Relationship Addictions in Families: Early Detection Warning Signs

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I help people heal from unhealthy, unsatisfying and destructive relationships. Sometimes these relationships involve addictions to alcohol and drugs. Often they involve addictions to other people. The most painful of these addictions to other people occur within our families. It is here, within the family structure, that we deny painful truths and expect different behaviors from the people we love dearly.

Posted on | Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD | Comments ()

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I help people heal from unhealthy, unsatisfying and destructive relationships. Sometimes these relationships involve addictions to alcohol and drugs. Often they involve addictions to other people. The most painful of these addictions to other people occur within our families. It is here, within the family structure, that we deny painful truths and expect different behaviors from the people we love dearly.

Here are 2 examples from my clinical practice to illustrate this point.

A 39 year-old-mother is distraught over her 14 year-old son’s marijuana use. In the very first session it becomes clear the mother suffers from an addictive relationship with her husband. Together for 17 years, the last 12 they’ve spent fighting over the important details (how to raise their son) and not so important details of life (where to go for dinner). The mother is incredibly sad over the loss of the dreams that defined the beginning of her marriage and expresses her sadness through rage.

A family enters treatment to help them deal with their oldest son’s mental illness and drug addiction. The father, a successful 55-year-old, cannot establish healthy boundaries with his troubled 32-year-old-son and continues to bail him out of financial and legal messes. As a result, the family finds itself diseased with a cancer of resentments.

Unlike other addictions where we can point to a substance or behavior and label it “bad”, relationships among family members are much more complicated. No matter how out of control or frustrating a son, daughter or spouse becomes, we stay committed to them through the primal and instinctual love that radiates from our heart.

As a general proposition, this is a beautiful thing. Marriage and families form the foundation of a meaningful life and give it richness and purpose. Too often, however, we get confused as to what’s in our family’s best interest. While our feelings may tell us something is terribly wrong, our intellect steps in and tells us “Never mind," “Why bother,” or “It’s really not that bad.” Through denial and rationalization, the family addiction grows until it causes irreparable damage.

For this reason, early detection of an addictive relationship within a family is important. Before we can solve a problem, we must acknowledge that a problem exists. To help you in this regard, I’ve outlined several key feelings that indicate when family relationships have crossed over into an addiction:

  • Feeling guilty and shameful about a family member’s behavior. Are you afraid the neighbors will find out what happens in your family?
  • Feeling the need to control both the family member’s behavior and your own behavior when around them. Do you feel if you behaved differently things would be better?
  • Feeling like you can’t live without the family member in your life. Does the thought of leaving the relationship or creating boundaries in it make you feel like you’re suffocating or fill you with anxiety?
  • Feeling emotionally and physically exhausted from your relationship with the family member. Do you constantly attempt to enforce boundaries that inevitably get crossed?

If you can identify with 2 or more of these feelings, then you probably have an addictive relationship with a family member. While this awareness isn’t one that you relish, I encourage you hold onto it and not rationalize it away. The key to creating change is clearly understanding what we are changing.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss the steps you can take to start the process of changing addictive family relationships. Until then, hold on to your awareness. It will serve you well in the days, months and years ahead. If you’d like to receive more regular updates on addictive family dynamics find me on Twitter: @drpaulnyc.

Blog written by Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD
Paul Hokemeyer is a licensed attorney, researcher and Marriage and Family Therapist who works with individuals, couples and...