How to Build Recovery Friendly Family Relationships

May 19, 2017
Candice Rasa
A smiling man talking to a student in his office.

It’s virtually impossible to treat addiction without addressing family dynamics. For the vast majority of clients I’ve worked with, substance abuse developed as an effort to cope with unresolved family-of-origin issues that continue to shape thoughts, emotions and behaviors during adulthood:

  • The young woman who discovered that heroin dulled the painful memories and feelings of shame related to the childhood trauma of a stepfather’s sexual abuse
  • The man who drinks as a coping mechanism for anger—because he grew up in a family where expressions of anger were not permitted and were even punished

These are common profiles of the clients I serve. The specific details of their stories vary. (If the drug of choice is not alcohol, it may be something else, for example.) But generally, we can trace a direct line from a current substance use disorder back to what happened during those earliest, most formative relationships with parents, siblings and/or caregivers.

Much of my work thus involves helping clients revisit and process those painful memories and experiences, with a view to preparing them for re-entry into their families after treatment—and, hopefully, healthier ways of relating to their loved ones. One good measure of recovery, after all, is how it affects those immediate relationships. 

Creating a supportive environment for recovery in your family may not ultimately be up to you—ideally, it’s a group effort—but there are concrete things that anyone can do in pursuit of that goal. You might be in recovery, or you could be supporting a family member who is in recovery. These tips can help you both appreciate the unique challenges and opportunities of the recovery process, and form family relationships that are supportive of recovery.

Lead by example, by prioritizing your recovery.
You cannot be responsible for your family members’ recovery. What you can be responsible for, however, is your own recovery. Putting that first and sticking with a daily program for recovery sends a far more powerful message than words can, and sets an example for others to follow. 

Taking care of your own health is also one way to show love to your family members (who presumably want you to be healthy, if they love you). It’s undeniable that our mental and physical health has a direct bearing on the mental and physical health of those who get to live with us. When you’re feeling good about your life and health, that sense of wellbeing can be contagious in a good way. (And research has shown that those who prioritize their recovery over the longer run do experience significantly greater life fulfillment and satisfaction than those who don’t prioritize their recovery.)     

What does prioritizing your recovery look like? It means regular participation in a 12-step or other support group, getting daily exercise and nutrition, managing and minimizing stress, and staying meaningfully connected with yourself and others.

Recognize and articulate your emotions, and give your loved ones space and opportunity to do the same.
Recognizing and acknowledging feelings, and learning to express them when necessary in a loving and respectful way, is an important part of recovery. But feelings can also be a scary thing to deal with in recovery. Many fear the intensity of the emotions they have attached to traumatic memories: that either feeling these things or expressing them, or both, will be so overwhelming that they’ll lose total control and “blow their lid,” so to speak. For many of these clients, drugs and alcohol kept these overwhelming sensations at a low simmer rather than boiling over and (from their perspective) causing havoc.
So much of recovery, in contrast, is learning to connect with what you’re feeling and be okay with what you’re feeling. In some cases, that may also involve letting a loved one know (respectfully and appropriately) what you’re feeling. A lot of individuals coping with addiction, for example, have not learned how to say, “I feel uncomfortable.” Recovery needs more of that honesty on occasion with one’s loved ones. 

The important flip side of that is giving your loved ones opportunity and space to express their emotions, too, without fear of judgment or punishment. Do your best to give your loved one permission to share what they are feeling, too. 
Set healthy boundaries.
Related to this emotional self-awareness are healthier boundaries. Emotions can cue you in to what your limits are. Knowing what makes you feel uncomfortable helps you discover what you can and cannot tolerate, so that you can set healthy boundaries in relating to immediate family. 

Often the clients and families I serve are dealing with pretty deep enmeshment issues. For example, one family member may become so invested in their loved one’s recovery that they don’t let their loved one actually take responsibility for their recovery. Or, they can end up constantly “rescuing” their loved one from poor choices. On the other hand, letting a loved one discover personal life lessons for themselves, without telling them what to do or trying to fix things for them, can be a healthy form of setting boundaries that is best for them and a healthier form of relating for both of you.

Candice Rasa, LCSW, is Clinical Director of Beach House Center for Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Juno Beach, FL. She has more than 10 years’ experience in the mental health and substance-abuse arena, and supports healing in the clients she serves from a solution-focused, strengths-based approach.

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