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Addiction & the Family: Why Forgiveness Is So Hard

This is the second in a series of blogs about the effects of substance abuse on family relationships. Addiction is a family disease and every member of the family is affected. When a loved one is active in their addiction the equilibrium of the whole family is upset. This blog talks about the need to find a way to forgive your loved one so that you can once again find peace and happiness in your life.

As I write this, I am fully aware that this is easier said than done. Forgiving somebody who has broken your trust, stolen from you, lied to you, embarrassed you in public and committed crimes is certainly a difficult mountain to climb. My hope is that by explaining how experiencing substance abuse has affected the family members, you may be able to move toward the forgiveness necessary to heal.

Guilt and Shame

The majority of addicts and alcoholics I work with have done things that are reprehensible and cause great shame for the family. Whether it’s getting drunk at family gatherings, having run-ins with the law, trips to the emergency room and grossly mistreating members of the family takes a toll on everyone involved. Families become embarrassed, ashamed and grow weary of the ongoing disruptions to everyday life. They become overwhelmed with anger and consumed with resentments, guilt and shame. They lose all hope that their loved one will ever be “normal” again. In many cases, they begin grieving the death of their addicted family member while they are still alive.

A family that comes to mind has a 27-year-old son who had been supported by his family and given several opportunities for rehab that didn’t stick. As a last resort the family organized and professional intervention with me. For months the son resisted accepting the help and going to rehab. He continued to use drugs and alcohol and became homeless as a result. The shame and guilt the family felt was consuming. They wanted to be able to save their son and were angry at themselves for not being able to convince him to get the help he so desperately needed.

Through therapy they were finally able to see that they were doing everything they could possibly do. As I helped them work through their anger, shame, sadness and grief they were finally able to understand that they had done everything they could for him except plan his funeral. His addiction continued and, after living on the streets in rainy March weather for a while, their son was finally motivated to receive help and enter a treatment program. My point here is that they were able to work through their anger and resentment and get into a much healthier frame of mind for their own mental health, even while they grieved their son’s continued self-destruction. Thus, they were well on the way to forgiving their son and were able to provide the love and support he needed to recover when the time came.

Inability to Detach and Set Appropriate Boundaries

The inability to detach and set healthy boundaries in relationships is referred to as codependency. Many families simply lack the skills and know-how to set boundaries with addicts within a non-codependent framework. They just can’t stop trying to rescue the addict. They believe that the substance abuser cannot survive without them. They believe that their responsibility is to be the loved one’s lifeline no matter what. This leads to an overwhelming sense of helplessness when their efforts are not successful.

When I was a lifeguard in a much younger time, one of the first things our instructor taught us was when attempting to save someone to make sure that they don’t drown you in the process. We learned how to save somebody, but also how to prevent ourselves from being sacrificed in the process. Families that are earnestly trying to help a loved one need to have an exit strategy in place that will help them prevent self-destruction. The pain and anguish of truly embracing this in the moment seems unbearable. This is perhaps one of the hardest decisions anybody would have to make in their lifetime, but nothing good can come from allowing yourself to be destroyed as well. Working with a professional allows you to learn to set healthy boundaries.

With many of the families I work with, I help them to realize that it is not realistic to believe they can control things that are out of their control. They come to understand that they are not abandoning their loved one by setting healthy boundaries. Early intervention on their feelings of anger, resentment and disappointment opens the door for forgiveness, allowing the family to provide the love and support their loved needs to recover from addiction.

What Can You Do? What Steps Can You Take?

The challenge that I’m presenting to you is to really understand that being assertive even while angry and resentful is an important step in the process of helping your loved one recover from addiction. This is only the beginning regardless if you’re successful in motivating your family member accept recovery or not. The growth also involves you and other family members seeking out professional help to heal the resentment and return your mental health to a place of peace and self-respect.

Being codependent is self-destructive. As a recovering addict and codependent myself, through my therapy practice and personal recovery more and more I’ve come to understand the value of hard work on myself in order to restore my life to equilibrium and balance. The self-reflection and willingness to grow through whatever challenges that I have has made me able to empathize and be assertive with others.

Everybody in the family needs to be honest and open and assertive about the common enemy of the alcohol and/or drugs. The family needs to be honest in their interventions and in the request to their loved one to seek help. Equally as important is the need for family members to consult with friends and professionals to learn how to process and release the negative feelings caused by substance abuse.


Being able to forgive over time is really a gift to ourselves. I help families see that they have sacrificed enough for their loved one and done all that they can do to help that person. The only thing left is for them to forgive their loved one and focus on the common enemy – drugs and/or alcohol.

Forgiveness is a choice and often takes some hard work, but it’s also the greatest gift you can give yourself and your addicted loved one. Once your loved one is in recovery, your forgiveness is a key component in showing them how to begin finding forgiveness within themselves for all the hurt they have caused their family members while active in substance abuse.

If you or a loved one may be struggling with addiction, it is very important for you to seek out professional help as soon as possible. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I may be of assistance to you or your loved ones. My website provides more information on my practice and how to contact me with questions or take advantage of a free 20-minute phone appointment.

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