From Dysfunction to Resilience: A Good Road to Travel © Tom Ersin 2023. This is the current installment from the serialized publication of this distinctive self-help book.

Chapter 5: Readers’ Questions

(All readers’ questions and author answers are based upon the author’s client interactions as a mental health and chemical dependency treatment professional [along with any number of family-based memoirs]. Identifying details have been changed.)

— Addiction Gene (or Not)
— Always Room for Self-Improvement
— Chemical Dependency Counseling
— Extended Families
— Good Childhood, Antisocial Adulthood
— Rageaholic Parent
— Repressive Marriage
— Tough Love

Tough Love

Q: Can you explain “tough love”?

A: Tough love is a term coined in the late 1960s by author Bill Milliken who co-wrote a book by the same name. 5-1 5-2 It refers to the treatment of a loved one that, while seemingly hurtful or harsh on the surface, may help that loved one feel certain consequences of harmful behavior. The theory is that protecting — or rescuing — principals from these consequences enables them to continue their damaging activities more easily.

In relation to this book, an example of tough love might be a spouse/partner refusing to call in sick to work for the partner with alcohol use disorder because she or he has a severe hangover. Another example might be parents/guardians forcing their child with substance use disorder to spend a night in jail for a drug arrest rather than automatically bailing out the child (possibly for the third or fourth time). In both instances, the refusal to rescue could help principals feel the consequences of their actions and possibly seek help sooner.

Q: Where can I find a set of tough love guidelines to use on my son with severe substance use disorder? 

A: Though the principles of tough love can be invaluable in dealing with a family member who is chemically dependent, there is no one-size-fits-all set of guidelines. Many people seek guidance from support groups. Others seek specialized counseling for a perspective on their situation that can come only from a professional, emotionally detached therapist. If you’re not ready to try either of these, at least explore some pertinent reading materials. 

Q: Is the television show Intervention anything like the real thing? 

A: Intervention 5-3 is a reality show-documentary hybrid, somewhat more serious and realistic than other reality shows. It’s important to remember two things: 1) the producers use only the most compelling and interesting interventions they film because their purpose is to gain the most viewers, which produces more commercial income; and 2) participants in this show generally know the camera is on them, especially the people with dependency, which likely influences their demeanor.

A clinical intervention is a serious endeavor. It’s emotionally draining and requires professional planning and leadership. If you’re considering an intervention, it’s highly recommended to seek professional chemical dependency family therapy first. Only in this way can the therapist get to know the situation and prepare to lead an intervention in the best interests of everyone involved.

Extended Families

Q: OK, You’ve explained how emotional abuse, toxic manipulation, chronic dishonesty, and other antisocial behavior perpetuated by a member can cause the same dysfunction in a family as alcoholism and other drug addiction. Can these effects appear in an extended family, say after the kids grow up, marry (then maybe divorce), and have kids of their own?

A: Clearly the answer is “yes.” Many movies, novels, drama series, and “reality shows” have drawn heavily on this fact for their storylines. It makes perfect sense: If it happens in nuclear families, it’s bound to manifest as much or more in a collection of nuclear families, even though they all don’t live together. The intertwining of dysfunctional threads can cause great pain and harm to primary and secondary relationships.

The basic tenets of codependency recovery still apply:

1) Become educated about the effects.

2) Focus on your recovery to improve emotional well-being.

3) Avoid the isolation of only engaging in the unhealthy (extended) family relationships.

4) Refuse to enable the damaging behavior, i.e., refuse to consistently let it go unchallenged (while carefully choosing your battles).

Note that the many members and interspersed symptomatic relationships can make Point No. 4 (“Refuse to enable …”) more complicated in an extended family, sometimes producing unintended consequences.

The self-help group Al-Anon lays out a set of guidelines for those dealing with family dysfunction, nuclear or extended. They contribute greatly to Point No. 1: “Become educated about the effects.”

“We learn: 5-4

  • Not to suffer because of the actions or reactions of other[s]
  • Not to allow ourselves to be used or abused by others …
  • Not to do for others what they can do for themselves
  • Not to manipulate situations so others will … behave as we see fit
  • Not to cover up for another’s mistakes or misdeeds
  • Not to create a crisis
  • Not to prevent a crisis if it is in the natural course of events”

Recovery certainly is more difficult for these extended families as a whole. Individual members seeking to maintain emotional and relational well-being must be that much more creative, upright, resilient, and self-protective against abuse, with the option of “letting go with love” always available to them.

