addiction in families – Is my whole family ill?

Written by Dave Cooper

June 2, 2017

Addiction in families – A Family Illness?

Addiction in families is an issue as old as addiction itself and this is the first in a series of articles relating to the family. It will offer lots of practical help and things you can do to improve the family health. You could start by downloading my ebook The five big mistakes families make…. on the subject.

As far back as 1935 Alcoholics Anonymous was calling alcoholism  ‘a family illness’. Of course they were talking particularly of alcoholism. And they were largely concerned with the ‘effects’ on the family. Not so much addiction in families but how the wife (they still largely saw the problem as male) might help and best support her Husband.

Coming forward to today we can definitely say that things have changed. As a society we are now looking at the issue more from a general addiction perspective which includes behavoural addictions. Our understanding has grown to include the ‘co-dependent personality and so the family are now seen in their own right and not just unsuspecting bystanders affected by the addicted individual.

The Family is the client

As a systemic Family Therapist my approach to the issue is to see the family as the client. There are some advantages to seeing it as an illness and there are now no less than fourteen separate addiction conditions recognised by the DSMV. So it’s official, it’s a disease. In some parts of America the Jennifer act allows family members to be committed for their own safety.Clearly there are enough symptoms etc to consider it an illness but there are also some disadvantages to seeing it this way, which I would call the medical model.

The fact is that when I have contracted or am born with an illness, the tendency is to see myself as absolved from all responsibility. There are some exceptions but this approach often has people too far removed from a sense of responsibility for themselves. You will not take enough responsibility for your self if you have been schooled to think this way. Of course it is a huge ‘move on’ from the earlier approach (the moral model) which placed 100% responsibility on the addicted person. From this perspective they are simply making bad choices.

The family is a complete system

The family is a complete system

When working with families with addiction the most difficult idea they face is that there is nothing they can do. This belief often comes from the perspective described above. When you see the issue as an illness, contracted through no fault of their own, you are left in a pretty helpless position. When you see the issue as an ‘innapropriate relationship’ then there are lots of things you can do! When I work with a family I make no distinction between the family members in the sense that they are all part of the complete system.


The first thing you need to know about co-dependence is that it is like a coin with addiction and codependence being the heads and the tails. Of course this is a hugely important part of the family recovery and I would encourage you to subscribe to the podcast page specific to relationships and to see my other material on the subject.

Communication – the key to growth

The first thing you should try to set up in your family when suffering with addiction issues is better communication. The most basic way that the ‘post’ issue problems (by which I men the problems that arise as a result of addiction) can confuse things is the way the addict can tell different people different things. By simply telling different family members different stories the addict maintains unhealthy boundaries and manage the whole family from behind simple untruths.

One of the first (and best) things the family can do is to set up a method of communication between the members that insures good information for all parties. Choose a method of communication. ‘whatsapp’ or facebook, texting or skype are some alternatives. The point is that anything, and I mean anything, that you hear from the addicted family member is shared with the whole family.

The addict in the family (or addicts) soon learn that talking to one member is like talking to them all. Straight forward deceit is not a big problem for every family but when it is, this is one of the biggest and simplest ways of managing it and can save the family so much heartache.

Money – Let’s face it and get honest

Most families with addiction issues have money issues. The big three (as I call them) are money sex and food. These are the three things that addicts eventually have to deal with. It can often be years after abstinence has been achieved. Money is often the first thing that comes up as it mostly involves all others, and problems with it are difficult to hide or ignore.

So what about money? Depending upon the nature of the addiction there may be no sign that money is a problem. The issues of a very successful workaholic and those of a heroin addict can present in an apparently different way. But for the purposes of this general look at the subject I will concentrate on the most typical scenario your family will face. That is an addict in the family needing money and not having any. Constantly lying manipulating and stealing from within (and without) of the family.

The communication network you set up will help with this a lot but the biggest challenge you face as a family is to yourselves. Ask yourself “what is my attitude towards money”? Do you have a belief that it is better to supply your addict with money than for them to steal it from somewhere? Remember, the challenge to yourself must be as great as the challenge to your addicted family members.

If you have a lot of trouble with boundaries around money, get together with your other family members and agree on the boundaries. When pressurised or challenged later you can stand on the idea that this is not your decision. You have set this boundary as a family.

Set your focus as a family

When there is addiction in families they tend to focus on the addict. It is so important for your health as a family that you set your focus as something else! Individually your focus should be your own growth and development as a person. As a family your focus should be to develop harmony and intimacy. You will learn more about each other including your vulnerability and difficulty. Focusing on anything other than your addict tells you how much you have been affected by this issue.

Go for the long game

Try to stay away from any sense of the quick fix. If your addict seems to be listening to you do not feel that you can take advantage of this by intervening with some formulaic solutions and improvements. They are likely to be manipulating you because they want something.

This is the type of beginners mistake that counsellors not trained in addiction and recovery work tend to fall for. The general rule is ‘when you think you are manipulating them, they are probably manipulating you’.

Go more for the long game. Assess improvements over months rather than days. Have long term aims and try not to be too disappointed by small set backs (of which there will be many). Commit to growing through these things. They are not a problem to be fixed.

Till next time when I will be taking all these subjects and more in detail.

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