The disease of addiction encompasses far more than the physiological harms of chemical abuse. If you or someone you love has ever faced addiction, then you know the havoc the disease wreaks both on the person’s health and on their relationships.
All too often, it is those crucial connections with one’s own family that suffer the most significant and long-lasting damage (1, 2, 3, 4). But family ties can be powerful in addiction recovery. As the disease threatens to overtake you, your family will be the ones who will fight hardest and scream loudest to save you even when you may no longer care to save yourself. Likewise, if you are the family member of someone facing addiction, then it’s important to recognize the tremendous role you can play in supporting your loved one’s recovery. This article examines the vital importance of healthy family relationships in addiction recovery, whether you are the one experiencing dependency or you are seeking to support a loved one on the path to sobriety.
The Motivating Influence of Family
One of the most dangerous aspects of addiction is its capacity to rob patients and families of hope. Whether as a family member of a person with addiction, or the one experiencing it yourself, when you are in the throes of dependency it’s all too easy to develop tunnel vision until the disease becomes all that you can see. Life, and relationships, quickly begin to revolve around and be defined by the disease.
Working to restore family relationships lost or damaged by addiction isn’t just a beautiful ideal. There is, in fact, a significant amount of evidence demonstrating that the hope and promise of renewed and improved family relationships can have a significant impact on one’s recovery (5, 6). For example, research indicates that mothers in recovery for substance abuse disorder (SUD) are more likely to adhere to treatment and remain abstinent if their children are involved in the recovery process, even to the point of incorporating children into residential treatment programs when feasible (7, 8). Similarly, in their study of aging adults with combined histories of homelessness and substance abuse, Padgett et al. (2020) found that eliciting life priorities, including the rehabilitation of relationships with close friends and family, was strongly associated with recovery and abstinence (6).
Such findings are important, but perhaps they are not surprising. If you have experienced addiction, then you know that the craving for drug or drink can all too easily crowd out every other consideration, including thoughts of the people you love. However, when you are surrounded by them, when you are enveloped by the presence of people loving you, needing you, supporting your recovery, and requiring you to do the same, then it’s much harder to push them away and escape into the addiction. The presence of family can be a constant reminder of what you have to live for.
Goal-Setting and Sober Skill Development
When you are battling addiction, it can feel as if there is no future beyond the next fix. And when you love someone with SUD, the fear and anxiety and resentment can become all-consuming. In the presence of addiction, your relationship may feel as if it’s distilled down only to the disease and nothing more, shrunk to the desperation of trying to keep them alive mingled with the fury over the pain the disease has caused.
While it’s true that you can’t get sober for anyone else but you, nor can you hope to be the reason why someone you love stays clean, family relationships can be precisely the motivation needed to see beyond the disease, to recognize and pursue something that feels even better than the alcohol or drug. Padgett et al.’s study of life priorities found, for example, that the priority of restoring close family relationships was also strongly associated with the priority of building a better life (6).
For those in recovery, the ability to create and share a vision of a better life with the people they love can be a powerful incentive to remain sober. For loved ones, sharing such a hope with the person in recovery can not only be an important motivating tool when your loved one is struggling, but it can also be a profound source of strength and emotional support for you. Through shared priorities and collaborative goal setting, you learn to remember again your loved one outside of and beyond the grips of the disease. You and your loved ones can begin to build the vision you share, working toward the same goal of a new, healthy, and sober life for the entire family.
But it’s not just about goal setting. Incorporating family into recovery also helps those facing addiction to develop essential skills needed to maintain their sobriety outside of the cloistered, sheltering environment of the treatment center. Avoiding relapse means learning how to cope with daily stressors and how to manage important relationships in healthy ways.
For example, in studies on the efficacy of incorporating children into mothers’ recovery protocols, the success of such programs was often found to derive from the women’s enhanced capacity for self-reflection, self-regulation, and healthy coping (7, 8, 9, 10). When your children are around you, when your spouse is by your side, when parents and siblings have formed a net of love, responsibility, and accountability around you, it may quickly become undesirable to escape into the isolation of addiction. Remaining “present” with loved ones requires the development of essential social and emotional skills to help manage conflict, engage productively and healthfully with the people you love, and resist the temptation to relapse when things get hard as they inevitably will from time to time.
Sober Self/Sober Family
The disease of addiction doesn’t just change the person who is addicted. It also changes the people who love them. Even if families do not separate in the face of addiction, dysfunction is always introduced into the family dynamic. Families may all too easily lapse into unhealthy co-dependence, with loved ones playing the role not simply of caregiver but also of enabler and victim of the addiction. Likewise, those facing addiction may too readily assume the role of the stigmatized, but ultimately unaccountable, screwup. But just as codependency and enabling behaviors don’t emerge in a vacuum, they can’t be reversed in isolation either. It often takes the entire family to navigate a new identity, both as a unit and as individuals (11, 12, 13, 14).
The restoration of healthy family relationships can be instrumental to the development of a “sober” identity that is shaped by this renewed family dynamic. The process involves a sort of “disentangling” of the individual from the behavior patterns of addiction and the “re-entangling” of the person within the sober, healthy, high-functioning family unity (15).
This happens in a myriad of interconnected ways, including family members’ cultivation of their ability and willingness to recognize and reject disease-enabling behaviors in themselves and others. This is a critical process that Almanza-Avendaño et al. (2021) describe as the family’s movement from normalization of the addiction to informed participation in the treatment program. In addiction, as in life, behavior intertwines with identity, which is why cultivating a “sober” lifestyle through the support of the family is so important to recovery. As both Hughes (2007) and Stokes et al. (2018) have shown, recovery, above all, depends upon a sort of migration of identities, a shift in the stories we tell about ourselves and the people around us.
Ultimately, those narratives are based on what we do, not on what we say. Families can support their loved one in cultivating a healthy, sober lifestyle that will, in turn, facilitate the development and entrenchment of the “sober identity” for both the one experiencing addiction and the family who loves them.
Families can be there to hold their loved one accountable, helping to ensure that they are where they’re supposed to be and doing what they’re supposed to do, particularly in the early stages of recovery. Above all, families can be an omnipresent source of support. From preparing healthy meals to integrating an after-dinner walk into the family’s routine to simply ensuring that loved ones are getting enough rest, enough healthy food, enough activity and enjoyment on ordinary days, and enough comfort and encouragement on bad ones, families can be the bulwark against the stressors and the temptations that can trigger relapse.
How Bayshore Can Help
At Bayshore, we’re committed not just to helping you or your loved one achieve sobriety. We’re also dedicated to ensuring our clients and their families enjoy relational health and the quality of life they deserve. Therefore, our team of experts offers individualized treatment strategies that provide holistic support to enable our clients to live their best life with the people they love. This includes offering lifestyle education and family counseling to assist clients and their families build a healthy, happy, dependency-free life. Contact us today to learn how Bayshore can help you and the people you love.