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The Disequilibrating Dynamics of an Addicted Family System

October 18, 2018

Written by

Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP

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By Dr. Tian Dayton, Senior Fellow at The Meadows

Visit the living room of the average family that is “living with,” or should I say “drowning in,” addiction and you’re likely to find a family that’s functioning in emotional extremes. Feelings can explode and get very big, fast, or disappear into “nowhere” with equal velocity. What doesn’t matter can get unusual focus, while what does matter can be routinely swept under the rug. A family in which small, relatively insignificant behaviors can be blown out of proportion while outrageous or even abusive ones can go entirely ignored and unidentified. Things don’t get talked about but instead become shelved, circumvented, or downright denied.

Situations that turn our sense of “normal” on its head put us on emotional overload and cause us unusual fear and stress, which can be traumatizing. Living with addiction falls into this category. For starters, it’s disturbing to our sense of an orderly and predictable life. Everyday routines get thrown off, feelings get hurt, doors are slammed, hearts are broken, and families are torn apart. Family members are often left staring, dazed, and disillusioned as they witness the lives of those they love, despite their best efforts to avert catastrophe, fall apart. Mistrust grows, “normal” feels out of reach, and the fabric of faith in an orderly and predictable world becomes frayed and worn.

Systems thinking evaluates parts of a system in the whole and suggests that behavior is informed and inseparable when applied to family origins.

What Is Family Systems Theory?

Family systems theory is rooted in the idea that families act as one emotional unit. Systems thinking evaluates parts of a system in the whole and suggests that behavior is informed and inseparable when applied to family origins. Family systems theory can be a beneficial approach for families dealing with conflict. There are various approaches to the family systems model of addiction.

Structural Family Therapy

This approach evaluates the family roles in addiction by looking at relationships, behaviors, and patterns during the therapy session. Therapists also examine subsystems within the family structure by employing activities such as role-playing. 

Strategic Family Therapy 

During this approach, therapists study family system roles and behavior outside of the therapy session by examining processes and functions, such as communication and problem-solving patterns. Some techniques include reframing a problem scenario or using paradoxical interventions to create the desired change. In this form of therapy, change can occur rapidly without intensely analyzing the source of the problem. 

Intergenerational Family Therapy

Generational influences play a role in the family and individual behavior. This therapy approach identifies multigenerational behavioral problems to help people understand where the root of their issues come from. One example of a multigenerational behavioral pattern is anxiety management. Techniques include normalizing family challenges, describing individual family members’ reactions instead of acting them out, and encouraging family members to respond with “I” statements instead of being accusatory. 

The Cost of “No Talk” Rules

Because the family model of addiction is often steeped in defenses such as denial and minimization, they may actively resist talking about the fear and anxiety they’re experiencing. Instead, intense emotions explode into the family’s container and get acted out rather than spoke out. 

Though acting out brings temporary relief, it doesn’t lead to any resolution or understanding, so nothing gets fixed, mended, or amended. Walls go up and battle lines get drawn as family members silently conspire to keep their ever-widening well of pain from the surfacing, blaming it on anything but what’s going on. 

They avoid talking about their worries, thinking that if they don’t get discussed, they aren’t really all that bad or might just disappear on their own. Perhaps they worry that talking is an implicit “call to action” that they don’t feel ready to take. They lose one of their most valuable and available routes for processing and relieving pain by avoiding discussing what’s going on and how they feel about it. Namely, using their thinking minds to translate powerful feelings into words so that they can be brought into balance through insight and understanding.

Because they don’t have healthy ways of finding an emotional middle ground, they tend to achieve balance by swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other. When loving closeness becomes too claustrophobic. For example, they disengage for space and breathing room because regulating intimacy is tough. 

When emotional chaos gets too overwhelming, they shut it down with rules and regulations that appear out of nowhere because modulating feelings of anger, hurt or sadness makes them feel too vulnerable and out of control. Their emotions and behaviors seesaw back and forth from 0-10 and 10-0 with no speed bumps in between. They have trouble self-regulating and living within a range of 4, 5, and 6.

The Trauma Extremes: High Intensity vs. Shutting Down

How does the dynamic of seesawing between emotional and behavioral extremes get set up? Here is one explanation that grows out of trauma theory.

