The Effects Of Addictions On The Family System

The term ‘addiction’ is defined as the compulsive, physiological craving for and use of a habit-forming substance such as alcohol and drugs. It is also characterized by tolerance and well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal (Prentiss, 2005, p.23).

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A family is a natural social system which occurs in a diversity of forms today and represents a diversity of cultural heritages (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.23). Two factors that have the greatest effects on it are addictions to alcohol and drugs, both of which are destructive to the family system {one grieving mother described it as ‘the terminator of [family] relationships’ (Barnard, 2006, p.28}). Addiction arises when a person uses alcohol or drugs for a long enough period to have grown dependent on them (Prentiss, 2005, p.16). These addictions are additional burdens to the family system already facing typical problems and challenges in today’s life that is characterized by a ‘postmodern’ outlook where they cannot expect to avoid exposure to stress, loss or other traumatic experiences (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.9). The family members who watch their loved one relentlessly spiral downward into the abyss of addiction experience heartbreak, plummeting of spirit and disruption of hopes for a good future (Prentiss, 2005, p.2).

Historical Background

It has been discovered that there is a high percentage of addiction to substances like alcohol and drugs in the American continent, Europe, Russia, India, Japan and the Middle East (Wier, 2006, p.109). It is believed that the general causes of addiction are hereditary {alcohol and drug addicts usually come from families marked by parental alcohol or drug abuse (Barnard, 2006, p.153}), modern life stress, the result of trauma and disability (Wier, 2006, p.111). There is a high rate of relapse in persons who become dependent on alcohol or drugs (Prentiss, 2005, p.25). Addicts may have repeatedly heard that alcohol and drug addiction are incurable diseases, so when they experience relapses on many occasions, they do not believe total cure is possible (Prentiss, 2005, p.7).

Addiction to alcohol is a global malady. Even rigid cultures {such as Islamic and Hindu} have significant number of alcohol addicts. Alcohol is accessible to a great degree in all industrialized countries and cultures. Alcohol addiction may be just one way that addiction manifests itself, but the resultant social costs are enormous (Wier, 2006, p.109).

Drug addiction too has become a global phenomenon (Wier, 2006, p.109). It is the recurring inability to avoid drug use despite prior decisions to do so (Qureshi, Al-Ghamdy & Al-Habeeb: Drug abuse entails constant and excessive usage of drugs in order to create feelings of happiness while at the same time blotting out reality despite its well-known harmful effects. Drug abuse turns into drug addiction when the drug ceases to exist as a choice and turns into an essential need (Cutter, Jaffe-Gill, Segal & Segal: number of addicts varies according to the culture, law and extent of punishment (Wier, 2006, p.109) in a country. The usage of drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana and designer drugs also results in tremendous social cost. Swapping of one addiction for another is commonly practiced (Wier, 2006, p.110) because addiction to two or more substances {for example, cigarettes and alcohol} are commonly found together, and the personality that is addicted to one substance can be persuaded to either add another addiction or to substitute it with another {for example, heroin addicts can be persuaded to substitute their addiction to methadone} (Wier, 2006, p.111).

Current Statistics in Canada

As per the latest statistics {January 2008}, the population of Canada was 33.1 million ( The family system in Canada has taken a beating in recent years as a result of breakups caused by various factors not the least of them being one or both parents being addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. In the decade leading up to 2004, the country has registered an average of 146,377 marriages as well as 70,000 divorces each year. While 70.4% of families comprised married couples and 15% were single-parent families in 2001, these figures shot up to 48.6% and 41.8% respectively in 2004. Significantly, the majority {81.3%} single parents in their group were female, and their rate of employment {67.9%} was lower than that of married women {72.3%}. In addition, the size of Canadian families has dropped as well; the normal size of a Canadian family was 3.7 in 1971, fell to 3.1 in 1991 and further dropped to 3.0 people in 2001 (

The number of crimes associated with alcohol and drug addiction and their effect on Canadian families has been steadily increasing. In 2006, the number of adults charged with drug related offenses was 294.8 per 100,000 people, an increase of 4.8 as compared to 2005, and an increase of 20.8 as compared to 2003. In 2006, the number of persons charged with assault was 734.8 per 100,000 people. In 2005/6, the number of persons convicted for common assault was 22,090 while 10,564 were convicted for major assault. During the same period, the number of persons convicted for impaired driving {under influence of drugs and/or alcohol} was 33,983, while the number of persons convicted for drug related crimes was 7,395 {drug possession} and 6,128 {drug trafficking} (

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Analysis: Alcohol Addiction

Drinking alcohol is not bad in itself. With the notable exemption of Islam, it is permitted by most major world religions including Christianity. But such permission and toleration comes with a key word: moderation. Once alcohol usage crosses the limit of moderation and becomes a vital daily need, the person is said to have slipped into the chasm of alcohol addiction. Alcohol addiction is defined as a disease caused by imbibing excessive alcoholic beverages (Parsons:

Alcohol addiction has several detrimental effects on the family system.

