Why An Alcoholic Family System Loses Its Balance: Characteristics of the Addicted Family

Tian Dayton, MA, Ph.D., TEP>

Those among us who have lived with the mess and mayhem of addiction understand how it feels to live in a family that has lots its rudder. It’s disquieting, deregulating and can chip away at our ability to live in emotional and psychological balance. Recent research in neuroscience is shedding an intriguing light on just why this might be so. In a nutshell, repeated experiences that frighten us, over which we think we have no sense of control nor ability or freedom to escape, can, over time, deregulate our limbic systems. When this happens, our capacity to regulate our emotional and psychological worlds may be undermined. The limbic system is the mind / body neural network that governs mood, emotional tone, appetite and sleep cycles to name just a few of its wide ranging functions. Deregulation in the deep limbic system may contribute to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, libido and motivation. Even a compulsive, unregulated or addictive relationship with food, alcohol, drugs or certain behaviors (e.g. work, spending, sex) may, in this prudent light, be understood as a problem with self regulation.

Broad swings in thinking, feeling and behavior all too often characterize the addicted family system and reflect its problems with self regulation. For decades these extremes in functioning have been referred to intuitively by twelve steppers as “black and white thinking”. It turns out, they may well have a neurological base. Addicted / traumatized families often have trouble living within a balanced range. They may, for example, become enmeshed and then, when the closeness becomes claustrophobic, they disengage to et some relief and space. They seek a dysfunctional sort of balance by swinging from one extreme to the other, rather than living within a comfortable mid range. Following are some examples of how these dynamics may play out.

The Roller Coaster Ride
The Set Up: High Intensity vs. Shutdown / Dissociation

When family members become overwhelmed, when they experience the unpredictable and disturbing behavior surrounding them as too intense to manage, they may shut down in an unconscious attempt to minimize personal damage. It goes something like this: We get scared, adrenaline courses through our bodies and revs us up for fight or flight. We either release that adrenaline by fighting or taking off or we freeze, we shut down. Like a circuit breaker that has gotten too hot, our limbic system flips and switches to the “off” position. We slam on our emotional brakes. This alternating mind / body action, of feeling flooded with intense emotion then numbing or shutting down, reflects the “black and white functioning” that those who have felt psychologically traumatized often report experiencing. These dynamics may manifest in thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns.

The Solution: What we need to learn to do when we get scared is to talk ourselves down from these high pitches so that we are in a position to talk out our feelings rather than act them out. We may need to take a break in order to feel more balanced and less reactive. Activities that can bring our fear reaction back into balance are deep breathing, calming exercise or simply reflecting on what might be getting triggered in us before we swing into action.

The Set Up: Over-Functioning vs. Under-Functioning

In a maladaptive attempt to maintain family balance, some family members may over-function in order to compensate for the under-functioning of others. Over- functioning can wear many hats; children may over- function when parents drop the ball. Or they may work overtime striving to restore order and dignity to a family which is rapidly slipping. Spouse may over-function to maintain order and “keep the show on the road” while the addict falls in and out of normal functioning.

Under-functioning may be associated with the learned helplessness that is part of the trauma response, in which we come to feel that nothing we can do will make a difference or make things better, so we give up. Family members may freeze like deer in headlights, unable to mobilize, get their lives together and make useful choices.

It is also not uncommon, that the addicts themselves, along with others in the system, may do both, over-functioning to make up for periods of under-functioning. Again we see yet another version of the roller coaster ride.

The Solution: Balanced functioning is the obvious in between of over and under-functioning. When we do what is appropriate to the circumstance, not more, not less. Program slogans such as “one day at a time” or “take the next right action” help both the over-functioner and the under-functioner to manage feelings of being overwhelmed.

The Set Up: Denial vs. Despair

Addicted or traumatized families are often very threatened by what they perceive to be the looming destruction of the family as they know it. Their very place in the world is being threatened; the ground beneath them is crumbling.

