by Nicole Arzt
It is often suggested that individuals struggling with addiction consider therapy as a resource for their treatment and recovery.
Individual therapy offers tremendous benefits in processing past, present, and potential future events, uncovering unconscious defenses and working to change negative behaviors. Individual therapy builds itself upon openness and compassion- it is a dynamic process that entails deep trust and intimacy between the client and therapist.
Family therapy, however, offers a different angle to addiction issues. This kind of work activates and engages each member, defines individual parts within the addiction cycle, and creates a recipe for familial, rather than just individual, change.
How Addiction Affects the Family
Family therapy offers a systemic approach to the issues within the family. In families of addiction, typical issues include:
- Confusing, broken, or undefined boundaries
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Betrayal from lying or stealing
- Concurrent mental health issues
- Difficulties with emotional regulation and anger
- Multiple family members struggling with addiction
- Financial stress
It goes without saying- addiction affects the entire family unit. While the addict is suffering, each family member has his or her own reactions to this dynamic. As a result, family members learn to communicate and respond in ways that fit and behave their beliefs. Unfortunately, these communication and response patterns are often unhealthy and ineffective.
Some examples include:
- Direct or indirect methods of controlling (or attempting to control) the addict’s behavior
- Complete detachment or estrangement from the addict
- Passive-aggressive or passive communication
- Enabling of negative behavior
- Unable to focus on anything else beyond the addiction
- Extreme anger
- Denial of the problem and/or the recovery process
How Does Family Therapy Work
Addiction is a complicated and emotionally-charged issue. Family therapy breaks through some of the misconceptions, fears, and disconnections that occur within this process.
While each therapist has his or her own clinical style, the healing work typically includes the following components:
Psychoeducation typically includes describing, in clear-cut explanations, what addiction and recovery encompasses. For families who may not fully understand what their loved one is experiencing, this demystifies some of the confusion.
The psychoeducation component debunks many myths that loved ones carry, especially regarding believing they caused the addiction or that they have the capacity to fix it.
The obvious issue here: communication within families struggling with addiction is often strained.
Therapists are trained to understand and teach healthy communication practices. This includes identifying and asserting own feelings while validating feelings of others. Many therapists will incorporate role-play techniques or boundary work focusing on identifying the tension- and the possible solutions- within the family unit.
Many times, loved ones confuse family change with the addict changing (usually by means of getting sober). However, this kind of thinking can perpetuate toxic and dysfunctional behavior.
Successful family change includes everyone identifying their part within the system. It redirects individual responsibility by focusing on what each person can do to enhance behavior and functioning.
What if A Family Member is Unwilling?
Family therapy works with any system of any family. This may include two people, or it may include ten. Tremendous change can still happen- no matter who is in the room.
The important part is this: if someone is unwilling, no matter the reason, it is not any family member’s job to convince him/her. Therapists redirect the attention to focus on what each individual can still learn and receive from the experience.
After all, each member has his or her own right to therapy treatment. Respecting, rather than shaming, whoever is there- and whoever is not there- is key.