Q: Several branches of my extended family tree are a dysfunctional mess: backbiting, mendacity, cruelty, greed, embezzlement, manipulation, estrangement. I often feel like my situation must be rare. Then periodically I talk to someone like my hair stylist, dental hygienist, or co-worker who tells me equally disturbing stories. I’m beginning to think that screwed up extended families are not rare and likely common. 

A: And your point?

Chemical Dependency Counseling

Q: My spouse is the one who has alcohol use disorder and has caused all our troubles. Why should I go to counseling if she won’t?

A: Counseling is not for partners to help the person with dependency. Counseling is for partners to help themselves and other family members. You may or may not be ready to present your spouse with an ultimatum. Whether you leave the marriage or not, whether your spouse gets help or not, you have been affected negatively by living with a dependent, and you could benefit significantly from counseling.

As you’ve learned, a family with a member who is chemically dependent inherently develops problems with communication, expressing and dealing with feelings, and trust. These can last long after the relationship may have ended. It’s possible you’ll learn something that could increase your spouse’s chances of recovery, but helping yourself remains your most important purpose of therapy.

Q: I’ve heard a lot about enabling over the years. Covering up for my spouse’s drinking and bailing him out of trouble has been necessary to make life easier for my kids and me. Why should I stop this if it keeps the peace? 

A: This is a classic case of putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm — the bleeding might stop for the moment, but the arm will not heal correctly and will get worse without proper treatment. And it ultimately will increase harm to the entire body.

First, it sounds like you’ve made the decision to stay in the marriage for now. (By the way, this is a very personal decision, and there is no one right answer to fit all circumstances.) If that’s the case, protecting — or enabling — your spouse’s drinking makes it easier for him to continue. And since we know alcohol use disorder is a progressive disease, his drinking and drinking-related activities will get worse over time.

You can’t make him stop. But you can allow him to feel the consequences of his drinking, with the hope that this will break through his denial that much sooner. Additionally, covering up for his drinking probably has involved lying to the kids about his destructive conduct. It’s better to be honest with them, in an age-appropriate way. Denying to them what they know to be true at some level causes children to question their own perceptions of reality, now and later as adults.

Q: You say we can’t make a drug/alcohol dependent get sober, that we can only stop enabling. What about my brother and his wife, parents-in-denial of a self-destructively addicted young adult daughter, Fiona, who still lives at home?

A: Sadly, this is an issue for too many chemically dependent young people. It still comes down to (parental) enabling and the denial behind it. Here’s a common scenario (not the only one but common): The child is in denial because she doesn’t want to stop using chemicals, which likely are numbing emotional pain and definitely are warding off withdrawal effects including depression and anxiety. The parents are in denial likely because they don’t want to address the underlying familial turmoil. In this case, the dependent child, Fiona, is the “identified patient,” the member whose obvious poor behavior is an open manifestation of deeper family affliction. The identified patient’s symptoms often are the catalyst for bringing other members into treatment and, with hope, recovery.

To help save Fiona, informed loved ones should intervene with the parents, gently at first, then more confrontationally if necessary. It’s better for them to be confronted by a loved one than by their child’s mortality. You may be castigated for butting into the family’s business. You likely never will be thanked. But your input could prompt a moment of clarity in the parents. And you’ll know you did what you could to save your niece’s life.

Point your brother and sister-in-law toward chemical dependency counseling — for them. This provides invaluable support: 1) personalized education about alcohol/drug addiction; and 2) unbiased, unemotional guidance in dealing with their daughter’s destructive symptoms and underlying family issues. If they won’t go to counseling, suggest at least a support group — for them.

Q: My brother-in-law is a middle-age recovering alcoholic (one year sober), a nice guy but still immature, irresponsible, and untrustworthy. Chic’s claim to fame is his sobriety and that nothing else matters. Is this as good as he’s going to get?

A: That depends on him. The premise of this book is that self-improvement is a journey, constantly moving you forward from wherever you’re at now. A chemically dependent person getting sober is a tectonic life milestone, but it’s not the final destination. Chic’s emotional and intellectual development was suppressed during the time he was actively dependent. Now in sobriety, it’s up to him to begin or resume self-improvement.

Continuing personal growth after achieving sobriety depends largely on two factors: 1) age and level of mental development when dependency kicked in; and 2) emotional health of family members, some of whom may be just as troubled as they ever were.

Chic was well out of adolescence and into adulthood when dependency started and emotional growth stalled. He had the opportunity to attain a basic foundation of mental development, though he backtracked due to active addiction. Fiona, however, from our previous questioner’s situation, never achieved this foundational development before her dependency enveloped her teenage years. Even if she gets sober in her 20s, she’s essentially starting personal growth from adolescent scratch.

