Addiction is a powerful thing. Beyond the impact to the person struggling with addiction, it can damage family relationships and lead to estrangement. Here we discuss how addiction can hurt families, how to support someone in recovery, the dynamics of family estrangement, and how to reconnect — if that’s a healthy option for your situation.
How Addiction Can Hurt Families
Addiction in any form can hurt families in a variety of ways. Depending upon the substance or behavior involved, when a family member is involved in an active addiction, there can be emotional, physical, financial and legal consequences for loved ones. Even when a loved one is in recovery for an addiction, complex emotions and dynamics may still occur due to the powerful impact addiction can have on the entire family. These may include family stress, guilt, shame, anger, fear, anxiety, loss, grief and isolation.
How to Support Someone in Recovery
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Recovery is a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.” SAMHSA cites four major dimensions that support recovery:
- Health: “Overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms and making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being.”
- Home: “Having a stable and safe place to live.”
- Purpose: “Conducting meaningful daily activities and having the independence, income, and resources to participate in society.”
- Community: “Having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope.”
As SAMHSA notes, hope is the foundation of recovery — and families often play a key role in helping to provide it, especially in terms of home and community. However, for some families, the negative impact of addictive behavior has been so significant that one or both parties have disconnected from the relationship.
When Families Are Estranged
Family estrangement is more common than many realize — and substance use disorders and behavioral addictions can be significant contributors to this dynamic. In “What to Consider When Reconnecting with Estranged Family,” published by OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, from Pepperdine University faculty member Susan Finley, EdD, reinforces the fact that disconnecting from a family member is sometimes necessary. “It’s okay to cut ties, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. … It may be temporary. It’s not [always] a permanent decision,” said Finley. This may be true in a variety of relationship types — including siblings, parents and children, and close friends.
How to Reconnect
Finley, who teaches for Pepperdine’s online and on campus program, notes such estrangements aren’t always permanent. If you’ve been estranged from a family member after addiction and are considering reconciliation, she says it’s important to understand your motivation; ensure you feel physically safe; and make sure you’re “emotionally and psychologically ready to handle any type of disappointment which happens along the way.”
Knowing that your loved one is serious about his or her recovery is also key. “If that other family member indicates that they want to make a change, and that they want to connect, and that they have done some work on themselves … only then would a counselor recommend the client takes steps forward to reconnect,” Dr. Finley says.
Important considerations for reconnecting with an estranged family member include:
- Prioritizing safety. If any party’s physical safety is at risk, confrontation isn’t a healthy option.
- Considering a mediator. A nonbiased, third party can facilitate healthy discussion in a therapeutic setting.
- Preparing mentally and emotionally for rejection. Confrontations are unpredictable, so it’s important to remember that not every person involved will be ready to reconcile.
- Working through your own issues. Before expecting another party to make amends, consider where you need to heal from the events that occurred.
- Reflecting on the source of conflict. Recount the events that led to the estrangement — it’s rarely only one party’s fault.
- Asking for help. Look for a support group or seek counsel from a professional or group of people whom you trust.
- Making use of the tools available to you. Use social media or other means of private communication to reach out. However, lurking on social media is unhealthy and can become unproductive and dangerous.
- Avoiding showing up unannounced. Because surprises and unwanted presence can be stressful for all parties involved, consider sending a letter, email or voicemail first.
Forgiveness may be part of the reconciliation, too. Embracing forgiveness in a healthy way will require self-reflection and inner work on your part. Dr. Finley clarifies the definition of forgiveness in the context of what it is — and what it is not:
- Forgiving yourself first.
- Acknowledging an apology if one has been made.
- Accepting that the other person has made their own choices.
- Setting boundaries for how you’d like to interact in the future.
- Spending all your time around a person who has hurt you.
- Obligating yourself to help them heal from their mistakes.
- Acting as if the conflict never happened.
- Keeping score of each other’s faults.
As Dr. Finley notes, every relationship has complex dynamics, which means there’s no perfect way to forgive someone, or a perfect way to move forward. However, for families that decide to reconnect with an estranged family member after addiction, there can be hope for a better future together.
Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator at 2U Inc. Alexis supports outreach for 2U’s school counseling, education, mental health, and occupational therapy programs. Find her on Twitter @HeyLexHey.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.