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The Power of Family

Why behavioral health affects entire families


Addiction or behavioral health issues (e.g., eating disorders, bi-polar disorders, impulse control disorders) affect the person with the disorder and at least seven other persons around them. Those family members and friends who love the person with the addiction or behavioral disorder have special recovery needs. Frequently, families have been treated from the addictions model which considers family members to be "co-addicts" or "enablers." This perspective minimizes two critical aspects of family systems: attachment and complementarity.

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Members of families and close friends are attached to each other. A process begun in infancy to assure survival, we attached to others in our social network who are the source of comfort and protection. Unlike animals who are hurt and return to a safe place for comfort (e.g., hiding under a bed), people return to other people who they trust and with whom they experience connection as their source of comfort and protection. When this relationship is in danger, an attachment injury occurs. The natural reaction to this injury is crying, clinging, and protest. Behaviors that emerge from this natural reaction has been labeled "codependent." These behaviors, more accurately, are the natural reaction to an attachment injury signaling the loss of an important relationship where the loss is ambiguous: the same person is present, but through their illness or addiction have become both the source of pain and the source of comfort.


Behavior in families is often complementary.  When one member’s behavior changes, for example, it becomes dangerous or unpredictable and the other family members begin changing their behaviors. This is a natural tendency to create balance in the system. Like dancing on a dance floor, you may begin on one side of the floor, and by mirroring your partner's movements be on a different part of the floor without having noticed that you were traveling. Understandably, family members frequently engage in behaviors that are intended to be helpful to the situation, for example, they may become controlling, watchful, or forceful. Consider a member who has begun restricting her food intake. That behavior is balanced by another member who watches more closely what she eats and works harder to provide food that the loved one would enjoy. This balancing act continues until both lives are affected by a single eating disorder. It is upsetting to watch a family member or friend engage in behaviors with a high potential for pain and, over a long period of time, the family member's behavior (through complementarity) becomes more and more reactive. The family members are then faced with what is called a "family gamble": they have to make a decision to either sink (hold on to that which they cannot control) or swim (detach with love from the pain, but not from the person).

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Family members deserve as much attention and specialized treatment as the ill or addicted member experiences. They deserve respect.

If you are looking for a therapist who understands the unique challenges of having an ill or addicted family member, call now for an appointment:



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