Effects of Addiction on Loved Ones

Louis Laves-Webb

August 27, 2020

Alcoholism and addiction can affect family members, loved ones, and spouses in many ways. Below, we discuss some of the ways that drug and alcohol abuse can have an effect on those close to an addict or person in recovery. We also discuss how to take care of your wellbeing and how to use the resources available to you.

Pervasive emotional unavailability.

Emotional needs, connection, and experiences are paramount to any truly supportive and genuine relationship. However, within the deep recesses of an addictive family member lives a self-absorbed and preoccupied addict who heartbreakingly lacks the capacity, intensity, or interpersonal bandwidth to be available to another’s emotional experience. This is exceedingly painful for everyone involved and often leads to a bizarre family “dance” in and around this emotional barrier. A dance filled with promissory notes, bargaining, and denial used to keep the family maneuvering around a pseudo functionality. However, this emotional void is ever present, and within its core looms loneliness, depression, and a permeating longing for connection from everyone involved.

It becomes an additional member of the family.

Simply put, the addiction becomes another member of the family. This happens seemingly instantaneously, and with it comes an ugly family cornerstone that demands attention, satisfaction, and unparalleled access to the entire family system. This new “family member” is inevitably enabled to take up space and soon directs the mood and temperament of the entire household. It is a jealous and temperamental addition, wrapped in interpersonal neglect and self-absorption, slowly inhaling all the life-affirming oxygen of the family system.

Chaos, insecurity, and volatility IS the family culture.

The family culture tends to become one of intensity and confusion, where “waiting for the other shoe to drop” is like a new family crest and “walking on egg shells” becomes normalized and seemingly second nature. The family system has a systemic failure and emphasizes a “do not disturb” approach over intimate connection. Sadly, this can become the norm, and over time, it slowly devolves into the preferred standard, leaving in its wake diminished relationships and entrenched psychological defenses.

Neglect is normalized.

Addiction takes up time, energy, and resources, leaving very little for other members of the family. This pattern of neglect is insidious and often traverses the family with an almost unrecognizable presence. However, neglect is never benign and has sincere costs related to individual pursuits, advocacy, and overall emotional care. Neglect often has far reaching impacts, taking years to understand, untangle, and ultimately heal.

Enabling is the oxygen.

Enabling is often used to describe the family mechanisms used to help perpetuate the addiction.  This can include: making excuses, denial, “rescuing behaviors”, or secrecy. It is almost inevitable that where one finds addiction, one will find enabling. This type of family dynamic fuels the addiction cycle and bolsters the role addiction plays within a family system. This behavior can be acted out unconsciously, adding even greater confusion and complications to an already challenging situation.

How to Protect Your Wellbeing

If you are in a relationship with an addict or an alcoholic, there are several actions you can take to protect your mental and emotional wellbeing.

Seek out support.

Addiction is concealed in secrecy and lies. It’s paramount that additional support is sought out and enlisted, so that one does not stay isolated or alone. Additionally, support can serve as a litmus test for sobriety and appropriate family functionality. Furthermore, additional support can help provide psych-education, resources, or simply offer a listening ear. Support can be varied and include: Al Anon meetings, counseling, good friends, or extended family members.  

Prioritize yourself.

Because addiction can have such a strong gravitational pull, it can become easy to forget about yourself and simply focus on the addict. This type of behavior can not only lead to unintended enabling but can also threaten your own mental health needs. Think of prioritizing yourself as your ally in managing the addiction; Not only are you modeling self-care and positive advocation but you are also, by definition, establishing boundaries and changing enabling patterns and behaviors.  

Make them come to you.

Instead of capitulating to your addicted family member’s every need and desire, try changing up the cadence. Try sitting still and focusing on yourself. Start with you. Try meeting your own needs and desires for a while, allowing them to “sit with” their own anxieties and insecurities a little longer before rushing to take them away. Provide some time and space for the addicted family member to come to you and offer reciprocal support, thereby, “earning” your care and attention through positive reinforcement and subsequent actions. Remember, their work pertains to addressing their addiction but your work pertains to refocusing your energy on you and your loved ones.  

Codependency isn't your friend.

