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Marriage Protection: What To Do If the Inlaws Are Alcoholic

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By Hannah Jean Kahn

05/05/14

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Family of Origin Versus Family of Marriage 

It turns out that it’s common for a new marriage to bring up conflicting duties between the new marriage and one’s family of birth. And establishing that marriage in the shadow of addiction and abuse? Even more difficult. 

According to Dr. Robert Ackerman, Professor of Sociology and Program Coordinator at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, those who love an alcoholic go through four phases as they come to terms with the situation: reactive, active, alternative, and family unit. 

During the reactive stage, family members of the alcoholic develop dysfunctional coping strategies. In my husband’s case, his childhood and young adulthood around his sister led to a native language of denial and enabling. He developed a particularly passive nature and a strong desire to keep the peace at any cost—even at the cost of her continued alcohol use and dysfunction. 

In the active stage, family members of an alcoholic acknowledge the situation and start to make a plan. They might think about cutting the cord and avoiding the family member entirely, or they might try to avoid the topic in hopes that it will get better on its own. Or they might, as we did, seek counseling for themselves to put together a plan of action.

When people who love an alcoholic reach the alternative stage, they move forward with the decision they’ve made: to end the relationship, to seek out an alternative living situation, or to place boundaries within the relationship. If successful, the alternative stage culminates in seeking help for the alcoholic and setting boundaries in one’s personal life. 

The family unit stage, the final stage, is one that some families may never reach: after establishing boundaries, embracing the addiction, and working together, the families or relationships begin to improve. Those who need it find health and support and the family reaffirms its bonds of love.

Helping an Addicted Family Member While Fortifying your Marriage

You can help your addicted family member while also setting boundaries on behalf of your new family by marriage. Here are three helpful principles to guide your decision-making that will also encourage a healthy marriage: 

WORK AS A TEAM

Make a list of co-approved things you can do to help. Rather than work from a place of fear and individuality, come together as partners to decide what each member of your marital family is comfortable with. For example, it was my husband’s first instinct to call more and to be more available to his sister, but that didn’t sit well for me. It may take a long time to work out agreeable terms with your partner, but it’s important that each spouse has the space to decide what those terms are so that the solution has buy-in from both spouses. 

Stand up for each other. Feeling threatened by a sibling’s new relationship, the addicted sibling-in-law may lash out at the new spouse. As a spouse, I speak from experience. It’s difficult to watch your new husband bend over backwards to please a manipulative family member, especially when that family member insults you or is otherwise unkind. That’s where your spouse’s commitment to your new marriage must come in: your spouse must make it clear to his extended family that the new spouse is to be treated with respect and civility. Disagreements are allowed; insults are not. 

EMBRACE DETACHMENT

Detach to create space. How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics emphasizes the benefits and importance of healthy detachment. Healthy detachment—not manipulative detachment—promotes emotional consistency and provides a safe space in which to make decisions. The decisions you make when feeling detached come from a position of love and confidence, not from fear and pain. Use detachment to make decisions that will help your addicted sibling while respecting the boundaries of your new marriage.

Detach to be able to love the addict. Al-Anon Family Group’s reference book also emphasizes that “detachment with love allows us to hate the disease of alcoholism, yet step back from that disease in order to find love for the alcoholic.” This is an important step both for the sibling of the addict and the in-law of the addict. It’s not about bitterness, resentment, and condescension; it’s about emotional distance and life-giving decision making.

FIGHT FAMILY DYSFUNCTION

Seek non-inflammatory truth. In How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics, the authors make an insightful point while relating the dynamic between alcoholics and those who love them as a game of tug of war. If you’re holding one end of the rope and your alcoholic family member tugs the other, it seems natural to tug back. It takes a long time to realize that you don’t have to—that it takes two to play tug of war. Instead of continuing the dialogue of denial and superficiality, seek out ways to communicate openly and without inflammatory statements. Work as a team to plan out phrases in advance that can help your spouse express his disapproval without being out-right argumentative. Aim to be clear and kind, but to avoid judgmental or unkind statements. 

Focus on what you’re passing down. For members of a dysfunctional family, moving along with the status quo can seem far less dangerous than making waves. But as leading expert and author Tian Dayton, M.A., Ph.D., TEP, writes, “if the addict does not engage in a full recovery process, they are asking both themselves and their family members to live with emotional and psychological burdens that can keep the family and the individuals within it mired in dysfunctional patterns of relating that get passed along through the generations.” Commonly referred to as “passing on the pain,” not addressing systemic problems of addiction and dysfunction can have a dramatic and negative impact on everyone who shares in your family’s future: your nieces, nephews, and your own children. Thinking of the future generations to come is a great way to find strength in yourself to approach your addicted family member. 

I can’t say what the future holds for my sister in law, but I know what it holds for my husband and me: a life of honest communication, understanding, and open-handed love for his sister on her journey out of addiction. For those spouses battling with their conflicting emotions, I encourage you to take heart. In many cases, there is a way through—not over or around—an addicted in-law that will bring strength, compassion, and caring to your marriage and to your relationship with your extended family. By putting into place loving but firm boundaries, your new marriage will establish healthy relationships as a family value for you, your spouse, and future generations of your family.

Hannah Jean Kahn is a pseudonym for a writer living in Virginia.

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