Denial is a dysfunctional attempt to ward off ever growing feelings of despair. Reality gets denied or rewritten as family members attempt to bend it to make it less threatening; to cover up their increasing anxiety, guilt, resentment and fear. Family members may find themselves running in place to keep up appearances (to themselves as well as others) while feeling a sense of despair constantly nipping at their heels. Some members may collude in their denial and anyone who attempts to turn the spotlight onto the harsh reality of addiction may be perceived as a threat. Again we witness the cycles between extremes that characterize addicted / traumatized family systems.

The Solution: Reality orientation or an ability to “live life on life’s terms” is an important part of recovering one’s balanced sense of self and a balanced orientation toward the world.

The Set Up: Enmeshment / Disengagement

One way that frightened family members may attempt to stay safe or ward off feelings of aloneness may be to become enmeshed. Enmeshment is a relational style that lacks boundaries and often discourages differences or disagreement, seeing them not as healthy and natural but disloyal or even threatening. Enmeshed styles of relating formed in childhood tend to repeat themselves in adult relationships.

Disengagement is the other side of enmeshment. Family members see the solution to keeping pain from their inner worlds from erupting as avoiding subjects, people, places and things that might trigger it. This can lead to an emotional disengagement where family members slip seamlessly into their own orbits and stop sharing their inner worlds authentically with each other. As family tension builds and genuine connection erodes, members may take refuge in covert alliances, where a couple of people in the family ally and form covert bonds and others are left out.

These swings between clinging and disengaging may be related to the nature and intensity of traumatic bonding. The more scared everyone becomes, the more they feel a need for protective bonds, even if they are bonding with the person who is scaring them.

The Solution: Balanced relatedness is neither a withdrawal from another person nor a fusion with them. It allows each person fluidity of movement and identity; i.e. the freedom to move in and out of close connection in a modulated fashion. Boundaries emerge naturally as our sense of self becomes consolidated and we come to understand intuitively where we leave off and another person begins. Balanced functioning involves constant negotiation with the person with whom we are relating.

The Set Up: Impulsivity vs. Rigidity

Impulsive behavior can lead to chaos, wherein a pain-filled inner world is surfacing in action. Painful feelings that family members can no longer sit with, explode into the container of the family and get acted out rather than talked out. Finger pointing, withdrawal of affection, abuse, collapsing into helplessness, or self-medicating with substances or behaviors are some ways of acting out emotional and psychological pain in ways that engender chaos.

Rigidity is an attempt to manage that chaos both inwardly and outwardly. Adults in a pain-filled family system may tighten up on rules and routines in an attempt to ward off the feeling of falling apart. Or family members may tighten up in their personal styles, becoming both controlled and controlling.

The Solution: Find middle ground. Talk over strong feelings, even if they explode momentarily, bring them back into balance and talk them through towards some sort of tolerable resolution. Don’t isolate.

The Set UP: Grandiosity vs. Low Self Worth

Feelings of low self worth and shame can vibrate beneath the surface of a hurting family. Not feeling normal, feeling different from other families, and hiding the painful truth of family dysfunction can all contribute to those in an addicted family system feeling bad about themselves.

Grandiosity is a common defense against feelings of worthlessness. Frustrated and disheartened, family members may take refuge in grandiose fantasies of themselves as a way of warding off ever-growing fears that their lives are somewhat unmanageable or they cannot seem to make sense of their lives.

The Solution: A healthy self image can tolerate the normal flux in positive and negative feelings about the self without sinking into pervasive feelings of worthlessness or boomeranging into grandiose fantasies. A healthy self image or good self esteem are arguably some of the most important components of emotional immunity and well being. Focus on the positive, on what you can do. Make small changes, exercise, get proper rest, go to meetings, find a hobby, work path or activity that adds purpose and meaningful connection to your life. All of these activities are esteem building and part of regulating our limbic systems.

