WHEN THE ALCOHOLIC GIVES UP THAT ROLE: The Systemic Effects on the Couple or Family

From early on, we learn which roles we need to play in order to be loved, rewarded, and feel integrated within the functioning of the family (you may have trouble with the concept, believing that all family love is unconditional, but no matter how much we’re truly loved as children, we get subliminal messages as to what we’re needed to do). We then carry those roles into all aspects of functioning: interpersonally, romantically, and professionally. At certain points in our lives, however, some of us begin to notice that these roles no longer work for us. Thus, someone who was a peacemaker in the family keeps finding herself with belligerent, argumentative men (for whom she can ‘create peace’), or the child of an alcoholic keeps finding himself with dependent, angry women for whom he must take responsibility. Or the brilliant child of a narcissistic, insecure mother works herself to exhaustion, reaching ever greater goals – because she watched the fate of the much less perfect sibling who suffered mercilessly from the mother’s constant denigration. These people did start recognizing the patterns and sought to change them. But most people never come to question the restrictiveness of those roles until some cataclysmic event occurs.

One such event is when one of a couple or in a family stops drinking (or drugging; in this post, only drinking will be addressed, though the tenets hold true for most of the addictive behaviors.)   When Mark agreed to curtail his drinking, Kristin was all over it in her enthusiasm and support. In Mark’s case, he’d begun with moderation in drinking. But Kristin worried and questioned him often about whether he’d gone beyond his two-beer maximum per day, whether he’d attended his lectures as a professor, or whether he’d gone home early at night when she was out working. She’d become a central player in Mark’s life during their seven years together and he’d become highly dependent upon her. However, as Mark was increasingly able to manage both his drinking and his life, Kristin started questioning their marriage, feeling as if there was “nothing left to bind them anymore”. Both literally and figuratively, she’d lost her role as the one who ‘keeps it all together’, or as the nurturer who would always put up with him, and the one perceived as a savior. Pretty reinforcing stuff; and to lose that is jarring at the very least. Unwittingly, she was sensing her smaller role in Mark’s life; it emerged in complaints of “he just isn’t interested in my work (as a politician) anymore, he’s boring and doesn’t care about my sexual needs…and so on. But as she came to see it more clearly, she was aware that these things had been falling off over time, mostly because, in her role as caretaker, she didn’t believe she could expect much interest or participation from him at all. She also queried  how she could possibly come to feel sexual with him again (but sexuality is a many-faceted ‘behavior’, and if we feel hurt or marginalized – or any number of sensations in which we’re now perceived differently by the mate – sex is sometimes one of the first things to go.

But, contrary to popular belief,  that can change as well – sometimes even fairly easily). As Kristin had pulled away, Mark himself had become defended and was no longer solicitous of her which, in a feedback loop effect, made Kristin feel increasingly less important. Had they not been in couples’ therapy at the time, they certainly would have ended the marriage because they had no structure within which to understand what was happening, nor the tools to approach it. As alcoholism became less an integral part of their self-identity as a couple, there were positive effects on their perceptions of themselves, each other and the marriage, allowing them to see that they didn’t have to walk away. With some time, and as they developed less circumscribed roles in the relationship – allowing each of them to be potent and healthy, and to find ways to disagree but to then problem-solve their issues – they began to get closer again, addressing each of the attendant difficulties that had been plaguing their lives. It was something they never did while alcoholism was what was perceived as their ‘only problem’. It never is.

Sometimes one person’s decision to stop drinking affects the entire fabric of a family. This is because that person’s ‘drinking problem’ is the one that’s focused upon, while the dysfunctional family dynamics tend to be obscured – as long as the alcoholic remains ‘a mess’. When Jennifer, 31, first stopped drinking, her parents were overjoyed. They’d worked hard to get her into therapy so that she could stop self-medicating and could make healthier decisions, e.g., to leave the girlfriend with whom she’d come to drink heavily every night and to begin to find a career and develop a more independent lifestyle. What they hadn’t bargained for was Jennifer’s new-found ability to tell the truth about the things she perceived in their own family unit: the lies, the mother’s own severe alcoholism, and the ways in which the father’s dependency on the mother kept him from addressing the problems straight on, enabling her drinking lifestyle and focusing instead on Jennifer’s ‘failures’ all her life. With the family’s deep dysfunction now becoming more difficult to ignore, and with Jennifer talking to the mother about her own self-medicating and to her Dad about not accepting his negative focus on her,  the mother would often try to get Jennifer to “just have one drink” when they’d meet for dinner. Though Jennifer is in the process of determining how she’ll deal with her family going forward, she’s continuing to be able to resist her mother’s attempts to ‘reel her back in’ and the father’s constant second-guessing of her choices. Sometimes she’s had to talk about ‘the elephant in the room’, i.e., the utter tension that prevails when they all get together. But she continues to step out of the ‘problem child’ role, calmly reminding the family that she’s tending to her own issues, and won’t bear the onus of maintaining the status quo at her expense anymore.

The change that occurs when the addicted person gives up the problem role is palpable. Ultimately, it has the power of turning lives around, but it definitely ‘destabilizes’ a couple or family structure that’s been built on denial, avoidance and mutual destruction.

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