Learn / Coping with Family Dynamics in Recovery 

Coping with Family Dynamics in Recovery 

Grace Ogren
 January 24th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Family dynamics can be positive, negative, or somewhere in between.
  • For those in recovery, family dynamics can be especially stressful.
  • Setting expectations and crafting communication strategies can help.

Family dynamics can cause stress for anyone, but that can be especially true for those in recovery. Some families have positive dynamics, while some do not1. Both factors can impact your overall health. Your family’s dynamic will affect your relationships, interactions, and your roles in the family. 

A positive family dynamic includes helpful, clear, and positive interpersonal interactions. You’ll feel secure in their love and in your role as a son, daughter, mother, father, aunt, grandparent, et cetera. Love and respect flow reciprocally and if an issue arises, you work it out with each other’s best interests in mind. 

Stressful dynamics involve unclear communication, disrespect, and negative interpersonal interactions. They can make family gatherings difficult and cause avoidance between family members. Knowing the family roles in addiction can help you avoid triggering family members, or ones who may negatively impact your recovery.

You can prepare for any situation by arming yourself with coping strategies, communication tactics, and other tools. With these in-hand, you can feel more confident and ultimately enjoy time and events with family.

Understanding Family Stressors

Stressors can affect your family dynamic, sometimes adversely. Examples of stressors within families include

  • Grief and loss. If you’ve lost a loved one, your family may struggle to cope and feel their loss especially hard when you all come together.
  • Stressful/unstable relationships with loved ones. Past arguments or misunderstandings with loved ones could keep an undertow of strain around. 
  • Side-forming. If/when conflict does arise, you may feel pressure to take the side of one of the people involved. This can create “groups” in your family—people on one side and those on the other. When groups interact, it could feel stressful. 
  • Distant relationships. You may feel the urge to connect with a loved one, but have a distant relationship that’s hard to navigate and change. 
  • Pressure to drink in social situations. Many cultures celebrate with alcohol, which can cause stress for those in recovery and make it difficult to know the signs you are drinking too much
  • Misunderstanding/no understanding of recovery. If your loved ones don’t understand your situation and what you’ve been through, it could be uncomfortable or unproductive to discuss. Rather than understanding and compassion, you may face judgment and confusion. 

Being aware of these stressors before you enter a family gathering, answer a phone call from a loved one, or interact with them another way can help you prepare. Then, you can walk in with confidence and leave not feeling overwhelmed or triggered.

Setting Realistic Expectations

Try to keep your expectations realistic as you meet up/talk with family. For example, you can expect to not be offered a drink and not be pressured into drinking, rather than expecting everyone to abstain from alcohol entirely. 

You can also adjust your expectations of relationships. If you have a poor relationship with an aunt, for example, you can stay realistic and not expect your relationship to completely change after seeing them. You may expect a step in the right direction, but not a complete 180º. 

You can also develop more positive ways of thinking, so you can go into these interactions with the right mindset. For example, don’t expect to have a falling-out or argument with a family member that has a history of being difficult. You could inadvertently set yourself up for arguments and keep yourself from a position of restoration and forgiveness (as applicable). 

Instead, you can set flexible, realistic expectations for yourself. Don’t expect yourself to handle every conversation and situation perfectly. Keep your main goals in mind, like maintaining your recovery, and count them as your main priorities. Decide what’s most important to you and let that guide your expectations. 

Communication Strategies

Clear communication2 can help both the sender and receiver have a productive, well-understood conversation. Miscommunication, where the message is unclear or not understood, can cause tension and upset a positive family dynamic. 

Try not to make assumptions as a listener, like what’s best for the speaker. Put yourself in their shoes as much as you’re able. Try to also listen actively, without thinking of what you’ll say back as they’re speaking. 

As a speaker, focus on careful word choice, not making assumptions, and not cutting off your listener if they speak up. Practice empathy and keep yourself as calm as you can.

You can prioritize clear communication in any one of your family relationships, especially about what you need and your boundaries. Examples could look like this:

“I won’t be drinking tonight, but I appreciate you giving us the opportunity.”

“To protect my mental health and boundaries, I won’t be talking to ____.”

“I’m really glad you called me. If you have time, would you want to discuss ____?”

“No thank you, I can’t do that because I’m in recovery.”

“I would love to talk with you at another time, but I am not able to now.” 