Regarding Point No. 2, “emotional health of family members,” Chic has an advantage. Apparently his spouse and children have been in family counseling on and off since before he got sober, though he has just started. This means his family has taken steps to get themselves well in spite of Chic’s alcoholism (aka alcohol use disorder). Because of this, his chances for extended recovery and self-improvement are higher. Conversely, even though Fiona may put together a period of sobriety in the near term, her parents still are in denial of their own emotional issues; they’re eschewing help for themselves and hardly participating in their daughter’s treatment. If Fiona still depends on her parents for room, board, and emotional stability, her chances for prolonged healthy sobriety, let alone self-improvement, decrease significantly. She’ll need to seek support from recovery treatment professionals, support groups, and emotionally stable and caring extended family members. Ultimately, Fiona will need to gain her independence.

Addiction Gene (or Not)

Q: Experts say that chemical dependency can be inherited. How does that work?

A: You’ve heard the phrase nature versus nurture, which poses the question of how much of a person’s behavior is genetic and how much is learned. With chemical dependency, the answer is both, in various ratios. 5-5 A person without a genetic inclination simply can use enough chemicals over time to develop a substance use disorder. The dependent might abuse chemicals due to peer pressure, learning from parents/guardians, self-medication of depression/anxiety, or effects of negative social determinants of health.

There’s also a definite genetic component to chemical dependency, but it does not follow hard and fast rules. What scientists know is that, like many other diseases, a stronger family history of chemical dependency creates a higher chance of developing the disorder. We also know, however, that a biological family of two parents with severe alcohol use disorder and five children might produce only two adult children with alcohol or other drug problems, leaving the other three unaffected. It’s also possible that one or more of the three unaffected offspring could be carrying the addictive gene but never drank or used enough (or any) chemicals to activate that gene.

Ultimately it’s a crapshoot. Nothing is a sure thing. But if the dice are loaded against you through genetics and/or a dysfunctional childhood, you’re more likely to lose if you don’t take careful precautions. By the way, the three “unaffected” offspring from our imaginary family still will be affected emotionally by their parents’ disease, as you have learned.

Q: Is chemical dependency a real disease in the medical sense? 

A: Yes. The American Medical Association says so. The World Health Organization says so.

Alcohol and other drug dependency is a chronic disease like (Type 1) diabetes. Both make diseased changes to brain and body chemistry. There is no cure but with treatment and lifestyle changes, people with these chronic illnesses can live relatively normal lives.

Repressive Marriage

Q: I know at least three people, female and male, that are in situations similar to this story, including my cousin. She’s been in a repressive marriage for years. Her spouse often has been emotionally abusive: He’s disparaged and raged at the family for much of their time together — off and on, as those guys do. I always thought she was waiting for their two daughters to be grown and gone, which now is the case. So why doesn’t she finally leave this unhealthy relationship?

A: Yes, alas, this is not rare. We don’t know your cousin. But reflect on what we’ve learned about these types of families. First, both partners likely grew up in environments with at least one of the following: parental chemical dependency, emotional/physical abuse, abandonment or neglect, anger and rage, hyper rigid household rules, or other dysfunction. Some people break that cycle as adults but unfortunately many don’t.

Second, consider the common codependent characteristics your cousin likely has carried into adulthood and marriage, attitudes that often harden over a lifetime if left unaddressed: 1) Low self-esteem and fear of abandonment — she may have integrated the conscious or subconscious belief that this relationship is all she deserves; 2) Victim mentality — her sense of “victimhood” might be so ingrained that she simply can’t let go of parts of her life that support it; 3) Denial — she’s likely continuing a decadeslong denial of the situation resulting in attachment to her toxic “normal”; she’s kept up the emotional front for so long, it’s her only reality; 4) Repressed feelings — your cousin likely has habitually (compulsively) stuffed her painful emotions down for many years, causing her emotional mechanisms to be impaired severely, i.e., she doesn’t process negative or positive feelings the way most others do.

By the way, a common side effect in people with this type of denial, low self-esteem, and debilitated emotional functioning is to put blame for the pain anywhere besides its true source. They’re likely afraid of that source and the hurricane of frightening emotions it could unleash if ever confronted. As a result, it’s not unusual for people like your cousin to invoke persistent cruelty toward certain other family members, often those who love them the most, for three reasons: A) to give themselves an artificial sense of righteousness to divert their attention from their own demeaning abusive situations (from childhood and in adulthood); B) to lift themselves up artificially by “bringing down” and hurting others around them; and C) to assuage warped resentment toward loved ones who have helped them; they’re embarrassed, resentful, and/or in denial of needing that help. Psychologists call this “hostile dependency.”

