What Role Does Family Play in Drug Relapse?

When people leave a drug rehab center, they’re prepared to face dozens of well-known relapse triggers — old drug-abusing friends, stress, anger, boredom, and poor nutrition and sleep, to name a few. What they may not be on the lookout for is their relationship with their family. Yet many addiction specialists agree that family dynamics can reinforce substance abuse and increase the risk of drug relapse. Here are a few reasons why. Mismatched Expectations — Loved ones of addicts have been through a lot. In addition to the heartache and anger that come with loving an addict, often they’ve shelled out a lot of energy, time and money. Naturally, they want results. So when the person in recovery can’t make it to a family event because they need to attend a support group or aftercare meeting, family members may reply, “Why? Aren’t you better now?” The family may expect the problem to be solved and the person in recovery to fit back into life as usual. But for the recovering addict, pressure to return to the “same old” can elicit guilt and shame, two well-known enemies to recovery. Speaking Different Languages — After focusing on deep-rooted issues and learning new skills in rehab, the addict has made a major transformation. Unless family members have done extensive work on their own, usually through therapy, Al-Anon meetings and involvement in the drug rehab’s family program, they haven’t made the same transformation. And in some cases, family members are struggling with mental health issues and addictions of their own. Going home to an environment that has not changed makes it easy to slip back into the way things were before treatment. Familiar Family Roles — With any chronic, progressive illness, when someone gets sick, every member of the family unconsciously gets sick in their own way by changing their role in an effort to find normalcy in a dysfunctional environment. Some try to help but end up enabling destructive behaviors by making excuses for the addict, bailing them out of trouble or providing money or other forms of support that protect the person from experiencing the consequences of their addiction. Spouses of addicts can become resentful after taking over the jobs of the entire household. Children of addicted parents may try to gain a sense of control by overachieving in life outside the home, people-pleasing, becoming the family comedian to break the tension at home or assuming any number of other dysfunctional roles. In each case, the person gives up a piece of their identity and dampens their connection with themselves and other family members. If these roles and dynamics don’t change, and the person in recovery is the only one on a quest to adopt healthy patterns, the old patterns can keep everyone stuck. Misunderstandings About Addiction — Family members may not understand the disease of addiction and the lifelong effort required to stay sober. Unless they’ve studied up, they may not be sensitive to the recovering addict’s needs and vulnerabilities. An anecdote often shared by people in recovery is the parent or relative who congratulates them on their recovery and then with the best of intentions asks, “Want to go grab a beer?” Or the family that continues to make alcohol the focal point of holidays and family celebrations despite the risks to their loved one’s recovery. As a result of misinformation, the person in recovery may feel isolated and alone, which increases the risk of relapse. Families may have a particularly tough time understanding relapse. Some control and smother in an effort to protect the person from slipping, and may overreact if a relapse occurs. Others look the other way or assume the problem has been solved — after all, the person went to treatment so the addiction should be gone, right? But studies show drug relapse rates hover around 40% to 60%. As with diabetes, hypertension and other chronic illnesses, addiction recovery requires ongoing care. Outpatient treatment, sober living and support groups are among the tools that can help addicts maintain their sobriety.

How to Be Part of the Solution

Although families can get sucked into the dysfunction, they also play a key role in getting their addicted loved one into treatment and acting as a support system for ongoing recovery. Here are a few things families can do to be part of the solution and promote family recovery:

  • Be a safe place for the addicted person to go if they want to express their joys and frustrations. Talk openly about the changes you’re going through so even if you’re not in the same place at the same time, you can understand each other’s perspective.
  • Avoid using alcohol or other drugs in their presence or exposing them to situations where drugs are around.
  • Go to Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings to learn about addiction and get support for your own needs.
  • Encourage healthy habits in your loved one such as proper diet, exercise and sleep patterns, attending support group meetings and other appointments, taking any required medications, and connecting with sober friends.
  • Be patient with yourself and your loved one. The process of rebuilding trust and establishing new family dynamics takes time.
  • Show appreciation for your recovering loved one’s hard work and milestones, both great and small.
  • Get to know your loved one’s relapse triggers, keep an eye out for early warning signs and respond to relapse swiftly by guiding the person back into treatment.
  • When you’ve done all you can to support your loved one in recovery, allow yourself to get back to the things you enjoy. There’s a lot you can do to help, but you can’t recover for them.

It can be painful for families to realize they played a role in a loved one’s addiction and/or relapse. But those who recognize their influence and work to understand the disease, address their own issues and support the person’s recovery in healthy ways can rebuild their families and their lives. When recovery is a family affair, everyone wins.

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