Why Is Addiction a “Family Disease”?

When you are part of a family, every decision one person makes influences the other members in direct and indirect ways. When one family member struggles with addiction, the condition can negatively affect all members of the family system by putting them in a state of heightened stress and anxiety. Feelings of guilt, responsibility, confusion, anger, sadness, and more can trouble the entire family and lead to increased conflict, isolation, and dysfunction.

Everyone Suffers

From the closest relative to the most distant, everyone suffers some level of distress when addiction grips the family. Possible effects of family addiction include:

Mental health problems worsened by persistent stress, such as:

  • Anger and resentment.
  • Anxiety.
  • Hopelessness and depression.
  • Risky sexual behavior and promiscuity.
  • Shame.
  • Isolation.

Physical health issues resulting from an intense focus on the person using substances rather than your own needs.

Financial issues stemming from supporting a loved one’s habit, having been stolen from, paying legal fees, and having financial resources needed for housing, utilities, and nutrition being spent on drugs and/or alcohol.

Substance abuse places children in the family at increased risk of ill effects and suffering like:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Impaired relationships in the future.
  • Higher rates of divorce.
  • Increased likelihood of abusing substances themselves.
  • Violence.
  • Diminished capacity for learning. 
  • Unhealthy Patterns Form

As family members attempt to control the addictive behaviors and cope with the condition, many new patterns form. If your family member is struggling with addiction, you may begin to form some unhealthy patterns, including:

  • Negativity in communication – With many complaints and criticism, your communication can be harsh and encourage conflict in relationships.
  • Inconsistent rule-setting – You might have problems with boundary- and limit-setting, and exhibit poor follow-through when lines are crossed.
  • Misguided expectations – Your beliefs about and expectations of your loved one and their condition may be off-base and cause you to be perpetually disappointed.
  • Misdirected anger – Feelings about your loved one’s addiction may be inappropriately expressed towards others.
  • Self-medication. You – yourself, may eventually use substances to manage the stress that is growing from the family member’s addiction.

You may attempt to cope or keep the peace by ignoring all warning signs and acting as if nothing is wrong.

NOTE: Unhealthy family dynamics don’t always develop in response to substance abuse issues. In some cases, problematic existing family dynamics may first contribute to or worsen a family member’s drug use.

Two of the more serious maladaptive interactive patterns to develop in the face of family addiction are codependency and enabling.

Codependency—the state of being overly concerned with the family member while spending little time and energy on your own needs. Codependent family members may:

  • Have low self-esteem.
  • Appear very controlling because they do not trust their family member.
  • Seem overly flexible to avoid anger and rejection.
  • Have oversensitive reactions to problems.
  • Stay loyal and dependent on the person no matter what.

Enabling The state of constantly working to protect the family member from the natural consequences of substance use. By making excuses, bailing their loved one out of jail, paying for legal fees, and otherwise staving off negative consequences, an enabler prevents the family member from experiencing the true cost of their addiction firsthand.

Children are not immune to changing family dynamics. In many situations, roles reverse, and the child begins to take on the caregiving role for their substance-abusing parent. This can create extreme stress for the child, blur the appropriate boundaries, and set the child up for difficulty setting healthy boundaries in future relationships.

Relationships Dissolve

Due to the inconsistency, unreliability, and lying involved with addiction, just one member of the family system can upset the entire balance.1 With time, the addiction will cause other family relationships to deteriorate as disagreements and differences in coping skills drive people apart.

Imagine a family with an addicted child, an enabling mother, and a father with misdirected anger. In this situation, the father could take out his anger on the mother for enabling rather than being upset with his child. The conflict adds stress and tension to their marriage. Negativity or self-medication in other family members could further dissolve even the closest relationships.