Therapist in Los Angeles
Darren Haber MFT

Breathing Room: Enmeshment in Alcoholic Families

Today I return to a topic that has drawn a fairly strong reaction from readers: the "too-closeness" of relationships in alcoholic families. Readers were moderately to severely critical of parents who try to control their children's recovery while failing to address their own issues. As a residential therapist in a treatment center, I frequently witnessed well-meaning parents undermine their child's recovery by being in too much (or too little) of a hurry to address problems underlying addiction. Here are some examples:

  • The father who, when I called to tell him his son was considering leaving treatment and getting back on heroin, tersely told me he was in a meeting and that I should call his wife since "the children are her department".
  • The mother who kept ignoring the basic facts about her daughter's potentially fatal drug addiction, and insisted that the real problem was that she was overweight.
  • The scores of families who initially complained that their child, now in treatment, was calling and pestering them way too much, which made them anxious… who then called a week or two later (when their child was recovering and doing much better) to say they were receiving less calls, which made them even more anxious.
  • The families who lamented that their loved one hated AA meetings – while they refused to attend a single al-anon meeting.
  • The father who called and ranted angrily on the phone for 20 minutes about how his addict daughter had "messed up" his life, then insisted he was "neutral" about it and didn't need counseling for himself, after I suggested it.

Such examples are legion; this barely scratches the surface. The second item above is probably the most common (item four a close second); often I found anxious parents trying to divert the focus from their child's addiction onto something else, such as depression, anxiety, life problems, and so on. (And when I say "child" I don't necessarily mean middle- or high-school age, I mean children of any age.) It's as if heroin or opiate or alcohol addictions are still the elephant in the room that families fear to acknowledge.

Some readers asked me, with what seemed to be an underlying irritation or exasperation, "what's up with that? Don't these parents realize they're only hurting their kids' recovery?"

The quick and to some degree easy answer is that these parents have issues of their own, have trouble seeing it (i.e. are still in some kind of denial), and thus project all of their own "issues" onto their kid, in the hope of controlling and/or expunging them. As well intentioned as they always are, they are terrified to look in the psychological mirror and understand that nothing happens in a vacuum, that children are at least in part a result of the family "system" that nurtured them at the most impressionable, formative time of their lives.

In observing these kinds of patterns, one learns that denial "ain't just a river in Egypt", as the saying goes, and that it exists on a systemic level, reaffirming the concept of addiction as afamily disease, affecting everyone with the blunt and ruthless force of a tornado. Such is its psychic impact, that parents struggle to see how every family member has played a role within the addictive system. Parents of addict families find balance or neutrality almost impossible, relying instead on the ancient defense of blaming, either themselves or their child.

Of course, it's hard for us humans not to blame under such stressful circumstances – finding scapegoats is an ancient nostrum: surely someone, somewhere did something to cause this. The idea that addiction is a disease and that no one is at "fault" is often quite difficult to swallow. Many parents see it as their own colossal failure; the shame (towards self) and anger (towards the kid, for "bringing this upon the family") are so intense that denial becomes a necessary mechanism to try and ameliorate intra-psychic anguish.

I have also found two key conceptualizations (systemic and existential) helpful in explaining why parents focus so much attention on their children, to the point of enmeshment or psychic "fusion". The first is what Minuchin (1978) referred to as "detouring": a means of parents avoiding their own marital conflicts by focusing almost exclusively on the child's issues. A common example of this is known as the child "caught in the middle" of her parents' crossfire and intent to control the family with their own agenda. Imagine two parents in disagreement about the future of their child. The father says to her, be practical and study law at Stanford and the mother says, pursue your passion and study music at Juilliard; the child begins to suffer an anxiety disorder and both parents try very hard, and in vain, to resolve the disorder by their own means. "What's wrong with our kid?" may be a less daunting question than "what's wrong with our marriage?" This process is also known as "scapegoating" or turning the child into the "identified patient".

Another layer of enmeshment, I have found, relates to what Yalom (1980) terms the problem of isolation in modern life. He cites Martin Buber's vision of two individuals as mountains between which lies a vast emptiness. Relationships, says Yalom, are like bridges that attempt to close these colossal gaps. Most people in addictive families, I have found, suffer from a bone-deep existential or spiritual loneliness. The closest relationship most parents have had is with their children, before the addiction dug its claws in. Thus addiction, in a sense, has "stolen" the child and the sense of closeness that the parent misses terribly – especially when their partner is estranged or distant.

The micro-managing of the child's recovery therefore reflects, in these cases, a yearning to recapture the warmth and joy the parent felt in better, earlier times, when the child was younger and parent/child closeness was more age-appropriate (even though, upon examination, one often finds that the child even then was engulfed or controlled, serving a narcissistic need of the parent). As the child enters puberty and young adulthood, of course, such closeness is no longer appropriate though the parent can rationalize the need for it as, "my kid needs me… he's sick and can't manage on his own!" This is why a parent's intense monitoring of their child in treatment often feels "incestuous" to counselors; it is a violation of the child's space, often an attempt of the parent to recreate an earlier phase of the relationship, even if that phase itself represented inappropriate closeness.

This closeness puts the recovering child in a double-bind, since to distance the parent amounts to a rejection, while tolerating such closeness risks engulfment or smothering – a frightening thought, given the fragility of an addict in early recovery. It also, for the parent, may represent an overt or covert attempt to maintain the child in a "surrogate spouse" role, where a parent seeks more intimacy with the child than is appropriate, to make up for the lack of connection between his or her partner. It's not always the case that a parent's intent is sexual or literally incestuous, but it is hard to avoid such disturbing undertones when healthy boundaries are violated in the name of parental concern.

The sad fact is that many if not all of these parents have themselves suffered some type of trauma (often addiction related) that predates the child; their own parent, sibling, or spouse may have been absent, distant, or perhaps violent or inappropriate in their own way, disrupting the parent's sense of self.

Enmeshment becomes "normal" and the only way to feel close to someone. Such smothering closeness also soothes the traumatic anxiety caused by the earlier disruption; the love of a child becomes a healing balm for the fragile, insecure (and traumatized) parent, who tries to keep the child close, too close, even when the child begins to recover and cultivate a newer, healthier self. But without help, the parent may be blind to the fear that accompanies this cultivation, since it puts the risk of abandonment into play. If the kid gets better, he/she could leave the relationship. And without the child serving the parent's need, that parent often fears he won't be able to survive.

Love, of course, requires freedom and letting go, and tolerating the "away" phase in the to-and-fro rhythm of relationships. There appears to be an elastic expanding and shrinking distance between people in all relationships, constantly in motion. A traumatized ego may try to control this process and freeze the relationship in one of those phases for the sense of protection or control. Most parents of addicted children need their own support to learn how to avoid this and let go of control (itself an illusion). Hard to blame them for trying, though like the addict they are only groping in the dark for what they think will make it better.

SOURCES:

Minuchin, S. (1978). Psychosomatic Families: Anorexia Nervosa in Context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yalom, I. (1980) Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

©Copyright 2010 by Darren Haber, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org. This article was solely written and edited by the author named above. The views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about this article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment to this blog entry.