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    How Addiction Affects Family and Relationships

    In their lifetimes, more than 21 million Americans ages 12 and older have had a substance abuse problem, which includes alcohol and drug addiction. Addiction is a disease that affects not only an individual’s physiological wellbeing, their psychological and emotional states as well.  Much has been written about the negative impacts of addiction on the user.

    Alcoholism and drug addiction have obvious and well-documented effects on chronic substance abusers.  Prolonged abuse of drugs and/or alcohol will deteriorate a person’s physical health, impair their mental functioning, cause legal issues, career problems, financial stress, and damage their overall spirit.

    As much as addiction can affect the user, addiction affects family and relationships too.  Addiction can emotionally and psychologically impact the family as much as it personally impacts the addict. Addiction and family have a unique relationship that the substance abuser does not often see.  This article will discuss how addiction affects family and relationships.

    Addiction is a Family Disease

    Families of addicts, including both immediate family members and often extended family members, are affected somehow by the individual’s substance abuse. Addiction impacts a family’s finances, physical health, and psychological wellbeing.  Addiction is a family disease because it affects everyone in the family system in which it occurs, but also because it runs in families.

    When you are part of a family, every decision one person makes influences the other members in direct and indirect ways.1 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, shame, responsibility, confusion, anger, sadness, and more can trouble the entire family and lead to increased conflict, isolation, and dysfunction.

    How Drug Addiction Affects Families and Relationships

    Battling a substance use disorder is viewed by many as a personal experience. Because harmful substances have devastating effects on the user, many may not consider other people directly involved.  The spouse, children, and parents who witness a family member struggling with addiction may experience financial, legal, medical, emotional damage, and other consequences.

    The effects of drug and alcohol addiction can be both short-term and long-term. Peaceful, loving homes can be divided by the strain caused by drug and alcohol abuse. Conflict becomes normal as family members fight to engage in a son or daughter who abuses heroin, for example.

    Trust begins to erode, because of the lies and manipulation required in order for the addict to continue to feed the addictive beast.. Relatives may become more guarded if a relative abusing illicit substances act with aggression or hide their disorder in secrecy. Marriages can end due to changes caused by addiction. Communication becomes more difficult, highlighting frustration.

    Family members see their relatives endure side effects of drugs or fly into rages when under the influence of alcohol. Others may see their relatives lose weight rapidly, becoming unrecognizable. Some may not hear from a loved one for an extended period of time, only to discover they are living on the street or have fatally overdosed. Such shock can cause a relative to endure severe trauma or develop unhealthy coping mechanisms like codependent behaviors in response.

    Couples, families, and friendships that face addiction can all fall into disrepair as the sufferer begins to distance themselves. Conflict, abuse, and distrust are all side-effects of addiction in relationships and can do irreparable damage. Since substances are often used as an escape, fighting about substance misuse can push someone into a downward spiral of addiction. This creates a vicious cycle in which conflict leads to using, and drinking leads to conflict. Spirals like these can be challenging to escape without treatment.   Here are some of the specific ways that addiction impacts the family:

    1. Impact on Children

    Drug addiction and family dynamics are closely tied, but among all of the victims of substance abuse, perhaps no one suffers as much as children. The effects of drug abuse on family members, specifically for children of addicted parents, can be felt long after childhood and well into adulthood. Parental alcoholism and drug addiction can create poor self-image, loneliness, guilt, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, fear of abandonment, and chronic depression in children.4 Maternal substance abuse during pregnancy can also lead to a host of behavioral and developmental disorders in children.

    According to Psychology Today, 1 in 5 children grow up in a home where a parent abuses drugs or alcohol. Witnessing the trauma of a parent suffering addiction at a young age has long-term effects on the child. Children growing up seeing a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol are more likely to develop substance use disorders in their adulthood. They are also three times more likely to be neglected, physically, and sexually abused. Seeing a parent on drugs often creates distressing emotions that create delays in learning and development and pronged mental and emotional disorders.

    Since children are still developing their personalities and are vulnerable to external influences, they risk repeating such behaviors. Children may be exposed to aggression or violent behavior due to a parent or both parent’s drug use. Arguments between parents may be normal, causing the child emotional distress as they witness family members fighting.

    Early exposure to a home divided by drug use can cause the child to feel emotionally and physically neglected and unsafe. As a result, they can become more mentally and emotionally unstable. Children may develop extreme guilt and self-blame for a parent’s substance abuse. They may develop feelings of unworthiness for disturbances around the home or develop dysfunctional attachments in their adulthood. In extreme cases, children can be removed from the home and placed in foster care.

    When a parent has an addiction, they’ll be too busy looking for and using their substance of choice, which distracts them from their responsibilities. As a result, they won’t meet the needs of their child. This irresponsibility ranges from not taking care of basic needs, such as providing meals and keeping the child clean, to secondary needs like ensuring their child is getting an education and social life.

    Moreover, there is a correlation between addiction and an increased risk of child abuse. Research has shown that abused children have a higher chance of getting into substance use and addiction later in life. Even if the child doesn’t abuse substances, growing up in such an environment will compromise their emotional and mental health.  Growing up in a family with addiction will impact the child’s self-confidence, health, and social development.

