The structural glue that binds families together, for better or worse, is the learned but largely unspoken rules that emerge over time. Spouses, partners, children, and others in the family unit learn to behave and often to think in ways expected of them according to established family rules. These rules play a vital role in providing predictability. For example: Are there family dinners? What topics are off limits for family discussion? How are disagreements resolved? Are displays of anger, sadness, and sorrow permissible? How are love, affection, and respect expressed, if at all?
Despite these rules, families are inevitably in a state of perpetual transition and evolution; they are living systems. Within this ever-changing environment, individuals hopefully learn healthy life skills, such as the ability to effectively communicate with others, form meaningful relationships beyond the family, effectively manage emotional needs, and cope with disappointment and loss. Understanding the family as a dynamic system, continually reshaping itself in response to events and circumstances, is vital to understanding how substance abuse impacts the family and how the family, often unknowingly, tends to respond in unhealthy and unproductive ways.
Substance abuse often occurs gradually, beginning as isolated or periodic episodes that progressively increase in frequency or intensity, not uncommonly over the course of many months or years. Like the proverbial frog in the pan of water that is unaware of its plight because the heat on the stove is being turned up very slowly, family members experiencing the subtle and progressive effects of substance abuse by one of their own are often similarly unaware of the trouble that is brewing.
As the addicted family member is increasingly drawn to the use of his or her substance of choice, increasingly larger amounts of time and energy are devoted to seeking, using, or recuperating from the addictive substance. In a very real sense, another relationship – that between the addicted member and his or her drug of choice – has become part of the existing family system. The other family members may be vaguely aware that things have changed but are often unable to identify exactly what is happening. They only know that home is no longer a safe place; that tension and stress have replaced safety and predictability; and that the person they once knew is now chronically irritable, short-tempered, or too tired or disinterested to interact in a healthy way with the rest of the family.
It is difficult to watch a loved one suffering from addiction. If you are ready to better understand your loved one’s addictive patterns and behaviors, contact us to learn more.