The challenging truth is that sometimes, it is simply easier to take care of another than it is to take a deep dive into truly cultivating yourself. “Hiding” behind a caring persona or savior complex, unfortunately, does not exclude us from our own psychological developmental needs.  We are each tasked with the work of tapping into our own potentiality, achieving a fulfilling life, and fertilizing our interpersonal relationships in a meaningful way. These tasks are never easy and can ask us to grow in ways that are uncomfortable or even overwhelming at times.  However, they allow for growth and promise in ways which a codependent stagnation simply does not.

How to Create Boundaries

While there are several ways to protect your wellbeing, the most important one involves creating boundaries. These can vary between the spouses, children, parents of the addict.

Priorities, not boundaries.

Boundaries often infer some type of action or energy. When you’re in the midst of an addictive family member’s transgressions, further action can feel almost impossible. Instead of “establishing boundaries”, focus on your priorities and see how that feels. For example, you might say, “Right now, I’m helping the children with their homework. I’ll come speak with you after."  

Show me; don’t tell me.

There’s an old joke in the field of addiction recovery that asks, “How do you know when an addict is lying to you?" The answer is: when they’re speaking. Rationalizations, avoidance, and denial are at the heart of all addictions. Part of your work is to cut to the quick of the BS. Actions will always speak louder than words and part of your standards need to include actionable items. The therapeutic subtlety is to hold the standard while refraining from judgement or righteousness on your part. These types of emotions can quickly swirl into an emotion-filled discussion, further perpetuating rationalizations, avoidance, and denial. Work on keeping it simple, actionable, and calm.

Warm but unavailable.

Individuals in the throes of addiction often have intense emotions, momentous mood swings, and cut-throat argumentative styles. The key component to maintaining boundaries, decreasing tension, and offering accountability is to simply be, WARM BUT UNAVAILABLE. This includes not taking things too personally and reflective listening, while continuing to have your voice. The key component is emotional regulation and subtle warmth. This technique offers empathy and care, coupled with asserting yourself and setting limits.  

How to Use Available Resources

Al-Anon and Narc-Anon are among the many resources available to families of alcoholics and drug addicts. In addition to offering support, these types of resources also play another role in helping loved ones.

To enlist support.

Although every individual is unique, there are some commonalities within the dynamics of addiction. Al Anon and Narc-Anon offer support pertaining to these dynamics. Addiction is complex, families are complex, and addicted families can be even exponentially more complex.  These support groups provide wonderful resources, psych-education, and mentorship to help individuals and families navigate the complexity.

To stop enabling.

The pervasive patterns of enabling behaviors in families can be really challenging to see, comprehend, or change. Support structures like the above-mentioned offer excellent guidance around pattern recognitions and skill building exercises.

To recalibrate family dynamics.

Change is hard. Even positive changes can be difficult. Support structures can be a wonderful ally in assisting families with sobriety and the corresponding systemic changes. “Getting sober” is always a “family sobriety” as well. It takes a lot of courage, hard work, and lasting behavioral changes, which can be greatly enhanced with strong support and care.

What to Remember About Addiction

The loved ones of an alcoholic or an addict need to remember that addiction is misappropriated intimacy and that’s why it hurts. Human beings are destined to connect with one another. We have an extremely long gestation period relative to other species, we attach deeply to our caregivers, and we are social animals. This innate and instinctual need for intimacy is real and life-long. However, sometimes, along the way we develop emotional barriers to this intimacy. We may have had significant traumas, ruptures in trust, social isolation, or developmental injuries along the way. Sometimes, when these types of injuries occur, we just seek out “safer” means of receiving “intimacy”. After all, a cigarette will always have my back, offer support, and truly see all of me. The need is real, but the mechanism is limited. Ultimately, only another human can offer true intimacy. Addiction represents an injury and a deep desire to bond. Of course, recovery is a formidable journey, but with help, support, and humility, there does exist emotional repair and an absolute connection on the other side.---If your spouse, family member, or loved one is struggling with addiction, it is important that you take care of yourself too. Addiction can have a negative effect on those around the addict. If you're interested in talking to a therapist about your experience supporting an addict, contact our Austin therapists to schedule an in-person or online appointment.

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