In the addicted family system, family members begin to respond to the dysfunction by following family rules and assuming different family roles in order to maintain balance and to survive emotionally. Each member finds a “survival role” to live with the family distress. The gulf between conflicting inner feelings and outer presentation increase the incongruence between inner reality and outer false inauthentic presentation to make the family more rigid and out of reality.
Each family member becomes locked into a set of rigid survival defenses driven by dysfunctional rules. Family members react to the actions of the substance user and other family members to keep some form of balance to reduce stress and craziness caused by the user. These rules and roles often allow the user to continue using. The family members become co-addicts/enablers who inadvertently foster addict’s continued use of drugs, alcohol or other behaviors.
Don’t talk about problems. Family becomes a household of silence. Problems caused by alcohol are not spoken about. The family of a chemically dependent person often becomes a household of silence. Family members do not talk about the problems caused by alcohol and other drugs. They do not talk about any problems. An unwritten rule of silence encases the whole house.
Disease discourages honest or consistent behavior so there is no basis for trust. Because there is no sense of security, there is no basis for trust. The disease of chemical dependency does not allow for honest or consistent behavior. Therefore, there is no basis for trust to be established in the family of a chemically dependent person. In order to trust, there first must be a feeling of safety.
Because there is no trust, expression of negative feelings increases fear that the individual or family will go out of control. Expression of happy feelings can only be tolerated. Anger, disappointment, etc. are stuffed and not expressed. Real feelings get lost in a house ruled by chemical dependency. Because there is no trust, each member of the family learns not to feel as well. The wife of an alcoholic may stuff her feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness and fear. She does not want her feelings to get out of control. The children in the family learn only happy feelings are recognized as appropriate.
Don’t Address Issues Directly
Communicate regarding issues about the addiction or family relationships indirectly. Always be strong. Always be good. Always be perfect. Unrealistic roles and expectations. Letting go is frightening. Love is dependent on what we do, not who we are.
Don’t Be Selfish
Guilt about taking care of yourself before others. Shame is strong. Our needs come before the other, and if we don’t take care of that person first we begin to feel guilty.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Establishes a foundation of distrust, and a destruction of the ethical fiber in the family.
It is Not OK to Play
Life becomes painful and difficult and serious identity and purpose are linked to job or project. “Parentification.”
Don’t Rock the Boat
Roles are inflexible. Inability for the family to adjust to change in a flexible manner. Don’t rock the boat is the master rule; it is the rule that rules other rules.
Common Roles Taken on by Members of an Addicted Family
The chief enabler is the person who is closest and most depended on by the dependent—the spouse, parent, friend, or co-worker. The role of the chief enabler in the system is to provide responsibility to compensate for the dependent’s lack of responsibility and control. They try to shield the family and reduce their own sense of powerlessness by protecting the addict.
The family hero is the person who compensates for the increasing anxiety and falling apart of the family by being very good. Can see and hear more of what is really happening in the family and begins to feel responsible for the family pain. The hero tries hard to make things better for the family and works diligently to improve the situation. Because of the progressive nature of the disease, the hero is always losing ground and feels consistently inadequate. This feeling of in- adequacy is well hidden by the obvious success (visible) of the family hero. The role of the hero is to provide self-worth for the system. The hero takes over responsibility the chief enabler can’t handle. He provides self-esteem for the family; school jock, company man, social nice guy/gal; often becomes alcoholic or marries one. Family hero/secret keeper: too good to be true. Being good will help addict stop. Detracts attention away from the addict by being good or perfect. Obsessive or compulsive behaviors help him maintain control and block painful feelings. Keep secrets to keep the addict and family safe. “I received the academic award of the year, Dad. Would you like to see it?”
The one who is in the family public eye. They draw attention away from the family’s primary problem of addiction by creating other matters of concern. He has already learned in this family that one is not rewarded for who one is but rather for how one performs. This person doesn’t want to work as hard as the hero just to prove himself worthy, so decides to pull away from the family and look for good feelings of belonging elsewhere. This may be through delinquency or other misbehavior. It may be terrible grades at school or acts of hostility. The scapegoat may feel trapped or ignored at home. The negative behavior may be his/her way of calling out for help. Because of the repressed anger in feeling the need for this withdrawal, the scapegoat often gets much attention for the destructive ways in which this withdrawal takes place. The role of the scapegoat is to provide distraction and focus to the system. The scapegoat or rebel/black sheep draws attention away from the addict and chemical dependency as the primary by becoming the identified patient. Becomes delinquent, misbehaves, bad grades, opposition defiant, feels trapped or ignored. Behavior may be a call for help. “I don’t need to listen to that phony principle. He has been on my case from the start of the year.”
The lost child is one who has learned not to make close connections in the family. The lost child appears to be ignoring the entire problem. All hell can be breaking loose at home and the lost child stays secluded from the drama. The lost child isolates and behaves apathetically. Spends much time being alone or quietly busy. It’s the safest role and likely not to cause trouble for self or others. They are just there. They suffer pain and loneliness. The role of the lost child is to offer relief. This is one child the family doesn’t have to worry about. The lost child/adjuster appears to ignore the entire problem. Stays isolated or secluded from the family drama and crisis. He cares but protects himself by staying away or flying under the radar. He spends a lot of time in his room or away. “If I’m real quiet, everything will go away.”
The mascot attempts to use humor to shield themselves and others from the pain of the disease. A quick joke or a humorous facial expression is meant to divert attention from the serious consequences of addictive behavior. “Dad wasn’t really drunk; he always walks into walls after mom drives him home.”
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