The first effect is that alcohol addicts are unable to discharge their proper role in a family because of their compulsive drinking habits that drag them into a cycle where their inability to fulfill their family obligations, coupled with disapproval of their addiction, are often employed as justification to drink even more. To exacerbate matters, the addicts tend to hide their addiction by hobnobbing with other alcohol addicts. These series of activities turn into a vicious cycle that becomes very hard to stop (

The second effect is that the spouses and children of alcohol addicts become codependent, namely, they unconsciously become addicted to the alcohol addict’s unnatural behavior. It is usual for alcohol addicts to go through times when they do not drink for a short time and appear to have defeated their addiction, causing their spouses and children to think that the problem has been solved forever. Codependent spouses {especially wives who tend to develop distinct behavioral expectations (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.5)} and children go to great lengths to conceal their family member’s problem, maintain the family integrity, and outwardly appear to be the ‘perfect family.’ Spouses and children try to keep away from social interaction and inviting people to their houses so as to conceal problems brought about by their alcohol addicted family member. Codependent spouses and children frequently neglect their personal requirements and aspirations, instead concentrating exclusively on trying to control or cure their addicted family member. By doing so, they unconsciously develop into ‘enablers,’ persons who unknowingly help alcohol addicts by refusing to accept or acknowledge the drinking problem exists, thereby enabling the addicts to escape problems brought about by their drinking. Enablers lie to protect the alcohol addicts and thus help them continue drinking (Parsons:

The third effect is related to marriages of Adult Children of Alcoholics {ACOAs}. It is estimated that the odds of ACOAs becoming alcohol addicts themselves is four times greater than children born to non-alcohol addicts. The childhood of such individuals is riddled with depression, aggression and impulsive behavior difficulties. They develop negative self-images exacerbated by perceptions of worthlessness and failure. All these drawbacks make ACOAs failures when they marry. They are unable to develop healthy relationships with their spouses and children. They are unable to properly discharge their responsibilities with relation to their family because their own alcohol addicted parents were irresponsible and did not discharge similar responsibilities. The bad experiences with their parents make ACOAs frequently develop intimacy problems. They tend to distrust others. They believe that if they love someone {like their non-alcohol addicted parents did towards their addicted spouses}, that person will hurt them later {like their alcohol-addicted parents did towards their non-alcohol addicted spouse} (Parsons:

The fourth effect is related to marriages involving female alcohol addicts. The addiction paves the way for future instability in the form of unnatural children. Children of female alcohol addicts run the great risk of being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome {FAS} that has been identified as one of the three most widespread causes of birth deficiencies (Parsons: Such children become increasingly heavy burdens on the alcohol addict as well as her husband, greatly straining their marital relationship.

The fifth effect is that alcohol addicts commonly resort to assault and battery of family members. Spouses bear the brunt of their attack, enduring battering and even rape. Children of alcohol addicts are not spared either – they are subjected to beating for the least wrongdoing. Toddlers are the most vulnerable in this regard (Barnard, 2006, p.15). In almost all such cases, it is the husband who is the alcohol addict, and it is the wife who is subjected to physical battering and/or rape, and it is the children who become targets of battering.

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Analysis: Drug Addiction

The first effect of drug addiction on the family system is a serious dent in the family finances. Drugs are very expensive and the cost rises in proportion to the increase in drug dosage with the passage of time (Barnard, 2006, p.73). It is natural and necessary for the couple to generate savings to develop a reasonable standard of living and raise a family. Married couples take a vow to love, honor and support one another throughout their lives. The money they earn is regarded as ‘family income’ (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.15). Instead, the addict splurges their hard earned savings on his or her drug addiction, thereby contributing to financial instability in the family. There are also high possibilities of addicts’ jobs being put into grave jeopardy, which is another worrying finance-related factor. Given the great importance of money to survive properly in modern life, the addict’s activities become seriously alarming to his or her spouse and their children.