    2. Loss of Trust

    Deception is the cornerstone of addiction, and individuals suffering from addictions can seriously hurt their relationships by keeping their daily life secret. As misuse turns into addiction, the small lies become bigger and harder to hide. Before they realize it, little white lies can spiral into bigger deceptions to manipulate loved ones and hide their double life. Lying is symptomatic of a crippling fear of judgment, and when confronted, those struggling may isolate and distance themselves from people to prevent feeling shame and guilt. They hide from their loved ones, which ultimately only exacerbates the cycle.

    Deception about addiction can result in a loss of trust amongst family members, friends, or partners, sometimes damaging relationships for years to come. As addiction persists, the lies become more elaborate, leading from an excuse to another excuse. Trust is essential to maintain a healthy relationship, and once broken, it can destroy relationships from the inside. Honesty is the only path toward effective communication, and without trust, suffering relationships can foster sadness and resentment on all sides. Loved ones fall second to drugs and alcohol, making it challenging to preserve respect and loyalty without intervention.

    Addicts aren’t likely to follow through on their agreements or promises, and this causes further strain in their relationships. It’s worth noting, however, that most addicts usually mean to honor their commitments, but the effects of the substances make them unable to. Thus, if they’re in a relationship, their significant other is going to be frustrated due to the addict’s inability to meet their obligations.

    They’re also likely to forget about the promises they make to their children. If this becomes a trend, the child will have a hard time forming bonds with other people since they don’t know how to trust. This loss of trust often results in broken marriages and dysfunctional children.

    3. Increased Stress

    In the throes of their addiction, the addict is likely going to leave all the responsibilities to their partner. The partner, therefore, becomes an enabler.

    Taking care of bills, making decisions, raising the kids, and cleaning up after the addict is quickly going to take a toll on the other parent. This exposes them to an elevated risk of contracting stress-induced conditions such as high blood pressure and anxiety.

    In addition, people who bottle up their stress are more likely to explode and unleash their emotions all at once. This can cause even more stress and discomfort among family members.

    4. Financial Problems

    Financing an addiction isn’t cheap. Additionally, the substance abuse problem is likely going to cause the individual to lose their job due to poor performance or attendance. After that happens, they’ll turn to their savings to quench their addiction.

    Consequently, the family will begin having problems paying for basic things such as food, clothing, utilities, and rent or mortgage.

    There may also be legal problems, such as driving under the influence or being caught with drugs. The associated costs create an even bigger financial problem.

    Enablers might even provide money for alcohol or drugs to the addict to appease them. This is not only depleting their finances; it’s also making the addict think that their family members will always be around to finance their fix.

    5. Physical and Emotional Abuse

    In addition to making the addict irrational, their substance abuse is also likely to put everyone around them on edge. This means that simple disagreements can result in big fights as everyone feels misunderstood.

    With everyone acting out of character, physical abuse may start occurring on top of the pre-existing emotional abuse. Addicts can be the perpetrators of abuse, but their vulnerability also puts them at risk of becoming victims of it too.

    Children of addicts might also end up becoming abusers as well. In an attempt to shift blame from the addicted parent, some children may end up acting out and misbehaving. These actions can later scar them and cause them to turn to drinking or drug use as their relative did. Abuse and addiction can become a deadly cycle that can only be broken by treatment.

    6. Fear and Confusion

    Drug abuse usually makes an individual’s behavior unpredictable. You never know how they’ll react to a situation. In a bid to avoid physical or emotional abuse, family members might begin walking on eggshells to appease their addicted loved ones.

    Children will become more reserved so as not to risk upsetting the individual. The end result is a culture of fear and confusion, which ensures that the household rarely has joy.

    Unhealthy Family 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:2

    Couple arguing, concept of negative communication

    • 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.

    Addiction and Relationships

    The effects of drugs and alcohol on families can also lead to codependency, which is an issue that often occurs in spouses of addicts. The concept of codependency became widely popular during the 1980s.  Broadly, it refers to an overly involved individual with another person to the point of dysfunction.  When discussing codependency in addiction, the term refers to individuals who put the needs of the addict before their own, even when it is detrimental to their wellbeing.

    Codependent people will often defend and make excuses for the addict and will do anything to remain in their good graces.9 Early on, the term was usually reserved for wives with alcoholic husbands and drug addicts who relied on their spouses for financial wellbeing. Though codependent people are usually spouses, anyone who has an established relationship with an addict can become codependent.

    Codependency and addiction breed toxic, one-sided relationships between friends, families, and partners. The codependent party in a relationship wants to help the addicted individual, but their codependence does the opposite by enabling unhealthy behavior.  Codependent relationships usually require one of the partners to need more help than the other. Someone codependent on someone struggling with addiction often enjoys the constant feeling of being needed, as if they are a caretaker. The sense of sacrificing their own self-care and boundaries for someone else gives the codependent a motive to maintain the addiction for their own personal gain.