The intense emotions of fear and even terror that accompany living with addiction ignite our natural fight, flight trauma response. They flood the body with adrenaline so that we can prepare to flee for safety or stand and fight. When fighting seems exhausting and pointless or when children or spouses feel that they’re trapped and can’t get away, often the case with familial trauma, we may simply shut down so that we don’t have to feel such intense pain, fear, rage, and helplessness. 

Shutting down is also part of the trauma response; it’s the frozen state. Our body/mind system is trying to preserve itself from overheating, in this case, with too much emotion. Watch any frightened cat, dog, or salamander freeze because it senses danger, and you see a natural trauma response.

When these swings, from feeling flooded with feeling to shutting down, happen repeatedly, they can become central to our operating style and the operating style of the family. The following are some ways in which this seesawing from one emotional extreme to the other may manifest in the family’s thinking, feeling, and behavior:

Impulsivity vs. Rigidity

Impulsivity can lead to chaos. Then, family members try to manage their chaos by clamping down and becoming rigid and controlling. They seesaw between intense emotional and shutting down behaviors.

Impulsive behavior can lead to chaos, wherein a pain-filled inner world is surfacing in action. Painful feelings that are too hard to sit with will explode into the family’s container and get acted out. Blame, anger, rage, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, over or underspending, and sexual acting out are some ways of acting out emotional and psychological pain in dysfunctional ways that engender chaos.

Rigidity is an attempt to manage or shut down that chaos both inwardly and outwardly. Adults in an addictive/traumatizing family system may tighten up on rules and routines to ward off the feeling of falling apart. Family members may also contract in their styles, becoming both controlled and controlling. 

There’s a lack of spontaneity and middle ground. Strong feelings can be talked over or even explode momentarily but then be worked through toward a fair resolution. Again, the tendency to alternate between black and white thinking, feeling, and behavior, with no shades of gray, reflects the family’s regulation problems.

Self-regulation is a basic developmental accomplishment that allows the growing child. Eventually, the adult regulates their thinking, feeling, and behavior to be within an appropriate range for the situation they’re engaged in.

Despair vs. Denial & Dissociation

When addiction makes family members feel despairing because they feel that nothing they’re doing is making a difference or are too afraid to address their mounting problems openly, they may use denial or dissociation as a way of distancing their pain. They seesaw between intense emotional behaviors and shutting down behaviors.

Denial is a dysfunctional attempt to ward off ever-growing feelings of despair. Reality gets rewritten as family members attempt to bend it to make it less threatening, to cover up their increasing anxiety, guilt, resentment, and fear. Denial takes the place of honest self-disclosure, worries and anxieties are hidden rather than talked about, and as a result, despair deepens. 

Dissociation creates a wall of oblivion between consciousness and unconsciousness because underived emotions get thrown out of conscious awareness. Because family members learn to deny rather than develop the skills of confronting and managing problems, the more despairing they become, the greater their need to fall back into denial or dissociation. In this way, denial/dissociation and despair feed off each other in a vicious circle.

Reality orientation, an ability to live with life on life’s terms, is an important part of recovering one’s balanced sense of self and orientation toward the world.

Enmeshment vs. Disengagement

One way that frightened family members may attempt to ward off fears of aloneness and abandonment may be to become enmeshed. Then, when this loving closeness becomes too suffocating, they disengage to regain a sense of personal space. They seesaw between intense emotions and behaviors and shut down behaviors.

Enmeshment is a relational style that lacks boundaries and often discourages differences or disagreement, seeing them not as healthy and natural, but disloyal or even threatening. Enmeshment can also be a way of coping with the fear that the family is falling apart. Certain family members huddle together for a sense of safety and may develop traumatic bonds. Enmeshed styles of relating formed in childhood tend to repeat themselves in adult relationships.

With disengagement, family members see the solution to keeping the pain from their inner world from erupting as avoiding subjects, people, places, and things that might trigger them. They retreat into their own emotional and psychological orbits, and they don’t share their inner worlds. They isolate.

Many addicted families cycle back and forth between enmeshment and disengagement. They yearn for closeness but lack the kinds of healthy boundaries that would let them take space, hold different points of view or hang onto a sense of self while in each other’s presence and allow others to do the same.

Balanced relatedness is neither a withdrawal from another person nor a fusion with them. It allows each person their own identity and to move in and out of close connection in a natural, modulated fashion.

Over-functioning vs. Under-functioning

In a maladaptive attempt to maintain balance, some family roles in addiction may over-function to compensate for the under-functioning of others. They seesaw between intense emotions and behaviors and shutting down these emotions and behaviors.

