through the issues in their relationship.” Several months ago, the father was caught having an affair, and the mother has been in a rage ever since.


Viewed through this larger contextual frame, we can better understand the son’s behavior and the root cause of his addictive family relationship. By stepping back, we see his academic failure as a cry for help and an attempt to save his parents’ marriage from destruction.


In order to heal from addictive family relationships, we must understand them from a contextual point of view. Instead of pointing the finger at the person who bears the symptoms, we need to step back and look at the entire family. From this wide-angle, we can eliminate the individual symptoms and move the entire family toward a new paradigm of emotional health.


In evaluating a family holistically, I’m guided by the following two questions:


1. What stresses and destabilizing forces are occurring within the family? Perhaps there is an alcohol or drug problem, marital discord, economic instability, an illness or a mental health issue.


2. How does the “acting out” manifest itself? Here, I focus in on the person who is referred to in clinical parlance as the “identified patient.” This person’s symptoms often illuminate the root cause of the family’s instability. In the above example, the son is the identified patient whose academic failure mirrored his father’s checking out and failure to maintain the integrity of his marriage.


Once I understand the whats and hows in the family, I can help the members, either individually or collectively, move towards a new equilibrium. The goal is to enable the family to re-stabilize itself around things as they are – not as they wish them to be.


In the above example, until the family began discussing its problems in a healthy and constructive way, the son would continue to engage in his addictive family relationship. He loved his parents so much that he was willing to sacrifice his well being to bring the parents back together and reestablish the family.


Fortunately, by participating in family therapy, the son eventually felt safe enough to let go of his addictive family relationship. Even though the father refused to participate in therapy, the mother and son came together and talked. In a safe, structured and contained space, they processed their pain and disappointment, sadness and rage. In so doing, the son returned to his normal level of functioning and the mother resumed living her life. And while the father never fully returned, the mother and son reunited as a new and stronger family unit, better equipped to deal with the challenges and to celebrate the joys of life.


Added to Mental Health, Family Health on Thu 04/21/2011