Valiant Living Blog

Addiction as a Disease of the Family System

Written by Valiant Living Recovery on Friday, January 14th, 2022

Addiction is a family disease. “The havoc active addiction creates in families and relationships stresses everyone in these ‘systems’—parents, children, siblings, spouses, partners, close friends, etc.,” wrote Dan Mager, MSW, on Psychology Today in 2016. “Active addiction destabilizes the home environment, disrupts family life and muddling relationships, and often compromises finances, as well as mental, emotional, and physical health. Without assistance and unless family members and significant others learn and practice how to do things differently, these effects can be chronic and long-term.”

Many people with addiction and their loved ones are more than prepared to do things differently. They just don’t know how.

“Most people enter recovery for substance abuse problems hoping not just for improvement in their addiction but also for improvement in their relationships,” wrote Kelly Green in her 2021 book Relationships in Recovery. “That’s because the majority who seek treatment report having interpersonal problems and relationship distress, in many cases, substance abuse has both caused relationship problems and become a way of trying to cope with them.”

“Treating families in crisis is one of the strengths of the Valiant Living program,” says executive director Michael Simms, LCSW, LAC, CIFST, ADS, CSAT Candidate. “That’s where we really shine. We exist to provide a holistic therapeutic experience to treat the entire family system.”

Valiant Living’s therapists frequently utilize Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a transformative, evidence-based model of psychotherapy, based on the idea that the mind is naturally multiple. Developed by Richard Schwartz, IFS combines systems thinking with the view that the mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities or “parts”, each with its own unique viewpoint and qualities.

In family systems, these parts of the mind correspond to people in the family. “Like individuals, families also accrue burdens from direct experience,” Dr. Schwartz and co-author Martha Sweezy wrote in Internal Family Systems Therapy. Family members “divide into the same roles” of exile (chronically wounded inner child), manager (protector who tends to be a critic), and firefighter (protector who tries to deal with emergencies) and “get bound to these roles by the same kind of restraints and burdens that keep parts in their roles.”

Central to the IFS concept is the “Self,” the seat of consciousness at the core. “From birth this Self has all the necessary qualities of good leadership, including compassion, perspective, curiosity, acceptance, and confidence,” wrote Schwartz. In his latest book, No Bad Parts, he explained that “the Self is just beneath the surface of our protective parts, such that when they open space for it, it comes forward spontaneously, often quite suddenly, and universally.”

The goal, Dr. Schwartz wrote in Internal Family Systems Therapy. Family is “to access the Self and release parts (in individuals) and people (in families) who have gotten stuck in extreme roles.”

In individuals and family systems, four mutually influential dimensions of functioning are relevant in IFS: they are development, leadership, balance, and harmony.

“For our purposes, development in a family refers to its growth and evolution within a historical context. Leadership refers to a role of responsibility for the system and its members which is allocated to the person or people presumed most capable of being responsible. Balance in a family or any other system refers to the mutual delineation of boundaries and the equitable distribution or resources, responsibilities, and influence within the system; harmony refers to certain relational qualities of the system, including those that are often used to describe families that function well: cohesion, flexibility, effective communication, care, support, cooperation, and low conflict. Balance leads to harmony, and harmony promotes balance.”

These dimensions of functioning can be severely disrupted by trauma: “Trauma imposes two overarching constraints on a system’s development,” wrote Schwartz and Sweezy. “The first involves vulnerable parts of the system becoming frozen in a state of terror or shamefulness, often in the time of the trauma. The second involves leadership. Parents can abdicate their role, discredit their ability to lead, and forfeit their influence by being impulsive (e.g. violent), compulsive (e.g. substance dependence), biased (e.g. favoring one child over another), or overly passive (e.g. depression).”

The IFS therapist operates as a “hope merchant” in order to restore harmony and balance in the family. It starts with introducing clients to the “parts” language of the therapy model. “Once we have introduced parts language, many family members quickly adopt this way of talking about their feelings and thoughts,” wrote Schwartz and Sweezy.

“The language of parts does not ask family members to ignore or reframe whatever they have done to hurt one another, which could minimize the hurt or promote premature forgiveness. Rather, it guides the family to see hurtful behavior as the act of a protective (often young) part, and to trust that all members of the family are much more than a single part. Simply by using parts language, the therapist helps all of them to see one another—and themselves—differently. Talking about parts is as powerful for families as it is for individuals.”

Valiant Living founder Michael Dinneen previously worked with a variety of programs addressing substance misuse and intimacy disorders, but each focused primarily on the individual as the client, often missing the broader context of the family system in which they lived. Valiant Living treats the entire family system holistically to achieve better outcomes for everybody.

Our treatment team helps male professionals understand and harmonize their minds and, thus, helps them and their family system heal. We know that such clients need to balance a deep search for recovery with a work-life that demands attention. Our Professionals Program is designed to do just that, with a number of therapeutic options for men with challenging careers and a busy lifestyle. If you or a loved one has turned to drugs or alcohol to keep up at work and manage a high degree of daily stress, don’t hesitate to reach out for help by calling us today at 303-952-5035.