As human beings, we need more than air, water, and food to survive. We also need healthy social relationships. Those with substance use disorder often experience isolation and deteriorating social relationships. When family ties deteriorate, it can lead to increased substance use as the person tries to cope.
Many times, the focus of addiction treatment is on the person who is using, but those around them are also affected in many significant ways. The quality of social support networks in one’s life is a criterion used by psychologists to determine the degree to which substance use affects one’s quality of life. If you are the family member or friend of a substance user, you need to understand how their addiction affects you and all of your relationships.
As substance use progresses, the person using often becomes so focused on using the substance that relationships begin to suffer. The person begins to focus more on getting the next high than maintaining social connections. For most people, social networks create a sense of well-being and connection. For the person with substance use disorder, however, these interactions cannot compete with the feeling that they get from using.
Drug abuse leads to hiding the addiction. The person may fear the judgment of the people in their lives. They may begin to be secretive about where they have been, who they were with, and what happened to them. The people in their lives may notice changes in their personality and behavior, but when loved ones confront them about this, the substance user will often make something up or simply dismiss it.
Money may start to go missing from bank accounts, or credit card bills may begin to show cash advances. Dealing with money issues that threaten their financial security and that of their family may increase the stress on the user and make them want to get high even more. As they continually attempt to hide their behavior, trust issues may begin to develop. This can lead to jealousy, fear, and resentment from loved ones. Often, at this point, the loved one may feel that they are being replaced by something, but they may not know what it is.
Anger Issues Develop
One of the most profound changes in a person with substance use disorder is that they may develop anger or violence issues. This can occur even in someone who was relatively mild-mannered in the past. If the person does not have a history of anger or violence, their family may be confused and concerned about this new behavior.
Anger can stem from the frustration and stressful feelings that occur when substance use begins to cause serious problems. The substance user often feels out of control and will lash out in violence to gain back some control. This can lead to a cycle where they feel even more out of control as their family connections break down and their social circle diminishes.
Certain substances are known to increase anger and violent behavior. These include:
In many cases, this anger can lead to domestic violence on the part of the substance user or even a loved one. This can, in turn, lead to a cycle of anger and substance use that affects the foundation of the family structure.
Enabling and Codependency
Sometimes, friends and relatives are unwilling to accept the reality of their loved one’s addiction, and they may try to keep everything as normal as possible. In an attempt to keep the status quo, they may take on additional responsibilities to make up for the behaviors and feelings of the one who is addicted. They must often cover up for the actions of the substance user and will spend a considerable amount of time trying to minimize the negative consequences of what the substance user has done. This often occurs when children are involved.
Often, an enabler will accept blame for the actions of the substance user. For instance, when the user strikes out in anger against them, they will turn it around and make it their own fault.
An enabler will also make excuses for the substance user and try to cover up the effects that their addiction is having on their life and on the lives of others. This can lead to friction in the entire family unit because children may feel that the enabling parent has abandoned them in favor of the substance user.
Codependency is similar to enabling, but it represents the next level in the destructive cycle of drug addiction. At this stage, the supportive family member will sacrifice their own needs for their substance-using loved one. They will often develop low self-esteem and become focused entirely on the substance user. They can also become controlling and unaware of the emotional changes that are going on in their own relationships outside the family.
Often, their relationship with the substance user will become lopsided. The person remains committed to the substance user even though their efforts are not reciprocated.
Loss of a Support Network
According to SAMHSA, having a support network is one of the most important parts of the recovery process. However, many times, before the person begins the treatment process, their own support networks have already deteriorated, and they may find themselves isolated and cut off from loved ones.
Not all social connections are beneficial to the recovery process, however. For instance, an enabler or a spouse who has become codependent will be more likely to defend the person who is using rather than giving them the help they need. The enabler or codependent will often cut themselves off from or be cut off by their own support network. Eventually, friends will drift away, and families may feel helpless and start to avoid them.
Having connections with others who provide unconditional love, support, hope, and friendship is an important part of the recovery process. This goes not just for those in the family circle but for the community as well. Unfortunately, many substance users also find themselves cut off from community connections. This feeling of isolation only helps to fuel the substance use.
Healing All of the Relationships
Understanding how substance use affects the user as well as their family and friends underscores how important it is to seek help for the entire family and support network. Both the addicted person and those they care for could benefit from therapy. Treatment that includes individual therapy for family members can help them understand how enabling and codependent behaviors are not helping their loved one. They can also learn to cope with the behaviors of the substance user in a way that will help them recover.
Friendships and family connections should never be a one-way street. The patterns and behaviors of those around the substance user can either contribute to further substance use or serve to help the person regain control of their life. When the non-using partner develops enabling and codependent tendencies, they need to relearn how to engage in the self-care that they need to keep themselves healthy. They can only offer the best support if they focus on their own health first. This is something that a trained professional therapist can help the non-using partner to understand.
Couples and family counseling are an important part of the recovery process for everyone involved. Strong connections take time and energy, and relationships that have been damaged cannot be expected to be repaired overnight. Just as the recovery process is a long road, so is the road to repairing connections. This is why family therapy and couples therapy are so important to the recovery process.
For relationships to mend, both partners need to acknowledge the damage of the past and develop strategies so that they will not revert to dysfunctional patterns when similar situations occur in the future. They need to end current destructive behaviors and learn to develop healthier relationships with each other and those in their individual family circles.
A family counselor can help a substance user and their loved one(s) learn to relate to each other in a way that may help to repair their relationship. In the end, some relationships become even stronger than before, but this is not always the case.
Sometimes, the relationship may have gone beyond the point where it can be repaired. Family and couples therapy is also important in this situation because it can help both parties make a break in a way that will result in a healthy future for each person. It can also assist both parties in coping with the loss without feelings of resentment. If the relationship ends, family counseling can help each party make a plan for moving on and developing a support network to assist during and after the breakup.
Without the support of the entire family, the recovery process for the substance user can be much more difficult. Unless the patterns that have developed as a result of the substance use in the family are broken, the substance user will have a more difficult time controlling the addiction.
Learning to communicate in a way that is productive and that demonstrates a level of respect is one of the most important outcomes of family counseling and couples therapy. Couples therapy will help both parties learn new skills and ways of communicating that will result in better-quality relationships not only with each other but with friends and other family members.
Setting healthy limits is another important component of healthy relationships. Limit setting involves expressing expectations and the consequences of failing to meet them. In many relationships that involve substance use and either enabling or codependent behavior, the two parties fail to set any limits for one another.
It is not enough to just set limits, however. One must also learn to follow through consistently. For instance, saying that the substance use is not an acceptable part of the relationship but then continuing to allow it or even support it will not help the substance user break the cycle. Family counseling can help both parties learn to set healthy limits and follow through when the other person does not live up to expectations.
Importance of Seeking Family Counseling
Relationships are important for everyone. They are also an essential part of the recovery process for those dealing with substance use. It is important to understand how drug abuse affects relationships. Substance use causes isolation for the substance user and those around them. Having a healthy social network will help family members offer the best support that they can during the recovery process.
Even though the focus of the recovery process is typically on the substance user, family members and friends should not be ignored. Having healthy relationships that enhance one’s quality of life creates a better chance for a successful and complete recovery. Caregivers must understand that they are not doing the substance user any good by ignoring their own needs.
Often, it is difficult to recognize enabling behaviors or codependency in oneself. An experienced counselor can provide a new perspective on the dynamics of the relationship. A counselor can also assist the person in understanding the damage that has occurred while helping them learn how to move forward in a positive way. Family counseling will help both individuals and relationships evolve in a way that creates a bright future for everyone.