6. Alchoholic Dysfunctional FamSystems - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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6. Alchoholic Dysfunctional FamSystems

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Mine Yours Addiction- Cpl

Mine, Yours, and Ours, Addiction and Compulsivity in Couples and Couple Therapy

Cultural considerations are based on larger societal communities.  Societal members learn the culture of the large community: country, class, religion, and so forth. The family is also a community with its values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that its members learn.  Families have their important qualities that affect their members' functioning.  If the therapist is familiar with theories of alcoholic or substance abusing or dysfunctional family systems, he or she can usually discover or reveal highly predictable patterns of behaviors in the families of origin that are duplicated or compensated for in the new relationship or family.  In addition to the alcoholic or addict, other identifiable roles are the enabler, hero, nurturer, lost child, distracter: clown or mascot, and rebel/scapegoat.  The therapist should look for these roles:

"The Alcoholic- other family members revolve around this person

likely to be experiencing quite a bit of pain and shame even though they may not see it as the result of excessive alcohol or drug use
as things get worse, the alcoholic is faced with increasing feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, fear, and loneliness

develop a number of defenses to hide their shame and guilt

may include irrational anger, charm, rigidity, grandiosity, perfectionism, social withdrawal, hostility, and depression

project blame or responsibility for their problems onto others including family members who take on unhealthy roles in order to survive
children of alcoholics feel guilty for their failure to save their parents from the effects of alcohol

'The alcoholic parent is not satisfied with his own childhood,' Bly says, using the bruised rhetoric of recovery. 'He wants yours too... When the father vanishes into alcohol, the son lingers and lingers, searching for a lost part of himself.'


steps up and takes control if the alcoholic loses power

enabling is anything that protects the chemically dependent person from the consequences of their actions

spouse often takes on the role, but children and siblings can also be enablers (multigenerational alcoholic families will sometimes designate a child in this role, a sign of more serious pathology)

tends to everyone's needs in the family

loses sense of self in tasks of a domestic nature

never takes the time to assess his/her own needs and feelings

person never gains what they need most in order to get better: insight

never are confronted with the facts that would drive home the point: drugs or alcohol are destroying their lives and their family

as long as the enabler and the chemically dependent family members play their game of mutual self-deception, things never get better - they get worse

others cannot bond with the caretaker due to the bustle of activity

Caretaker's purpose: to maintain appropriate appearances to the outside world.


high achiever; takes focus off the alcoholic because of his/her success; perfectionist; feels inadequate; compulsive; can become a workaholic

alcohol bestows this role onto the individual whose accomplishments compensate for the alcoholic's behavior

often the oldest child who may see more of the family's situation and feels responsible for fixing the family pain

child excels in academics, athletics, music or theatre

gets self worth from being "special"

rest of family also gets self worth ("we can't be that bad if one of us is successful")

his/her deeds assure the family that their definition is more than alcohol

hero does not receive attention for anything besides an achievement; therefore, inner needs are not met

he/she loses the ability to feel satisfied by whatever feat he/she has manifested

as things get worse, the hero is driven to higher and higher levels of achievement. No level of super responsible, perfectionist, over achievement can remove the hero's internalized feelings of inadequacy, pain, and confusion

many others grow up to become workaholics and live under constant stress as they work in the service of others seeking approval for their extraordinary effort

they often end up distancing themselves from their family of origin

interestingly, many family heroes grow to marry alcoholics and become enablers

Hero's purpose: to raise the esteem of the family.


goes against rules; acts out to take the focus off the alcoholic; feels hurt & guilt; because of behavior, can bring help to family

lightning rod for family pain and stress

direct message is that they are responsible for the family's chaos

family assigns all ills to the person who harbors this role, e.g. "Mom would not drink so much if (Scapegoat's name) were not always in trouble."

in reality the misbehavior of the Scapegoat serves to distract and provide some relief from the stress of chemical dependency

child has issues with authority figures as well as negative consequences with the law, school and home

on the inside the child is a mass of frozen feelings of anger and pain

may show self-pity, strong identification with peer values, defiance, and hostility or even suicidal gestures

this role may seem strange in purpose. However, if there were no scapegoat, all other roles would dismantle. He/she allows others a pretense of control

alcohol is not identified as an issue -> often, the scapegoat is identified as 'The Problem.'

