As we start the New Year, I’ve begun thinking of ways we can refine and develop our family communication skills. Communication is the method we use to exchange information. In the family unit, it can be between partners, between parents and children and between children.
Communication can be with words but can also be with gestures and/or behavior. When we communicate using gestures or behavior alone, sometimes signals get crossed, because personal perceptions are overlaid. Think of your reaction when you say something and your partner or child rolls his or her eyes. What they are “saying” and what you are “hearing” may not be the same thing.
By the same token, written communication is often misconstrued as well. Think about the recent phenomenon of text messaging and tweeting. Use of just words and no intonation allows the message recipient to spin the language based upon how they hear internally the written word. Add to that the use of shorthand in text or tweet communication, and there is more room for misunderstanding.
As a result of this defect in the communication process, emoji were created. Over time more and more emoji have been created to address multiple nuances of emotions. And yet, even those can be misinterpreted. When you pass your cursor over the emoji and it tells you what emotion it purports to represent, how often do you stop and say “Really?” (Which in itself is shorthand for “That’s not what it meant to me.”)
The biggest problem I see in family communications where one family member is a Loved One dealing with personal addiction issues, is the difference between advocating and enabling, where advocacy is a positive process for both the Loved One and the other family members, and enabling is a method of communication which can and does exacerbate the Loved One’s problems and supports the family’s ongoing co-dependence. So, how does one determine if they are advocating or enabling?
Here are some ways of communicating that might be construed as enabling:
- Do you avoid potential problems by trying to keep the peace? When your addicted Loved One is out of control, do you avoid discussion at all costs? Are you afraid to address their behavior even when they’re sober, because you’re afraid you will cause them to go out and get high?
- Are you in denial about your Loved One being addicted? If another family member approaches you to talk about the problem they see, do you try to claim it’s just a phase or it’s not that bad?
- Do you try to control the dependent person? Do you make excuses for them missing school or work? Do you pay their bills? Do you buy their booze or drugs?
These are all methods of communication that keep both the addicted family member and the family unit in the insanity of addiction. So, what are ways we can advocate for our Loved One rather than enable them? And what are ways we can advocate for the other family members to stop them from falling into the depths of co-dependency?
- Get support and education. We can’t force the addict to find recovery but we can seek it for ourselves. That might mean we attend 12 step recovery in the form of Al-Anon or Co-Dependents Anonymous. Education is also an important part of recovery. The BALM Comprehensive Family Recovery Education program is where I learned many of the ideas in this article. It helped me get my own life back while also helping my Loved One move in the direction of recovery. The BALM taught me critical ways of communicating with my Loved One that allowed him to hear me, whereas before, my judgmental attitude spoke louder than my words.
- Get professional help. Other powerful tools include working with a family therapist that specializes in recovery. That might mean working with a family recovery life coach. Life Coaches help their clients grow in their ability to communicate powerfully through client-centered transformative conversations. Your goals matter the most in a life coaching session and a family recovery life coach understands both life coaching AND family recovery. Don’t be afraid to talk about what is happening…within the family and with others who are also having the same problems. You will find help to deal with your enabling tendencies. Your situation is not unique. Sharing with others will let you know that.
- Engage in self-care. This communicates to both your Loved One and to the rest of the family that you are going to live positively. It might be as simple as making sure you shower and dress every day. It might include taking a class or seeing the dentist. Often, when our Loved One is in the throes of addiction, we let ourselves go. Taking back our lives communicates a change is occurring and it will support other family members to take the same steps.
- Allow the addict to suffer consequences….short of serious injury or death. If the addict never has any consequences of his or her actions, there is no impetus to change. Stop making excuses for them. Stop buying their drugs. When they are not under the influence, have a calm, thought-out conversation about their behavior and why you will not continue to run interference. Negotiate support that is not enabling. Offer to help the addict find recovery. Work with them to find a detox facility and/or a rehab. Attend whatever programs are available through that facility. Partner with the rehab to be your Loved One’s best chance at recovery.
- Outline boundaries for your home. Remember two key important points for boundaries. First, remember that boundaries are for YOUR benefit and not to punish the addict. Make sure the boundaries are clear and easy to understand. Second, do NOT set a boundary that you are not committed to maintain. If you do set a boundary and then waffle on it, you will lose credibility.
We need to remember that while the addict’s drug of choice is a substance, the family’s drug of choice is the addict. Everyone needs to learn new methods of communication. Let’s make the use of new communication tools our goal for 2017.