The second effect is alienation of the family. The moment drugs enter the family home, everything else is relegated to lesser significance (Barnard, 2006, p.48). Family relationship is characterized by love and loyalty (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.4). Instead of giving love and affection to the spouse and children, the drug addict’s erratic behavior tends to break the close bond that exists between them. Drug addicts are unable to relax or have fun without imbibing drugs. They alternate between mood swings, angry tirades, incoherent speech, irritation, hysterical behavior and general change of attitude. This is accompanied by widespread neglect of the family (Cutter et al. Some drug addicted parents even encourage their children to take up drug use, permitting them to do this within the household to ‘lower the possibility’ of them taking drug overdoses or sharing contaminated needles with other addicts outside the house (Barnard, 2006, p.29).

The third effect is endangering of reputation in the eyes of society. Drug addicts frequently resort to money borrowing, selling of household articles and stealing money from others. Children of drug addicts easily turn to crime, stealing goods and cash in order to feed their own drug habit (Barnard, 2006, p.31) formed either through watching their addicted parent/parents or being encouraged to take up drugs from one or both of them. These crimes, in addition to the crime of possessing and using drugs, could well result in arrest and incarceration, thereby bringing disgrace to the addicts and their family members.

The fourth effect is danger to physical health. Drug addiction involves long-term molecular and cellular modification. Drug addicts are in real danger of damaging physical organs like the heart, liver and lungs. Drug addiction {especially addiction to cocaine} is fast emerging internationally as a formidable conduit for the expansion of deadly infectious diseases like AIDS, hepatitis and tuberculosis (Qureshi et al. Not only are drug addicts in danger of contracting such diseases, but also the likelihood of them passing them to their spouses is great.

Overall Effects of Addiction on the Family

The overall effect on the spouse and children of an alcohol or drug addict is massively negative, greatly compromising the deep and multi-layered relationship that exists between them; a relationship that is founded on shared history and sense of purpose as well as shared perceptions and assumptions of the world (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.1). The spouse and children are likely to develop feelings of strong dislike, self-pity, shunning social interaction, exhaustion and even physical and mental illness. Spouses are forced to take on the role of both parents in the marriage, while frequently contending with financial difficulties brought about by the married partner’s job related problems and excessive amounts spent on alcohol and drugs. As a result, the non-addicted spouses are greatly burdened, making them inconsistent, demanding and neglectful of their children (Parsons: In addition to neglect, the children are in real danger of being ejected from school and getting increasingly embroiled in juvenile crime (Barnard, 2006, p.154).


There is no doubt that the above mentioned addictions discussed have varying degrees of adverse effects on the family system, adding to the already existing problems caused by ongoing, interactive and mutually influencing family processes (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.19). The only way to alleviate the problem is for the addict to obtain treatment as quickly as possible from psychiatrists, psychologists, drug and alcohol counselors, addiction specialists or treatment centers (Prentiss, 2005, p.90). Addicts should realize that it is not only them that need help but their family members too are hurting and need help (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.20).

One of the indispensable requirements in breaking free from alcohol or drug addiction is that the addict learns to be honest about his or her real desires (Prentiss, 2005, p.223), and recognizes the danger posed by the addiction. It would greatly help if the addicts’ family members take an active interest, encouraging and participating in the treatment process with the addicted partners, as such a response will not only act as a self-confidence booster for the addicts, but will also make them realize the reliability and value of their spouses and children. It would be of immense value if the family can rope in the support of a network of friends, extended family, clergy, neighbors and employers to contribute to the recovery of the addicts (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2007, p.11).


In the modern, stress filled world of today, it is nearly impossible to find any individuals without a single bad habit. Bad habits have developed into a part and parcel of life. The key is not to let bad habits mushroom into addictions. We have the logic, sense of responsibility and will power to do this. While understandably there is no moral ground or support from any religion for bad habits, they should be indulged in excess. Moderation is the key that should always be within our peripheral vision. In this way, bad habits are always within control, are {as in Christianity which allows consumption of alcohol sparingly} tolerated by religions, and can be, albeit improperly, used as tools to combat perceived trials and tribulations of daily life in our modern world. If, unfortunately, the bad habits do slip out of our grasp and causes us to descend into the abyss of addiction, then it is our urgent duty to obtain cure and get rid of the addictions as fast as possible before they wreck our own lives and those of our family members.

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Parsons, T. (2003). Alcoholism and Its Effect on the Family. In All Psych Journal. Web.

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