ALCOHOLISM IN FAMILIES
Alcoholism is another one of the ways that humans dysfunction in intimate relationships. It is a reciprocal process that characterizes anxious interactions in families over the generations.
The thing about drinking is that it works. Try to eliminate alcoholism and people will soon find something else to replace it. Despite its destructive aspects, alcoholism provides a way for family members to get some distance from each other and, equally important, for the marital twosome to adapt to life with someone that they can no longer stand to live with.
In the case of the hardcore alcoholic, that person would probably be psychotic if he were not alcoholic.
The key thing to keep in mind is this: don't focus on the drinking problem, focus on the drinking system. We need to focus on the problem behind the problem in families. It is also not enough to focus on the alcoholic marriage. We need to look at the multi-generational family system from which those marital partners come.
People often enter into marriage as a way to escape their family, thinking (erroneously) that the marriage will provide them with a safe haven. It doesn't. It soon becomes apparent that this hope is an illusion as they watch their marriage tighten up under conditions of anxiety in the same way that it tightened up in their own parents' marriages.
One must work out the core issues with one's family or the safe haven of a marriage inevitably turns into just another prison. This is what happens in the case of alcholism.
The problem will not be resolved until everyone in the family system of the alcholic removes their focus from THE SICK ONE and puts it, instead, on the role that every member of the extended family plays in the problem.
ZEROING IN WHERE NO BRAVE SOUL HAS GONE BEFORE
Let's look first at a fairly typical scenario. Some generations back John and Maddy handled the emotional tension between them through a process of distance and pursuit. Their increasingly labored discussions centered around issues of John's protracted hours away from home and his non-communicative behavior when he was home.
Maddy complained of not feeling nurtured enough, she complained of her frustration and anger when John slept the hours away, and she complained of his inaccessibility and parental irresponsibility. As Maddy became more and more anxious over John's distancing habits, she pursued him even more intensely in her search for answers. John's response was to get even more distance from her.
John's uncomfortability escalated over time until he found himself looking for excuses to stay on at work late into the evening. Although he knew how much Maddy hated it, he also began to have a drink or two on his way home to fortify himself against the inevitable nagging he was sure to suffer.
If John could only say out loud the thoughts that were locked up inside of him and, if he had access to them, we might hear him say something to this effect:
"...if only Maddy would stop nagging him...the whole world nags him!...sitting there, stirring the swizzle stick. he knows now what his own father must have gone through all those years. Oh, he loved his mother he guessed, in his own way, but she just wouldn't let it rest. And when Dad wasn't around he and his brother always got the brunt of her despair. The poor guy (Dad) had to drink just to survive it all. What does Maddy want, anyway? All that 'feeling' talk and tears, what does it ever get you except pain?
Mother...Maddy...he never realized until now how much alike the two of them really are. Marriage at the age of twenty seemed so far away from all the pain of the past, and he and Maddy seemed so happy then. Maddy was so...different...back then."
Maddy, too, had her own set of uncomfortable thoughts:
|"John was so different, so loving at first, and so solid and responsible when we met. He was a real 'rock' back then. And he was so responsible, unlike Dad. John listened to me for hours on end and he laughed at what he fondly called his "little girl's" talk. She loved him for that...how many years had she wanted but not gotten the same special attentions from Dad? She and Mother had had a hard life with Dad...the drinking, his harsh and often cutting words, the late nights that Mother walked the bedroom floor waiting for him to return; not to mention their worries about whether he'd be drunk this time or not. The last thing she vowed she'd never have was a marriage like theirs..."|
John and Maddy end up repeating that generational pattern of marital distance and pursuit, for different reasons, maybe; but with undeniably similar themes and with the same end result. What seemed so calming and comforting at the onset of their marriage, John's quiet and supportive patience and Maddy's nurturing chatter, come to be primary agents of anxiety during periods of marital upset.
John and Maddy's polarized relationship mimicks many, if not most, alcoholic marriages. Through John's drinking Maddy re-experiences the painful, bitter turmoil of the earlier relationship with her father whom she angrily sided against. And for John, Maddy was to be so unlike his Mother.
Over time their marriage becomes engulfed in an emotional coccon similar to the one that engulfed their parents' marriages. The cocoon is initially a protective one, intended to mask anxiety and to make it possible for John and Maddy to project to the world a pretend version of their relationship together. This is in contrast to their real relationship that is filled with unspoken resentments and shattered expectations, and emptiness.
The boundaries of this cocoon become more more and more imperable over time until, ultimately, their relationship comes to be experienced as entrapment. This leads to distance, then to emotional cutoffness, and then to the relationship flip-flop that characterizes the alcoholic marriage -- an over-functioning enabling spouse and a dysfunctional (alcoholic) one.
Any children become entrapped, as well, by virtue of their membership in the sytem. They come to play out over time generational roles of 'supporter' or 'defender' in the parental struggles, a process that the symptom of alcoholism renders especially destructive. The roles the children play in the alcoholic family of origin will affect the outcome of their future marital relationships in adulthood.
We can, in fact, envision the children and the grandchildren and even the great-grandchildren of John and Maddy if we look carefully. We will witness an intensification of the same basic patterns:
(a) In one marriage the pattern is a replica of John and Maddy's marriage...fused, undifferentiated, filled with the emptiness of distance and pursuit, always teetering on the edge of alcoholism without actually going there;
(b) In another there is more drinking, more distancing, even more clearly defined blaming and and taking of sides;
(c) In yet another marriage two anxious runaways collude in their abstinence against alchohol...both fragile victims of cutoffness from their families of origin, both struggling against a pervasive sense of loss of control over their lives.
In all these marriages we can observe distance and pursuit patterns, anxiety, polarization into emotional camps, cutoffness and a gradual decline in the level of functioning of all family members.
Alcoholic patterns are transmitted multi-generationally. They do not occur in a vacuum. Families embroiled in alcoholic issues today come from a relationship system of ever-intensifying alcoholic symptoms as the issue cascades down the generations.
In alcoholism there is no SICK PERSON. Everyone in the relationship system in some way supports the symptom and all members of the family are equally impacted by it.
The symptom will repeat in all future generations when self is lost in intimate relationships.
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