    Being Married to a Drug Addict

    Drug addiction and family relationships do not mix well, but being married to an addict may be even more difficult. Especially in relationships where only one partner has a substance abuse problem, alcohol and drugs can ruin a marriage or long-term relationship. Alcoholism has been linked to higher divorce rates, and one partner’s addiction can lead to the other partner having to shoulder an unfair share of the household responsibilities.7

    When both spouses are equally addicted to drugs or alcohol, it may not increase the chance for divorce, but the household’s atmosphere will become much more toxic as a result.8  One sober partner can at least try to keep the house in order and encourage the substance abuser to get help. A relationship with two addicts allows each partner to feed off of and enable the other. Addiction will likely lead to the slow deterioration of the relationship, as both addicts will be primarily focused on feeding their addictions rather than cultivating the relationship or handling any household responsibilities.

    Domestic and Sexual Abuse is Linked to Substance Abuse

    Another connection between drug abuse and family relationships involves various types of abuse and trauma. An unfortunate and tragic cycle includes substance abuse, sexual abuse/rape, and domestic/child abuse.   Several studies have found that a large percentage of child abuse and domestic abuse cases involve drugs or alcohol.

    Other studies have found that victims of abuse were more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. This means children of substance abusing parents are more likely to experience domestic or sexual abuse leading to trauma, making them more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol themselves. If they have children as well, the cycle has a strong chance of continuing. If your family falls into this category, our domestic violence and addiction treatment may be able to help.

    As many as two-thirds of all people in treatment for drug abuse report that they were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused as a child.

    • A woman is beaten every nine seconds in the United States. 12
    • More than three million children witness violent acts against their mothers each year.15
    • Between 30 and 40 percent of children who witness or experience violent acts will be at an increased chance of becoming involved in a violent relationship in adulthood.16
    • Between 25 and 50 percent of men who commit domestic violence also have substance abuse problems.17
    • As many as two-thirds of all people in treatment for drug abuse report that they were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused as a child.18
    • One in four women has been a victim of rape, sexual assault, or domestic abuse.19
    • As many as 80 percent of child abuse cases involve alcohol or drug use.20
    • More than half of defendants accused of murdering their spouses (as well as nearly half of the victims) had been drinking alcohol at the time of the incident.21

    The effects of addiction on family members can change drastically when abuse is involved. A person who experiences or witnesses abuse, sexual assault, or rape has a high likelihood of struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome and/or depression. Both conditions often lead individuals to use drugs or alcohol as a means to cope. This pattern then potentially leads to the development of tolerance and then full-blown addiction.

    How Family Therapy Can Help with Addiction

    Substance use disorders can take a toll on family members and the individual struggling with addiction. Luckily, there is help available. Treatment providers can answer questions family members may have. Various facilities allow sober relatives to visit family members in rehab to receive counseling and maintain relationships. Patients can heal with therapy options, medication, and support from licensed professionals.

    Family therapy is one of the many aftercare treatments offered at many outpatient addiction rehab treatment centers. When the entire family visits the addict in treatment, they can better see how he or she is doing and provide support and encouragement. As family members, you can also better understand what your addicted loved one is going through, as well as observe the patterns and experiences that may have led them to substance abuse.

    Below are the types of family therapy often offered.

    • Individual family counseling: Individual family counseling allows family members to attend therapy without the addict to process their own feelings and emotions about their loved one’s experience.
    • Group family counseling: It’s also necessary to attend counseling with your addicted family member. This way, you can move forward together in recovery and learn more about each other.

    It’s essential for family members of addicts to have plenty of support during this time of recovery, which is why we also provide resources and support. We have several online addiction guides that will give you an inside look at addiction and how it affects everyone involved. Through this mode of counseling, addicts can see how substance abuse affects the family.

    Discussion and Conclusion

    Nearly every person in contact with an addict is impacted in some way. The effects of addiction are rarely limited solely to the addict. Everyone around them is affected in some way. Frequently, the people who spend the most time around the addict are friends, family, and coworkers – these are the people who are likely to be most impacted by drug addiction or alcoholism. Family members, especially non-addicted spouses, are forced to pick up the slack for the addict, make excuses for his or her behavior, and potentially endure sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

    In many cases, extended family members and close friends have to help financially and in other ways to account for the ignored responsibilities by the addict. Children who suffer in school and are more likely to be involved with drugs and alcohol as adults. Coworkers are not always as close to the addict, but they may also be affected by increasing their workloads to make up for diminished job performance. Nearly every person in contact with an addict is impacted in some way.

    More times than not, drugs ruin families, which is why a PUSH for Recovery can be so impactful. The recovery is also most successful when the friends and family members closest to the addict are involved. Since the effects of drug addiction on family members are so strong, addiction recovery needs to heal the whole family. If your family is suffering from a loved one’s addiction, the programs at PUSH for Recovery for families of addicts may be able to help. Call PUSH for Recovery now for more information.


    Donate to help the Life Recovery Society provide a safe, sober, supportive, and flexible way for individuals to earn an income while in treatment.  Life Recovery Society also plans to add a men's and women's sober living home in the Hilltop Community.