Scapegoat's purpose: puts the focus away from alcohol thereby allowing the alcoholic to continue drinking.


uses humor to lighten difficult family situations; feels fear; others see him/her as being immature; limited by bringing humor to all situations even if inappropriate

this individual most popular in the family; brings fun and humour into the family

learn to work hard at getting attention and making people laugh especially when the anger and tension of substance use are dangerously high

often named a class clown in school; frequently demonstrates poor timing for the comic relief; most people don't take this child seriously

often hyperactive, charmers, or cute

inside, they feel lonely knowing no one really knows the real person behind the clown's mask

may grow up unable to express deep feelings of compassion

may put themselves down often as well as cover up their pain with humour

accepts laughter as approval, but the humor serves to hide inner painful feelings

the laughter prevents healing rather than produces it

Mascot's purpose: to provide levity to the family; to relieve stress and tension by distracting everyone.

Lost Child

no connection to family; brings relief to family by not bringing attention to the family; feels lonely; does not learn communication and relationship skills

has much in common with scapegoat -> neither feels very important

disappears from the activity of the family

sees much more than is vocalized

reinforced for causing no problems

build quiet lives on the edges of family life and are seldom considered in family decisions

they hide their hurt and pain by losing themselves in the solitary world of short-term pleasure including excessive TV, reading, listening to music, drugs, object love, eating and fantasy

favorite places for the lost child are in front of the T.V. as well as in his/her room

due to the sedentary lifestyle, a lost child tends to have issues with weight

as adults they feel confused and inadequate in relationships

may end up as quiet loners with a host of secondary issues such as: sexuality problems, weight problems, excessive materialism, or heavy involvement in fantasy

Lost child's purpose: does not place added demands on the family system; he/she is low maintenance" (SoberRecovery.com, 2012).

The therapist directs the couple to examine their relationship as possibly as that between an addict and co-addict.  They need to see how much they fit the role descriptions of alcoholic-addict and codependent/enabler/caretaker.  In the couples described in this book, most if not all the partners to the more obvious addicts would qualify as the codependent/enabler/caretaker.  Mitchell was a Scapegoat (also known as the Rebel) in his family.  At times, he was also the Clown (also known as one version of the Distracter).  These are not unusual roles for someone who has ADHD, a learning disability, and/or athletic.  Cybil compensated for Gwyn's dysfunctionality financially and at home and with the children.  She was very much the Hero who kept it together while Gwyn's sobriety fluctuated and when she became disabled.  Daryl was simultaneously a Hero (highly successful in the corporate world) and the Lost Child as he was minimized by his parents.  He suffered desperate loneliness as a child in his family.  Exploration of their respective families found others who fulfilled various roles including that of the Mascot or Cheerleader (other versions of the Distractor).  The therapist can thus use the role descriptions to look for addiction dynamics in the partners' respective families-of-origin.  If the addiction is a behavioral addiction, virtually all of the same roles, as well as concepts and approaches discussed for substance dependence also apply.  The challenge to the therapist is to educate (convert, in a sense) the partners about parallels between substance dependence and behavioral addictions.  Verbalizing in the session using DSM criteria and pointedly replacing the terms referring to substances with behavioral terms is a powerful clinical approach.  Predicting the partners' interactions and dynamics, as well as identifying and exposing the dysfunctional addictive families-of-origin experiences and roles various family members played is a complementary, and potentially an equally powerful approach.  Both approaches allow the therapist to "fill in the blanks" or make incisive educated therapeutic guesses about the addict, co-addict, their dynamics, and childhood family experiences when they are reticent or ignorant about important details.  Beyond improving assessment, these approaches also facilitate credibility and rapport between the partners and the therapist.  The therapist also should connect for the partners, how dysfunctional family-of-origin experiences from addiction or rigidity and control become current expressions as behavioral compulsions or addiction.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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