SOURCE: Adapted from Helping Troubled Families by Charles M. Sell
An addictive or compulsive family member troubles the whole family, just as an injured part of the body affects the whole person. So too family members will compensate for an addicted/compulsive’s erratic and unreliable conduct by behaving in ways that might worsen the situation. This may shock spouses and children who thought all their problems would go away once the alcoholic stopped drinking or the workaholic took more time off. They were not aware that the whole family, not just the addict, would need to be fixed.
Dysfunctional Family Organization
Typically a troubled family organizes itself around the troubled person with the person becoming the center around which family members orbit. Families need leadership, the kind that empowers its members to express themselves and mature. The kind of control discussed here results in demoralizing family members and stifling their growth. When family life is regulated by such persons, their chaotic, unpredictable, unmanaged life creates a chaotic, unpredictable, unmanaged household. Individual family members’ behavior becomes tied to the troubled person. The tension family members feel makes them describe living at home like “walking on eggshells.” The family’s adjustment to the addiction or compulsive behavior of one of their members is similar to their accommodating themselves to a parent’s working schedule. The effort to make these adjustments is what family systems experts call a process of homeostasis. The family adjusts itself to keep things stable when circumstances disrupt family life. When one person’s behavior changes drastically, the family will adjust to that. They’ll do this for addicts because they care about them and because his or her welfare is tied to their own.
Because the family members are bound together with the abuser, they cannot simply ignore him or her. The troubled person’s erratic, irresponsible behavior becomes unsettling, serious, even traumatic, and family members feel they must do something to get the person to gain control of himself or herself. They will try any commonsense thing to get the person to stop – plead with or threaten him or her, cry, and tell the person how badly they feel. And if those tactics don’t work, they pour the person’s liquor down the drain or send someone to the bar to tell the drinker to come home. Some of these strategies may work, especially in the case of someone whose addiction problems are not terribly out of control. But if these efforts don’t work and the problem persists, the family will make subtle, slow adjustments to accommodate the addict’s behavior, even though they don’t approve of it.
These families will alter their life in a number of areas including:
*Routines – through routines families maintain some stability and order. A strong family is one where these routines are consistently carried out. When families allow their routines to be determined by someone who is out of control, like an addict, the family behavior will become as inconsistent and chaotic as the addict’s life.
*Rituals — Rituals are routines with an added ingredient – significance. Rituals govern the way the family carries out important activities, like praying together, celebrating special occasions, etc. For an example, a mother with an anger problem, under stress of preparing a Thanksgiving Dinner, might lose control of her temper, dampening the family’s holiday mood. If these become regular holiday occurrences, families will begin to expect them and do what they can to lessen the impact. When rituals are modified, their significance may be greatly diminished. Rituals are ruined when the emotions and meanings associated with them are supplanted by the anger and disappointment of having to deal with the problem behavior. It should be noted that all of these alterations in the family are designed to deal with the troubled parent’s behavior not by ignoring it or continuing in spite of it but changing to accommodate it. Families least likely to reproduce addicts were those who did not permit the troubled person’s presence to disrupt the family’s routines and rituals. They distanced themselves instead of accommodated themselves.
*Problem-Solving Procedures – Besides routines and rituals, the family also tries to regulate itself by modifying its problem-solving procedures. These modifications involve doing things to bring a member back into line if that person threatens the family’s stability. Troubled families may use two distinct problem-solving methods. First, they vigilantly guard the status quo, because they tend to be unusually sensitive to any destabilization of the family. Once the family has stabilized around the out-of-control person, they appear to be uncommonly threatened by any other change. Dysfunctional families are generally rigid. Strong families are flexible. As children get older and conditions change in the family, the family needs to adjust. Many of these changes are related to the family’s life phases. All change (good and bad) is stressful, and it can be both good and bad at the same time – like the birth of a child, for example. Arriving at a life stage may trigger a crisis in the family if it is too rigid to handle it properly. The second distinct feature of the troubled family’s problem-solving procedure is using the problem person’s behavior to assist the family in dealing with problems. If this happens, the addictive problem becomes a part of the family’s normal functioning. This has major implications when, for example, an addict stops drinking. The alcohol that has become necessary for the family to function is now gone. Learning how to operate without it may become very difficult for all of them.
*Family Devastation – These changes are especially devastating because the family’s stability now depends on the continued behavior by the addict. This insight helps us understand why it is crucial that the family system change when treating an addictive/compulsive behavior. Otherwise, the system will continue to pressure the troubled persons to stay as they are. Despite the conscious wish to see the troubled person change, family members may have an unconscious desire to have the person continue as he or she is.