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Family Roles in Addiction and Impact on Recovery

August 31, 2021

By Wesley Gallagher

In addition to establishing healthy habits as an individual, every person in recovery needs to learn how to have healthy relationships with family members and other loved ones. 

If addiction thrives in isolation, recovery thrives in community, and whether it’s our family of origin or the family we’ve created, these loved ones are often the closest community we have.

Addiction and recovery are extremely personal experiences. If you’ve experienced either, you know how isolating they can be. No matter what outside forces affect you, ultimately, you are the one responsible for your actions. 

However, we are relational beings, and we require the company and support of others and society as a whole in order to survive. This is the idea behind the centuries-old expression, “No man is an island,” and its application to addiction and recovery is clear. Family, whether biological or chosen, is especially impacted by an individual’s addiction and can play an integral role in their recovery. 

Family, whether biological or chosen, is especially impacted by an individual’s addiction and can play an integral role in their recovery. 

What Is the Impact of Addiction on Family?

The family unit is made up of individuals, but those individuals are deeply connected and affected by one another. When healthy, a family works as a balanced ecosystem with secure connections and well-established boundaries. But if one member is unhealthy, that ecosystem is thrown off balance. Addiction in families creates an unbalanced ecosystem where other family members are forced to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms as they try to get back to some type of equilibrium. This often leads to blurring of boundaries and codependency. 

The impacts addiction has on the family unit are complex and varied. The National Institutes of Health published a study on the emotional and behavioral effects substance abuse has on family systems, including unmet developmental needs, impaired emotional attachment, financial hardship, emotional distress, and abuse. Everyone in the family is affected by addiction, even if just one person is experiencing it personally.  

Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, an expert on addiction and codependency, helps to explain why addiction is considered a family disease. Every dysfunctional or alcoholic family has members whose behaviors fit into a distinct role of some kind. Wegscheider-Cruse identifies the six primary family roles in addiction as follows:

What Is the Impact of Addiction on Family? - The Meadows

1. Addict 

This is the person struggling with substance abuse, whose primary way of dealing with problems is through alcohol or drug use. An individual with mental health issues can function in the same way in a family. They become isolated and fracture relationships over time as they blame others for their problems and fail to realize how their actions affect others. 

2. Enabler or caretaker

This person tries to mitigate harm by making excuses or doing things for the addicted individual and is usually in denial of problems, including the addiction. They hide the addiction to hold the family together and keep things “in house.” This is often the spouse of the addicted individual but can also be a child.

3. Hero

This is the responsible overachiever who tries to save face for the family by being successful. They seek to control and are often a Type A personality.  

4. Scapegoat

This person is blamed for all of the family’s problems and often acts out to deflect attention from the addicted individual’s problems.

5. Mascot or clown 

This member tries to calm the waters through humor or getting into trouble, acting as the “class clown” and using humor as a defense against their own emotions as well.

6. Lost child

This is the quiet loner who copes by avoiding attention and flying under the radar.

It’s important to remember that these are just examples of family roles in addiction, and not everyone falls neatly into one of these categories. But it’s likely to find several of these dynamics at play in a family where someone is struggling with mental health or substance abuse.

Everyone in the family is affected by addiction, even if just one person is experiencing it personally.  

What is the Role of Families in Recovery?

While addiction is undoubtedly hard on families, recovery can come with its own set of difficulties. If a family has found an equilibrium, albeit unhealthy, with you and your addiction, your decision to seek recovery will naturally upset the equilibrium. This is just one reason involving families in recovery is so important. 

In addition to establishing healthy habits as an individual, a person in recovery needs to learn how to have healthy relationships with family members and other loved ones. As relationships are a two-way street, the best results will come when both people in the relationship are seeking healing. And there’s likely to be a lot of healing needed in the family of a person recovering from addiction or mental illness. 

So, while family members can be a great source of support, they may need to go through their own version of “recovery” before they can be there for you in yours. Therapy or counseling services for the whole family can help everyone navigate the complicated and changing dynamics of relationships in recovery. 

Fortunately, family members can also be your biggest champions in recovery, offering support, encouragement, accountability, and hope as you seek healing. They are the ones who will always be there for us, no matter where we are in our journey. And their support can come in all shapes and sizes. Some examples include: 

  • Emotional support and help with goal setting
  • Financial support during and after treatment
  • Stable home environment 
  • Accountability for maintaining sobriety
  • Unconditional love for inevitable missteps and mistakes along the way

This National Recovery Month, take some time to appreciate the family, biological or chosen, who has been with you through your addiction and supported you in your recovery. Also, National Family Day is September 26: Mark it on your calendar, and make a point to reach out to those you love to tell them how thankful you are for them.