Issues of family communication for families of alcoholics

Family members of alcoholics often carry a deep, yet unspoken, resentment. Here, we explore how families can improve communication using alcoholism or addiction as a starting point. And how addicts and alcoholics can use family issues to deepen their own recovery. More on the importance of family communication here.

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Should family members stop drinking around alcoholics?

It has been my experience that family members of alcoholics often carry a deep, yet unspoken, resentment. One of the primary areas of contention is related to the feelings of discomfort that arise when drinking around the person in recovery. Why, they wonder, should they feel constrained or judged? They don’t have a drinking problem. They may feel that other family members are putting pressure on them to hold back their own drinking in order to not trigger the addict.  “So all our family events are going to be dry now?” they may finally ask in exasperation.  The family is left with a quandary.  What should they do?

How to get past resentment: family communication

The answer to that question will be different for every family. However, the solution must result from an open and honest discussion with the person in recovery included in the dialogue. Any unspoken problem (the proverbial elephant in the living room) will kill healthy family dynamics.  Many families struggle with communication and find sweeping things under the rug the most desirable and expedient form of problem-solving. In fact, this may account for one of the significant underlying reasons for the addict’s struggles with alcohol or other drugs in the first place.

Importance of communication in family life

Ironically, discussions centered around one family member’s addiction may actually be the most effective vehicle for addressing past or current family conflict in general and coming closer together as a group. Most of us deal with fundamental problems only when they become crises. Addiction is so powerful and impacts everyone in the family so greatly that it may be one of the few reasons big enough for them to actually come together and honestly look at themselves as a unit and as individuals.

Because the recovering addict does not have the luxury of sleepwalking through life, she may be the most helpful part of the process. In fact, recovery is sustained by a number of different types of interpersonal activities, including:

  • daily examination of one’s environment
  • identifying and removing triggers to use
  • addressing personal faults
  • pursuing meaningful goals
  • actively seeking positive people who can support a drug-free lifestyle

The recovering addict has to work through the feelings of queasiness that result from an honest examination of life.  This pro-active and intentional approach can be a great help in the family therapeutic process. Let’s see how this works by using our example from above.

How to use alcoholism to build family communication

The issue of drinking at family functions can easily arise in family therapy. A sibling of the addict who has been stewing over the fact that he can’t feel comfortable in his own family may blurt out something like, “You know, you’ve always been mom’s favorite. She let you get away with everything. And now, you’re still the center of attention and we can’t even live normally because of you!” The rest of the family may sit in stunned silence and wonder, “Where in the world did that come from?”

Obviously, feelings of jealousy have been part of the family dynamic for a long time – at least for one person.  While this statement will be difficult for the recovering addict to hear and will put new stress on her coping system, she will hopefully see this as another opportunity to take her recovery deeper. This sort of issue fits into the heavy lifting part of recovery and she should strive to incorporate it into this work.  So instead of getting defensive and either shutting down or firing something back, she will hopefully say something like, “I didn’t know you felt that way.  I can see why that would bother you.”  This may be the first measured and reasonable exchange in recent family history. The family therapist will now be able to use this as an entree into some hidden family dynamics.

Family work is hard and can put increased stress on an already fragile system. However, it is a profound opportunity for improving communication by discovering the hidden forces that distort and confuse our lives. The family members of addicts can take advantage of the crisis of addiction to avail themselves of the dual opportunity to support their loved one in recovery while discovering something vital about themselves.

About the author
Nachshon Zohari is a licensed clinical social worker and the Program Administrator for Mental Health and Substance Treatment in a major U.S. city. His private practice includes individual, couples and family counseling; parenting classes; substance abuse education and treatment; and individual and group clinical supervision. He is an expert in the holistic practice of family focused addiction treatment.
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