The Set UP: Caretaking vs. Neglect

Caretaking can be part of a fear or grief response; an attempt to attend to, in another person, what needs to be attended to within the self. We may, for example, project our own unconscious anxiety or pain onto someone else, seeing it as about them rather than understanding it as our own. Then we set about attending to “their” symptoms, fixing them, rather than fixing ourselves. It is a form of care that is all too often motivated by our own unidentified paid rather than a genuine awareness of another’s. Because this is the case, neglect can be its dark side. We neglect or don’t see what is real need within another person because we can’t identify real need within ourselves.

Neglect is a passive aggressive form of hurting someone. It can take the form of ignoring, withholding care, nurturing and attention, or simply not engaging in the kinds of behaviors that reflect attunement and care for another person.

People who have been habitually neglected can have a difficult time identifying what’s wrong, because there is no easy behavior on which to pin their sense of woundedness. They may feel that they have too many needs for anyone to meet or be mistrustful of deep connection. In an attempt to avoid further pain, they may push away the very vehicle that might help them to heal, namely relationships.

The Solution: Good self care and a steady relationship with a therapist, a therapy group and twelve step programs can be helpful in slowly, over time, creating a new sense of connectedness with self and others.

The Set Up: Abuse vs. Victimization

Abuse may be part of the impulsivity that characterizes families where feelings are acted out rather than talked out. Emotional pain and trauma often seek a culprit, someone on whom to externalize, project or take out painful emotions, i.e., a victim, or the person on whom abuse is perpetrated. Children who are victims of familial abuse may turn into the school bully or become abusive to younger siblings, acting out their own feelings of rage, humiliation and helplessness by becoming the abuser. Or they may become abusing adults. This identification flipping can make the dynamic intergenerational, for example, and abused child becomes the abusing parent.

The Solution: Balance can be achieved when intense emotions can be tolerate both within the self and within the emotional container of the relationship or family. When this is possible, painful feelings, even if they explode momentarily, can be worked through toward some sort of resolution. After a disconnection occurs, a reconnection can occur which will represent a slight step up in relating, healing, or interpersonal awareness and understanding.

We need to learn the skills of emotional literacy such as:

Tolerating one’s own painful emotions without acting out

Listening to another’s without overreacting

Naming and processing feelings, learning to think about what we’re feeling

Constructing a balanced life with a balanced role

The Hindus have a saying: “The mother’s lap is the child’s first classroom”. Children arrive at birth only partially hardwired by nature; nurture does the rest. We learn the skills of self-regulation through a complex web of both modeling what we see and interacting with our primary caretakers. Each tiny interaction between parent and child, for example, teaches the developing child how to achieve emotional balance, and that learning is stored in the brain / body as neural wiring. This relational patterning lays down a neural template from which we operate for the rest of our lives. This is part of why living with instability can have such long term affects.

Additionally, the ability to escape or get out of harm’s way is a determining factor in whether or not a person will develop long term trauma-related symptoms or post-traumatic stress syndrome (or PTSD). For the children in an alcoholic family, escape is often not possible. Where would they go? They are entirely dependent on their families for their very survival. That’s the wake up call.

The good news is: because we know more today about what can go wrong, we know more about how to “right” it. Being around regulating relationships such as twelve step programs, group and one-to-one therapy, along with engaging in activities such as walking, yoga, conscious breathing and meditation that slowly soothe and regulate our limbic systems, can literally lay down new, more balanced neural wiring. As we internalize new skills of self regulation, our thinking, feeling and behavior reflect our increasingly well-regulated mind / body. None of this happens overnight. What we need to develop through recovery is a “new design for living”; one that will allow us, over time, to heal and re-regulate our bodies as well as our minds and hearts. This is the road to long and lasting change.


Tian Dayton is the Director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute at Caron, and has a private practice in New York City. She i s a fellow of the American Society of Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. She is the author of Trauma and Addiction, Forgiving and Moving On, and twelve other books. For further information on her books or training in psychodrama please log on to tiandayton.com