Recovery and the Family

“If the addict is pleased with your help, you are probably enabling…

If the addict is pissed as hell, you are probably helping!”

Sandy Swenson

Addiction has an impact on every member of a household, from the oldest members of the family to infants, toddlers and teens. When someone in your home has a drug, alcohol or process addiction, every generation feels the consequences, and everyone needs help dealing with these devastating effects.

Addiction is a family disease and one of the most useful lenses through which to view it, is the theory of Bowen Family Systems. The pioneers of family therapy recognized that; current social and cultural forces shape our values about ourselves and our families, shape our thoughts about what is “normal” and “healthy,” and shape our expectations about how the world works. It was Dr. Murray Bowen who was the first to realize that the history of our family creates a template which shapes the values, thoughts, and experiences of each generation, as well as, how that generation passes down these things to the next generation.

In general, Systems Theory stresses the importance of groups and their influences over individual people. We all exist within a set of nested social systems. These nested social systems can include families, organizations, neighborhoods, societies, cultures, etc. According to Systems Theory we can only understand individual behaviour by considering these group influences.

Addiction is entwined in the larger social systems that surround an individual. To illustrate this somewhat confusing concept, consider a single cell within an organism. In order to understand the behaviour of a single cell, we need to understand the tissue, the organ, the organ system, and the body, in which the cell is functioning.

Systems Theory proposes that all systems aim for balance and harmony. The common expression, “Don’t rock the boat” aptly describes a system’s need to maintain balance. Therefore, every individual within any given system participates in the maintenance of that balance.

However, if the natural balance (status quo) of a structure is dysfunctional, then the system serves to maintain that maladaptation. In other words, it would “rock the boat” if we tried to improve the health of that structure. In this way dysfunctional systems can unconsciously promote and foster addictive behaviour.

Like all organisms, families operate to maintain a balance. Usually this entails activities and pressures to avoid change. When someone in a family attempts to discontinue their addiction, it affects all the family members. Recovery “rocks the boat.”

Altering any family situation means readjustment of the total system, and can pose problems and challenges for every single member. When individuals live together in an intimate environment, such as a family, they begin to set limits on each other. There is a range of behaviour that is acceptable and a certain amount of deviation that is tolerated. When individual behaviour threatens to violate the limits that have been agreed upon, members respond by trying to re-establish the limits and to preserve the stability of the family system, to return to homeostasis.

Homeostasis is a key concept in Family Systems. It is defined as the tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence.

Most psychotherapy conceptualizes ‘illness’ as a problem with an individual. Family Systems conceptualizes problems in terms of imbalance that occurs in the network of relationships, regardless of individual personalities.

The family is a system whose job is to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium. When addiction or mental health issues affects one member of the family, it can and often affects all parts of the family. As the dysfunction grows, the family finds ways of coping by taking on roles to continue homeostasis. Not only do roles form, but so do rules on how the family behaves within and outside of the system. If families do not find ways of healthy healing, the dysfunctional ways will replicate throughout generations.

If each member of the family whether they are the parent, spouse or sibling begins to look at how the addiction/mental health has affected them and what part they have played, the identified patient has more of an opportunity for sobriety and stability, and the family has the opportunity for health.

Much of the healing can happen when families begin to find ways of healthy communication, discover the roots of the disease, and learn how boundaries can be developed and supported.

Recovery from addiction works best when it involves family therapy that engages the whole family system from generation to generation. This approach supports uncovering hidden forces that serve to continue dysfunction. These intergenerational influences allow addiction to flourish. Once these forces are identified, family members can work together to foster a healthier family system that does not promote addiction.

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?” 


I will be exploring addictions and the family more fully over the next few weeks.