Insights into the family system in a crisis
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE FAMILY SYSTEM
There are few things more distressing than watching someone we love head down a seemingly self-destructive path. Families and friends of those caught in the cycle of destructive behavior often struggle to make sense of and cope with the crisis faced by their loved one, and find themselves at a loss in terms of knowing how to help.
Families are sensitive organisms, so when one member is caught in a crisis the entire family is affected. A good metaphor for the complexity of connection and interdependence that exists within families is a web. If there is a disturbance in one part of the web the impact of that disturbance inevitably ripples out and is felt in other parts of the web. How the disturbance is experienced in each part of the web differs, an intense disturbance in one part, a mild disturbance in another part, but all of the web will be affected in some way. Similarly, in families, when one member is in crisis, the crisis can be felt in varying degrees throughout the web of relationships that the family form.
Just as the person suffering impacts their family and those close to them, the family and others impacts them. In this sense, the family’s power to support and invite change in their love one is often underestimated and misunderstood. More often than not our automatic and instinctual reaction to a person we love in crisis is to react which only tends to fuel and intensify the problem, rather than contribute positively to resolving it.
Families and loved ones tend to put their time, energy and focus into getting the affected family member to change, rather than directing those resources where they are most useful…into managing and calming their reactions to their loved one’s plight. They tend to start perceiving their family member as not capable of functioning at the same level as others in the family, taking over their responsibilities and functioning and bearing their consequences for them, so that the affected person regularly has reflected back at them the idea that they are not capable of managing their own life, an experience that drives further drinking/using/disordered eating and mental health episodes.
Paradoxically, the more family members become focused on and engaged in anxiously trying to change/save the person they love, the less capable the affected person believes they are and the less space and motivation they have to resolve their own issue. Those caught in any addiction or disorder are incredibly sensitive to their family’s anxieties about them and the intense pressure they are sometimes under to change so that the family can feel settled again. When family members can learn how to support, settle and look after themselves, in the face of their loved one’s crisis, they begin to be part of the solution. Even if just one family member can manage to stay connected to the individual struggling but also stay relatively calm and allow them enough space to work out their problem, the entire family system begins to settle down and the conditions that invite and support recovery in the affected person are created. Learning how to set limits, allow consequences and keep one’s self safe is an essential part of such a process.
Families facing alcoholism, addiction, disorders or mental health problems of any kind in a loved one tend to do best when they too are guided and supported through the crisis at hand. Participating in Nungkari’s Family Program, ongoing family therapy or Al-anon family groups can bring untold healing and change to families and provide a significantly increased chance of the affected person becoming well. Families can learn how to effectively manage and navigate their way through the strong emotions, anxieties and impulses generated in them in response to their loved one’s choices and behavior. They can learn how to be active participants and even leaders in the change process that must occur for the person they love to get well.