The Effect of Addiction on Divorce and Families

Many authorities believe that addictions permeate our families and societies, and our mediators’ experience is that most family mediations entail the effects of one or more addictions. Whether a substance addiction that involves the ingestion and dependency on various chemicals such as alcohol and drugs or a process addiction that involves the way in which we do things such as work and gambling, all addictions: (1) are “family” illnesses that originate in childhood; (2) are unwittingly passed on from one generation to the next; (3) function to disconnect us from our feelings, that is, to numb the pain we feel from our impoverished self-esteem, and; (4) cause distorted thinking and destructive behavior.

And it doesn’t have to be the same addiction. Adult children of alcoholics don’t necessarily use alcohol to cover up the emotional pain they would otherwise feel; they often turn to other substances such as drugs or food, or they compulsively engage in activities such as gambling, sex or, like me, work, to numb themselves against the pain.

In some mediations, a participant’s alcoholism is quick to surface as a major source of dysfunction and conflict. Often, one must break through denial (blindness to that which is plain to most others) about the affects of his or her drinking. Participants have completely denied and/or minimized their alcoholism, for example, by favorably comparing himself to someone else (“compared to my old man, I was a model citizen.”).

Based on a participant’s disclosures about his or her childhood, including inter-generational alcoholism and abusive behavior, it’s likely that his or her self-esteem would be impoverished and that alcoholism was unconsciously intended to cover up the pain felt from it. Blaming others and indicating an unwillingness to accept responsibility is characteristic of people who have low self-esteem as a result of alcoholism and other family diseases. It’s also likely that a participant’s thinking can become distorted, for example mistakenly thinking that he/she can control other people, and display hypercritical and judgmental thinking characteristic of people with addictions. Finally, destructive behavior (for example, beating a spouse or child “not only physically but emotionally”) can be derived from addiction to alcohol.

Other behaviors are indicative of the extent to which addictions permeate families. Obesity and the compulsive use of nicotine and/or of food (which many authorities consider a powerful drug) is characteristic of people who are covering up or medicating against painful feelings, including the fear of abandonment. Participants may have suffered childhood abandonment experiences as a result of a parent’s physical absence and emotional unavailability. These types of abandonment experiences are known to leave deep wounds as well as a profound fear of being abandoned again, resulting in people using nicotine and/or food to numb painful feelings.

Co-dependence is another form of addiction. Most co-dependents are caretakers. They compulsively and repeatedly sacrifice their own needs for those of another person, but are all the while secretly resentful of having to do so. In this way they use other people as their drug of choice, disconnecting from the painful feelings they would feel if they were to surrender control and leave the other person to their own devices. Spouses of alcoholics are frequently co-dependent and adult children can sometimes take over co-dependent roles after the co-dependent parent has died.

As a mediator, the intent in noticing addictive thinking and behavior during mediation is not to analyze or engage the participants in therapy. Rather, the intent is to provide information that may help participants understand one another better, communicate more effectively, and make fully informed decisions. With the same intent, a Situational™ mediator may go out of his or her way to disclose personal information because such demonstrations of humility are apt to promote like behavior from participants. We all have our ‘drug of choice,’ – alcohol, sex, and even other people in the case of co-dependency. And, no matter what our drug of choice, our thinking becomes distorted and our behavior destructive.

When the mediator suspects that a participant is engaging in potentially harmful behavior, such as drinking or some other addiction, our mediators believe he or she has the responsibility to ask questions and otherwise probe such behavior. Although mediators ultimately have no control over participants, they are in a position to raise awareness and perhaps influence a participant’s behavior, particularly when considering the best interests and safety of the children.

Furthermore, should the opportunity arise, the mediator should not hesitate to assume the role of teacher. Situational™ mediators teach in beneficent rather than intellectual ways, limiting their instruction to subjects about which they can speak from personal experience.