Addiction can change our loved ones into completely different people. As they become more reliant on substances, their priorities and behaviors shift. Suddenly, their drug of choice becomes the most important thing in their lives. The experience of living with an addicted person can be traumatic for spouses, children, and other family members. Today, we’d like to examine trauma bonding in an addicted household.
The Trauma of Addiction
We’ve previously discussed how painful and upsetting addiction can be for the person struggling with it. Now we would like to consider the effect of addiction on their loved ones.
Substance abuse is a key cause of trauma within the family unit. This illness may appear suddenly; from that point, it affects all aspects of life in the home. That’s because the addicted person, willingly or not, creates distressing situations time and time again. They become irrational and disregard the consequences of their actions. If anyone tries to stop them from drinking or using drugs, they may react violently. An addict might also say things they don’t mean while under the influence.
Dr. Tian Dayton, clinical psychologist and daughter of an alcoholic, put it this way:
“To see the father you love turn into a raging, abusive monster… or the child you have raised and adored turn into someone you cannot recognize… is nothing short of terrifying.”
Addiction creates unpredictable, painful scenarios that can impact family members both in the moment and for years to come. People in these situations struggle to trust or form strong bonds with others. They begin to believe that the negative things the addict said in the heat of the moment are true. It’s also common for victims of abuse to become hypervigilant: always on guard for the next threat. A variety of behaviors can make them react in this way.
Types of Trauma Associated with Addiction
Traumas in an addicted household may include:
- Emotional abuse: making unreasonable demands, creating chaos, arguing just to argue
- Boundary violations: having to listen to upsetting, inappropriate stories from the addicted person
- Verbal abuse: blaming, gaslighting, making threats, name-calling
- Feeling unsupported: even when the person with an addiction wants to be there for you, they cannot
- Blaming oneself: taking responsibility for the family member’s substance abuse
- Putting the addicted person first: cancelling important events, making excuses
- Physical abuse: pulling hair, hitting, damaging property when angry
- Ongoing deception: not being able to believe anything the family member says
- Codependency: an unhealthy, enmeshed relationship
- Secrecy: being forced to keep the situation a secret from people at work or school
- Rescuing the addicted person: repeatedly bailing someone out of jail, cheering them up when they are depressed, or loaning them large sums of money
- Domestic abuse: intimate partner violence
- Taking care of the addicted person: cleaning up after a bad night, assisting them in sobering up
What is Trauma Bonding?
The events above create a chaotic home environment. They also generate powerful feelings that family members often struggle to process. This is especially true because substance abuse (and abuse in general) tends to occur in cycles: one minute, the addict is fully consumed by their substance abuse and acts out. The next, they’re promising to get clean and sober – saying everything their loved ones want to hear. These conflicting behaviors can cause trauma bonding between each family member and the person struggling with addiction.
When this behavior starts, it may take the family by surprise. Afterwards, the addicted person may promise to change, explain away their actions, and apologize. Family members will relent because they remember who their loved one was before they began drinking or using drugs. Unfortunately, the cycle often continues until the person struggling with addiction seeks professional help.
Signs of Trauma Bonding
Depending on the relationship, trauma bonding may take different forms. These are the main signs that substance abuse has caused this issue in your family.
- An imbalance of power (feeling like everyone’s lives revolve around the addict)
- A repetitive cycle (between acting out and promising to change)
- “I love them, but I don’t like them.”
- Distancing from others who try to help
- Fixating on the good times instead of the present
- Making excuses for their behavior
- Defending their actions when others are concerned
- Believing you can change them yourself (without their effort)
- Keeping their behavior a secret
You may notice that many of these indicators also align with the definition of enabling someone with substance use disorder.
The Role of Dopamine
To understand why people stay in a traumatic relationship, consider the role of dopamine in addiction. This hormone has a similar function in the cycle of abuse. After something bad happens, family members will receive apologies, promises of change, and affection: everything they have hoped for. This triggers the release of dopamine, which strengthens each family member’s connection with the addicted person. That powerful dopamine boost is also associated with the repetitive drug-seeking behaviors of those with substance use disorder. Until the root issues of addiction and mental health are addressed, trauma bonding is unlikely to resolve on its own.
Healing for the Whole Family
When it comes to trauma bonding, there are a few steps that each person can take to find mental wellness for themselves. These include:
- Practicing positive self-talk
- Creating a self-care regimen
- Focusing on what is happening now
- Learning more about addiction and dysfunction
- Getting some distance from the situation
- Setting boundaries with the addicted person
- Leaning on loved ones for support and positive reinforcement
- Reflecting on what a healthy relationship should look like
- Making a plan to stay safe and get help
- Participating in therapy (whether or not the other person seeks treatment)
Addiction is a treatable condition, and so is the trauma bonding associated with it. With tailored family programming, Lakeside-Milam provides an outlet for relatives to express themselves, receive support in a group setting, and work through issues in one-on-one therapy. Our multifaceted approach includes cognitive-behavioral therapy, process groups, and individual sessions to treat the whole person.
If you feel like your spouse, parent, child, or sibling has become a stranger, help is available. Contact Lakeside-Milam for information about addiction treatment and family support.