Establishing Boundaries

Setting and maintaining boundaries with your family can help you stay confident with your choices and avoid situations that make you feel uncomfortable. They can even help you maintain sobriety3

Boundaries can also help you stay emotionally well, especially when talking to loved ones with strong emotional ties. Since those loved ones can impact your emotional health more than most people can, it can be even more important to set up boundaries with them. A solid boundary can keep you from becoming emotionally burnt out, stressed, and unhappy. 

Establishing boundaries can feel intimidating at first, but you can do it. These tips can help you get more comfortable with setting and maintaining boundaries:

  1. Write down your boundaries and the reasons behind them. 
  2. Write down who your boundaries will apply to most (your mother, sister, great aunt?)
  3. Practice saying them aloud; this can help you get used to how a conversation about your boundaries might go.
  4. Identify the goals of your boundaries—what are they helping you achieve?

Here’s a conversation sample of setting and maintaining a boundary about drinking:

“No, I can’t have a drink with you. I’m in recovery and care about staying sober.”

“I am confident in my commitment to not drink and don’t feel the need to explain why.”

“No, I’m not able to talk about that now.”

“I don’t feel comfortable talking about this.”

Handling Uncomfortable Conversations

Uncomfortable conversations can arise in even the most loving, positive family dynamics. If you have strained relationships or polarizing opinions, avoiding uncomfortable conversations may not be possible. But that’s okay; you can prepare and meet them with confidence. 

If an uncomfortable conversation arises, try to stay calm and aware of your emotions. This can help you formulate a response with a level head. Try as best you can to not take offensive words personally, and don’t reply with the same. Short, calm responses can help dissipate tension and keep your boundaries firm.

Sometimes, loved ones don’t mean to make a conversation uncomfortable, or they may start an awkward conversation by accident. This can be especially true regarding recovery and your decision to not drink or use substances. In those cases, you can prepare a few graceful ways to respond, affirm your boundaries, and correct misconceptions. Here’s a few examples:

“You’re right, I’m not drinking. I’m actually in recovery and have been enjoying life without alcohol.”

“I haven’t had anything to drink because I’m in recovery. I don’t drink at all to maintain the sobriety I worked hard for.” 

“No, I don’t use drugs anymore. I used to, but I’m now in recovery and make different choices.”

“No thank you, I’m actually in recovery from alcohol use disorder and abstain from drinking to maintain my sobriety.” 

Seeking Support

You may have a negative family dynamic, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have people that support you. Building and maintaining a strong support system can help you cope with negative family dynamics and strengthen a positive one. Your support system could include friends, sober peers, sponsors, and specific support groups (like Alcoholics Anonymous). 

A strong support system can help you manage the ups and downs of any family dynamic, and give you the opportunity to grow your chosen family. You can also strengthen your relationships with related loved ones by going to family and couples therapy and grow your support system that way. Internal family systems (IFS) therapy can help you learn about your inner family, too, and how your different parts interact.

Practicing Self-Care

Taking care of yourself can help you navigate your family dynamics. Staying true to yourself can make your interpersonal relationships more genuine and positive.

If your family dynamics cause stress and dysfunction, you have ways to manage the stress. First, you can seek professional help and learn more about stress and addiction. Then, you can practice simple self-care practices like:

  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Breathing exercises to calm the body and mind
  • Taking a break from your phone and/or social media
  • Reading a book
  • Cooking nutritious meals
  • Saying no to events or activities to give you time to relax

Reflecting on Progress

Positivity and hope help you and your interpersonal relationships with family. Reflect on your recovery journey and what you’ve accomplished. Recognition from your family may be great, but you don’t need it to make your achievement impressive and real. Remind yourself of this as often as you need to.

You can also reflect on positive progress in your family dynamic, however small. Maybe you feel closer to one of your family members than you did before. Maybe a new baby shifted your dynamic into a happier one. Maybe you were able to distance yourself from someone toxic. Note these positive changes to remind yourself how things can move forward. This can encourage and empower you, even in the midst of a negative family dynamic.

You can reflect through meditation, journaling, talking with someone, or all 3. Creative expression can be a tool for reflection, too.
As you reflect and remember the positives, know you can get help, too. Family therapy can improve your family dynamics and relationships with your loved ones. Browse our list of treatment centers with family therapy to see pricing, photos, reviews, and more.

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