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The Pain of Addiction in the Family: How Counseling Can Help

Not long ago, I had an interesting – and important – discussion with a client of mine. She is the wife of a man who is currently struggling with an addiction to alcohol – and in the past, he has also been addicted to pot, gambling, and online porn. They have two children and I have been working with them as a family for the past three months, as of this writing.

The wife (let’s call her Sara) has been enabling her husband (let’s call him Mike) for the nearly 20 years that they’ve been together. She knew before they married that he “dabbled” in addictive behaviors but was convinced that if she just loved him enough, he would change. Sara has been using that same faulty logic all this time, to no avail. While Mike would stop one addiction – which always gave Sara some hope – he would soon begin another one. His current alcohol misuse is creating problems for the family on a daily basis.

Of course, Mike likes to tell Sara that he really doesn’t have a problem with alcohol, that she is just blowing things out of proportion because of his past addictions. After all, he reasons, he is able to function well in the world – he has not lost his job and still brings home a paycheck to support his family. Even though he has driven under the influence of alcohol, and other drugs in the past, he has not yet had an accident or received a DUI as a result. Sara is always relieved when he arrives home safely, even when she can tell he’s been drinking.

Being the Loved One of an Addict

As a loved one, Sara has been putting up with Mike’s emotional ups and downs for a very long time, and she has been enabling him throughout all of that – which of course contributes to the addictive behaviors continuing. When he’s been drinking, he often becomes unreasonable and verbally abusive to her and to their children. He has never been physically abusive with them, but the emotional damage has taken its toll on the family.

When Mike berates Sara for not being a good enough wife or mother, or whatever it is that he’s dissatisfied with her about in that moment – which he sometimes does in front of their children – she chooses to believe him and tries to do better. Later he will apologize for his outbursts, but that doesn’t make her feel any better about herself or about their relationship. She often ends up feeling so depressed that she doesn’t feel she can take care of the kids, who are now both in high school. In fact, their daughter (we’ll call her Pam) often does her best to look after both of her parents at these times – she has essentially given up her childhood to tend to their dysfunctional behavior with each other. Meanwhile, her younger brother (we’ll call him Aaron) has recently begun smoking a fair bit of pot with his buddies to get away from all of this.

Sara knows she is a people-pleaser, but from an early age, she has felt that it’s her responsibility to make people like her. She feels terrible when there is any kind of conflict in her relationships, so she rarely says no to anyone. She goes out of her way to do things for others, which on the one hand is often appreciated by them, but on the other hand contributes to her feelings of being taken advantage of. When I asked her, she said her two biggest sources of unhappiness stem from her feeling misunderstood by others and from knowing there is no one in her life who will twist themselves around for her the way she does for others.

How Counseling Can Help

Before Sara’s family began working with me, Sara didn’t understand that she was exhibiting codependent behaviors by putting other people’s needs and wants ahead of her own on a fairly consistent basis. She didn’t even know how to express what it was that she needed or wanted – she just knew that she felt miserable and couldn’t see a way out. She so desperately wanted to believe that her husband was not an alcoholic – as he so often told her – that she basically colluded with him and didn’t challenge him about that. She often wondered why her life was so hard when all she was trying to do was please everyone.

Sara and I began the work of unraveling her people-pleasing. As I learned about her childhood and how she was raised, we connected some very important dots. She began to understand what was keeping her so stuck in fear and, baby step by baby step, she started respecting herself more. She could see that she had been setting the bar very low for Mike – and that unless she made some changes first, things would remain the same. As scared as she was, Sara began to set some boundaries with both Mike and Aaron about their substance abuse – and shared her journey out of codependency with Pam so that her daughter could also have a better life. Gradually, Pam began to have sessions with me and, in time, I began seeing Aaron as well. Mike was the holdout; it took him the longest to start working with me. But once he did, the whole family dynamic shifted remarkably.

Gradually, Pam began to have sessions with me and, in time, I began seeing Aaron as well. Mike was the holdout; it took him the longest to start working with me. But once he did, the whole family dynamic shifted remarkably.-Candace Plattor

Sara is currently working outside the home, helping other women who also need to learn about codependency and boundary-setting. She is truly giving back by helping others based on what she now understands – and both her self-esteem and her self-respect have skyrocketed. She feels useful in a healthy, holistic way – instead of trying to find herself only through pleasing others.

Pam is now looking at going to college away from home because, even though things are much better at home, she understands that she needs some distance from her family to truly be able to build her own life. And although she had been considering going into a helping profession like nursing or counseling, she is now seriously contemplating architecture and interior design instead.

Aaron loves to play guitar and he is now in the high school band. The conductor has given him a very clear boundary – he is not to smoke any pot or use any other mind-altering drugs at least one day before their rehearsals, and two days before performances.  So far, he has been able to adhere to this and is receiving terrific feedback about his contributions to the band.

Mike has been sober from alcohol for one month so far, and things are noticeably better in his marriage. He does sometimes watch porn on the internet, which is a trigger that Sara has not yet been able to set a boundary about. But she knows that will likely be coming next, in order for her to continue to respect herself. I’m always happy to see Sara literally pat herself on the back for all she has accomplished, while also knowing she is not perfect. We are all works in progress. But in our latest session, as Sara and I reviewed the wonderful, self-respectful progress she’s made over the time we’ve worked together, she is quite clear that she doesn’t want to regress and go back into her old behaviors – and she is open to dealing with whatever comes next with Mike – and in other areas of her life, positive or negative, easy or difficult.

Images Courtesy of iStock

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