Over-functioning can wear many hats; spouses may attend to over-function to maintain order and “keep the show on the road” while the addict falls in and out of normal functioning. Children may over-function function, taking care of siblings when parents drop the ball. They may also work overtime striving to restore order and dignity to a family, becoming increasingly neglectful, irresponsible, or estranged. For that matter, one even might see an acting-out child (a scapegoat) as over-functioning on behalf of the system to take the focus off of the family’s real problems.

Under-functioning may be associated with the learned helplessness that is part of the trauma response, in which one comes to feel that nothing they can do will make a difference or make things better, so they give up. Family members may freeze like deer in the headlights, unable to mobilize, think clearly, or make good choices.

It’s also not uncommon that the addict and others in the system may do both, over-functioning to make up for periods of under-functioning. Here we see a lack of ability to self-regulate as a family unit, to work as a team where each member is expected to carry their load, to suit up and show up.

Balanced functioning is the obvious in-between of over-and under-functioning. When we do what is appropriate to the circumstance and when we have conscious choice around the degree to which we function.

Caretaking vs. Neglect

Caretaking can be an attempt to attend to, in another person, what needs to be attended to within the self. We project our unconscious anxiety or pain onto someone else, seeing it as about them rather than understanding it as our own. 

Then, we set about fixing what actually may need fixing in us in them. It’s a form of care that is often motivated by our unidentified pain rather than a genuine awareness of another’s. Because this is the case, neglect can be its dark side. We neglect or don’t see what real need within another person is because we can’t identify a real need within ourselves.

Neglect can take the form of ignoring or not seeing another’s humanness, withholding care, nurturing, and attention, or shutting down the relational behaviors that reflect attunement and connection.

Neglect can be particularly difficult to address in recovery because there is no obvious parental abuse to point to. Clients are left feeling that they have too many needs for anyone to meet and are often mistrustful of deep connections. Consequently, they may push away the very vehicle that might help them to heal, mainly relationships. 

Balanced care for self and others is part of living a healthy life.

Abuse vs. Victimization and Collapse

The line between who’s abusing whom can get very fuzzy in a pain-filled family system. Abuse is part of the impulsivity that characterizes families where feelings are acted out rather than talked out. The victim is the person who is being abused. When individuals can’t process personal pain, anger, and hurt and talk it out, they risk acting it out instead. 

Generally, these family roles in addiction are traded back and forth many times within the same interaction as family members bully and hurt each other repeatedly. They seesaw between intense emotions and behaviors and a shutting down, or in this case, collapsing into helplessness behaviors.

Sometimes the roles become stratified, and certain family members become the obvious abuser while others become the obvious victim. Certainly, small children are sitting ducks for being abused and victimized by out-of-control parents and older siblings. Both roles can become personality styles or relationship dynamics carried along through life.

Unfortunately, the victim, the abused child, is at risk of becoming an abusive parent without recovery. Rather than identifying and feeling their helplessness and rage at being a victim of abuse, they act out their childhood pain by passing it on the same way they received it. All of these patterns reflect a lack of emotional and behavioral regulation. Eventually, whether alcohol and drugs are present, painful patterns of relationships continue to move down through the generations insidiously.

Balance can be achieved when intense emotions can be tolerated both within the self and within the emotional content of the relationship or family.

Finding a Healthy Balance

Balance can be achieved when intense emotions can be tolerated both within the self and within the emotional content of the relationship or family. When this is possible, painful feelings, even if they explode momentarily, can be worked through toward some sort of resolution. After a disconnection occurs, reconnection can occur, representing a slight step up in relating, healing, or interpersonal awareness and understanding.

Emotional modulation is a skill that we learn in our parent’s arms and within our family systems. When children have extreme emotional responses, they are “wooed” back into emotional balance through parents and caring adults’ nurturing and sustaining actions. Over time they absorb the skills of self-regulation through these family interactions. The opposite is true — we can equally learn the skills of emotional dysregulation if we live with dysregulated patterns for long enough. 

The good news is that regulation skills can be relearned in recovery through regulating activities like twelve-step programs, therapy, meditation, yoga, massage, deep breathing, and exercise; activities that quiet and soothe the emotional system and teach skills of mind/body regulation.

In some ways, this is a disease with an excellent prognosis, but the key is to mobilize your healing path. In other words, you can get better if you want to and if you adopt a daily routine of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—wellness.