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Poor family communications are a frequent contributing factor in addiction and relapse. A household including one or more people who abuse drugs or alcohol is typically saturated in untruthfulness, secrecy, out-of-control emotions and unhealthy conflict. A person who feels misunderstood and unappreciated, and especially a person who feels “unworthy” overall, is at greater risk for becoming addicted. If someone rarely hears a compliment, and can hardly express a feeling without having it belittled, he or she will decide, “I’m not worth talking to”—and may turn to drugs as an alternate means of relieving negative emotions.
This article will explore how addiction affects the family, how a family’s interpersonal communications can make recovery easier, and how family therapy can improve communication skills in recovery.
The Family and Addiction
Once addiction takes hold, family communications worsen and alienation increases. While many addicts insist, “Even if it’s bad for me, it’s not hurting anyone else,” the facts tell a different story.
- Money diverted to buy drugs takes funds from other expenses, placing financial strain on the household. Addicts may also lie about unpaid bills, damage household property under the influence, steal from other family members or lose major income sources by losing jobs.
- Addiction sets a bad example for the most impressionable members of the household. Children of addicted parents are at least three times as likely to become addicted
- Everyone’s relationship with everyone else suffers. Attention focuses on the addiction, often to the neglect of other household members. Family feels simultaneously obligated to cover for the problem and guilty about doing so. Tempers and patience grow short under continuing strain.
- Substance abuse and abuse of people are intertwined. A household where addiction exists is four times as likely to experience child abuse and neglect. Misuse of drugs is a factor in up to 60 percent of domestic-violence incidents between adults.
Since substance abuse affects the entire family, it makes sense for the entire family to join forces against it. Unfortunately, a typical reaction is for other family members to intensify their accustomed, frequently unhealthy coping methods, such as:
- Guilt trips
- Bribes and blackmail (“If you have alcohol on your breath tonight, you’ll sleep alone for a week”)
- Sabotage (pouring whiskey bottles down the drain)
- Pretending the problem doesn’t exist
Most often, these only reinforce the addict’s belief that no one understands and self-medication is all that really helps—and so the whole problem gets worse.
How to Improve Interpersonal Communication Skills
Family members can better help a recovering addict, or encourage an addict to enter recovery, by communicating effectively with the person—and with each other. Ways to do this include:
- Focusing on the positive: requesting desired outcomes (“Could you please?”) instead of inviting negative ones (“Make sure you don’t … again”).
- Explaining one’s own feelings instead of firing accusations at the other person.
- Listening—really listening—as well as talking.
- Respecting the other party as a unique individual. Feeling that others are “always trying to force me into their mold” ranks high among relapse triggers.
- Showing empathy and genuinely attempting to understand how hard recovery can be: never belittling anyone’s struggles.
- Offering daily kind words and compliments, especially when a recovering addict is looking into the face of relapse or near-relapse. Showing ongoing confidence that “You can do it, you’ll make it.”
- Timing serious discussions carefully to minimize tension.
However, it can take more than a “what-to-do” list to motivate a family member who is battle-fatigued and wondering, “Can I really trust him/her this time?” That’s where family therapy can help improve everyone’s communication skills to ensure lasting recovery.
Strategic Family Therapy for Recovery
A family that is ashamed of the addiction problem may want to believe that a simple detox will let family life get back to “normal.” Even if they understand what’s necessary for the addict’s recovery, they may want to handle everything themselves in the name of pride or expediency. This is not a good idea. However well-informed and well-meaning the family, they are too close to the problem to work with maximum effectiveness in every aspect of recovery.
Though therapy for the whole family may seem a time-consuming bother, it’s certain to be less trouble than the family has already put up with in trying to live with the addiction. Here are some communications-related advantages of working with a professional therapist (or a team of them):
- A therapist will be less emotionally involved, and therefore more objective and able to see new options.
- A therapist will have seen firsthand how other families have dealt with similar issues. This helps assure therapy participants their problem is not as uniquely shameful—or as impossible to deal with—as they might have thought.
- A therapist serves as a discussion facilitator, reminding everyone to not dominate the conversation, excuse their own behavior, or “talk down” to the recovering addict.
- A therapist helps bring out buried issues that family members aren’t strong enough to dig for on their own. (Everyone should make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself” as described in the 12 Steps.)
- A therapist encourages family members to see things in the other’s way—in a new way. Amazingly often, people who thought they understood each other suddenly realize how far apart they really were after an outside party hears them both for the first time.
- A therapist helps answer difficult questions (“If he relapses and calls me to pick him up because he can’t drive, how can we make sure it won’t be the first incident in a new pattern of ongoing enablement?”).
- A therapist provides an ongoing source of accountability, and can often spot relapse risks (including risks for “enabling” by non-addicted family members) before others do.
- A therapist helps other family members find their own strengths and resilience for confronting problem issues (not just addiction-related ones) in new, healthy ways.
- A therapist will have suggestions to reinforce factors often overlooked in aftercare, especially family togetherness (itself a form of silent communication). Family members may enhance the recovery process by participating together in exercise programs, healthy-eating plans, relaxation routines or community services.
Whatever the demographics and dynamics of a family, making everyone a part of recovery therapy—and emphasizing clear and respectful communication all around—is always advisable.
Nova Recovery Center. The Power of Family in Addiction Recovery. Accessed March 21, 2017.
Rower, Scott. “Communicating with a Loved One Who Is Addicted: Five Useful Skills.” SoberFamilies.com, June 6, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2017.
Rower, Scott. “Effective Communication Skills: How to Do It.” SoberFamilies.com, June 15, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2017.