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The Alcoholic family and similarly Traumatized Families

Family members tend to think that counseling aimed at their own behavior is a waste of time. They will say that they are not the problem and that if the goal isn’t to get the alcoholic or problem behavior to change. it is a waste of time. I have repeatedly observed in treatment settings, that the problem behavior changes when the family recognizes what it is doing to them, and grieves the losses it is causing them.

At first glance, it can appear that the spouse or family member is obsessed with the behavior. They appear focused on the behavior; obsessed by a determination to stop it. Those close to an alcohol abuser might aim behavior directly at interfering with that, usually unsuccessfully.

This same phenomenon occurs in many forms of problem behavior that disrupt families including drug abuse, family violence, gambling and others. The focus of the spouse and family members “if only that person would stop, everything would be fine.”

Spouses and family members will beg, make excuses for, and try to make things perfect hoping to change the behavior. Seldom do they realize that they are being drawn further into the problem and creating losses for themselves in the process. They become enablers of the problem in their efforts to prevent or stop their own losses.

I have learned after many years of working with family members in these circumstances that THEY ARE TRYING TO STOP AND PREVENT THE LOSSES THAT ARE OCCURRING TO THEMSELVES BECAUSE OF THE BEHAVIOR OF THE PROBLEM PERSON.

When they switch the focus to their own losses, power can be reclaimed.

The biggest losses are losses to self. The self is the way one thinks of oneself, characteristic feelings and thoughts, and typical responses. When that self becomes shaped by the reaction to the problem behavior of another person, the self is being lost. (reference the work of Kohut)

The attempt to prevent losses to themselves has the effect of enabling the problem behavior.

The wife of the gambler earns or finds more money to keep the family afloat from the financial drain. The wife of the alcoholic tries to control the drinking by any number of futile strategies. A son might sacrifice his educational progress to help the family get through hard times created by financial or employment loss. A child may not experience childhood in efforts to make parents happy and fulfill adult roles that are not being accomplished by adults.

These efforts allow the problem behavior to continue.

The consequences of the problem behavior have to happen to the problem person for change to occur.

Until the family members face their own losses, feel the pain associated with those losses and recognize the futility of their efforts, the consequences will keep happening to the family For change to occur, the consequences will have to happen to the person creating the problem, not the family members trying to prevent losses.


When family members can recognize that they have influence that can lead to change, they will continue to see themselves as helpless.

These losses are internal (to self), and external (to lifestyle, finances, and family esteem).

The most significant loss is the loss of self that occurs as the family members become people that they wouldn’t otherwise be. The once good natured spouse becomes an angry, sad and bitter person. Children may become joyless and full of shame.

A spouse may lose self esteem because they are unable to stop it, ashamed of the behavior, and damaged by projected blame.

Every member of the family feels and reacts to the losses created. Usually their behavior is designed to restore the self and the loss to the family.

Family roles are modified to accommodate the problem. An older child may take on an adult role, losing childhood or teen age life. Spouses may take on the roles normally performed by the sick partner.

I have seen family systems dynamics deteriorate when family members try to compensate for the losses imposed on them.

“if only he’d stop drinking”….”if only he’d stop hurting me” everything would be ok. Efforts to change the behavior and compensate for the losses cause great pain and self harm to the affected family member.

Spouses will aim their behavior at changing circumstances they believe might change the problem behavior. Often the abuser or drinker will blame the spouse or circumstances for the behavior. The family member may believe that they cause it or have the power to fix it. That dynamic is merely another element of the abuse being imposed upon them.

Repeatedly I have seen the problem behavior improved when family members start recognizing the source of THE LOSSES THEY ARE EXPERIENCING AND CORRECTLY IDENTI-FY THE CAUSE AS BEING THE BEHAVIOR OF THE PROBLEM ABUSER.

When the seemingly controlling spouse, the over-achieving child, the acting out child, come to terms with how those losses are affecting them and identifying the causal behavior appropriately, the family system can begin to move toward health.

As the family members become healthier by recognizing what is happening and beginning to care for themselves to resolve and prevent the losses, the person causing the behavior will lose their grip on the family. At that point, they are losing the support that has been helping them maintain the problem behavior.

When the family members recognize and stop responding to the damage being created, problem person may have no alternative but to change.

Other persons may have significant influence. White males, for example, are very much influenced by employers or male friends whom they admire. Extended family may have great influence over other groups.

Therefore, this approach to treatment demonstrates that the family members have a GREAT DEAL OF POWER, simply by resolving the losses they have experienced and recognizing that their reactions don’t work.

Be aware that this is hard work especially if the family member has been entrenched in this trap a long time.

I treat the issues by asking the family members to write incidents or tell the story of incidents that have occurred because of the problem.

Using these examples, we illuminate the losses that are being experienced by the family members. This is a difficult and sad experience. It is also the path to freedom from the trap of the family illness.

In the process, the power of choice is restored, the self esteem and personal strengths of the family member can be re-discovered and focused in a healthy pattern of behavior.

Ironically the loss of enabling may force change in the problem person. Although changing the behavior of the problem person is not the goal, it is often a welcome outcome.