Addiction has been referred to as a disease of relationships. While it takes a lot of work for the individual who is trying to kick their addiction, there is also hard work needed from family members—particularly the spouse—in order to transform dysfunctional family dynamics into health patterns that can help someone thrive in recovery.
“If a person in recovery is going to be successful, they need that support,” says Josh Bowers, an associate marriage and family therapist at Maple Mountain Recovery, a trauma-informed treatment center outside of Salt Lake City. “If they’re not addressing that whole family system that they’re going back into, they’re going to fail.”
In order to set people up for success, clients at Maple Mountain are encouraged to participate in couples and family therapy. Here’s why making recovery a family affair is so important.
It gets everyone on the same page.
In families who live with an addict, everyone is usually aware that something is off, or not right. However, since deception and mistrust go hand and hand with addiction, couple’s counseling might be the first time that spouses talk openly about exactly what has happened as the result of addiction.
“Sometimes family members are not aware of what’s happening with their loved ones,” Bowers says. “They may know there’s an addiction, but may not know the details.”
Couple’s therapy is a chance for partners to be entirely truthful with each other, often for the first time. This establishes a foundation of trust that the relationship can be rebuilt upon.
“We try to integrate the family member into what’s happening,” Bowers says.
At Maple Mountain that also includes family nights where family members and partners receive psycho-education to help them understand addiction.
“This helps the family to understand how addiction is affecting their loved ones: what happens to the brain, what’s going on emotionally and what it’s doing to their value system and thought processes,” Bowers says. This can help partners understand that there are reasons for the behaviors they have seen.
It can help establish a healthier family system.
Although it can be painful to acknowledge, addiction is a symptom of a bigger issue, often one rooted in the close relationships of the person grappling with the disease.
“Addiction is the negative coping mechanism,” Bowers says. “We try to look at why people are using the substance and a lot of times it comes from those relationships.”
Family and couples therapy encourages people to look at the entire family system, including the harmful patterns that have become normalized.
“Everyone engages in this system. We all have patterns, rules and ways that we interact and act,” Bowers says. “Even if those are harmful we continue to do them until something gets so bad that the system just breaks.”
Therapy helps family members to recognize what patterns are not working, and to replace them with healthier patterns.
It addresses the elephant in the room.
Oftentimes families who are living with active addiction learn how to ignore the disease—tiptoeing around the so-called elephant in the room until it becomes to massive that it can’t be ignored. Therapy teaches families how to talk about difficult issues before they become overwhelming.
“We bring that elephant out into the open,” Bowers says. “What are we not talking about? What are we as a family ignoring that we need to talk about?”
This helps address the pain from addiction and also prepares the family for better communication in general moving forward.
It can bring partners together.
Oftentimes both partners—but especially the spouse of the addict—has a lot of built up pain and resentment. They may feel that they shouldn’t have to participate in therapy, which they might see as doing work to solve a problem that their partner created.
“A lot of times you may have resistance,” Bowers says. However, coming to therapy and working together to make the relationship and family healthier can be a positive reinforcement for the partnership.
Bowers encourages spouses to get to the point where they can acknowledge that addiction may not be their problem, but they love their spouse enough to engage in order to figure out a solution to the problems in the relationship.
“If your spouse needs you, aren’t you willing to do that?” Bowers says.
Although couple’s therapy can be difficult for everyone involved, Bowers says they are very important.
“These sessions are critical,” he says. “Addiction and mental health issues aren’t just singular diseases, they’re a family or systems disease. The family needs to look at their roles and expectations in order to figure out what things aren’t working and be able to change them.”
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