A common method of shifting the pain through hostility is by being excessively and often hypocritically judgmental, attempting to split family and force members to choose sides. Weaker individuals may succumb to this pressure. Those with integrity will not. They realize this only enables and perpetuates the malicious behavior. For children who are being manipulated, the emotional harm can be intense and long-lasting.

This cruelty is inherent evidence of severe emotional disorder.

Why doesn’t she leave the relationship? Denial, repressed feelings, disabled emotional functioning. Is there any hope? She may have few friends and interact mostly with like-minded relatives who support her cognitive and emotional distortions. It’s difficult to picture any effective therapeutic intervention. But we always hold out hope. Life sometimes has a way of presenting unexpected circumstances that might prompt a moment of clarity leading to recovery.

Rageaholic Parent

Q: The principal in our family was my mother. She was a rageaholic who doled out persistent toxic criticism. Why did I “inherit” her anger issues and hostile aggression whereas my younger brother turned out to be overly submissive and afraid of his shadow, with an acute woe-is-me “victim mentality”?

A: Again, we don’t know the specific dynamics of what went on in your childhood home. But generally speaking, principals (female or male) exhibit one or more of an array of harmful-to-the-family behaviors, as laid out earlier in this book. In turn, those family members, e.g., children, frequently develop one or more of an array of dysfunctional characteristics, also as laid out earlier. Any principal’s adverse behavior can lead to any dysfunctional characteristics in each child, for various known and unknown reasons.

It’s also common for a child to “inherit,” i.e., learn, the same behavior exhibited by the principal. Often the first child has received the brunt of the damaging treatment — in this case, anger, rage, and malign criticism. What could be more logical than that juvenile growing up to be angry and rageful? Commonly, that oldest child also might have developed auxiliary problems including depression/anxiety and chemical dependency, the latter even though his parents never indulged in alcohol or other drugs. In recovery, this adult child will have a hierarchy of issues to address, beginning with the substance use disorders, then the anger/rage, followed by the depression/anxiety. Without recovery, the cycle not only continues but expands.

Conversely, you say younger brother is overly submissive, timid (has difficulty standing up for himself), resentful, and full of victim mentality. There are two possibilities to explain this: 1) due to his inherent personality, genetic makeup, and/or birth order, he simply developed different dysfunctional behaviors than you; or 2) he “inherited” (learned) the enabling spouse’s primary behaviors, i.e., ignoring, denying, and covering up the principal’s harmful treatment. Younger brother could have been more prone to buying into the enabler’s efforts to draw an artificial picture of a healthy, happy family when it was anything but. However, believing this lie (while subconsciously knowing the truth) likely has caused adult younger brother to doubt his perceptions and doubt himself, resulting in submissiveness. He’s afraid of his shadow because he’s never learned to confront conflicting information. He simply shuts down emotionally instead. Having impaired defenses, negative things seem to come his way more often, hence the “victimhood.”

Note: A prime commonality between you (oldest) and younger brother is the depression/anxiety. Additionally, the chances of one or both of you developing chemical dependency rise considerably.

Good Childhood, Antisocial Adulthood

Q: You guys have talked a lot about how adult dysfunctional behavior often originates in childhood from growing up with a principal who has perpetuated an alcoholic, abusive, or other injurious antisocial household environment. And typically that principal has an enabling partner who seemingly has allowed the abusive behavior, which often prompts children to believe it’s their fault. But what about the troubled offspring of parents who never exhibited any of those negative characteristics? What about the Ozzies and Harriets of the world, parents in healthy families of origin, who produced sociopathic Beavers or drug-addicted Wallys (to mix my metaphorical classic TV families)? What about the Theo Huxtables of the world who grew up to menace their families of creation with persistent episodes of anger and rage?  

A: Yes, those troubled people who come from relatively healthy families of origin are common among us. We’ve talked about breaking the cycle, but a cycle has to have started somewhere. Many of the sociopathic (mean, dishonest, lacking conscience) Beavers of the world simply took a wrong turn based on later life circumstances, consistently poor judgment, or pathological mental functioning. Countless drug-addicted Wallys simply activated a generation(s)-skipping chemical dependency gene through experimentation and peer pressure. Many of the bad-seed Theos just turned rageful for reasons we can’t explain.

To be clear, we’re not saying all dysfunctional and codependent adults come from dysfunctional and codependent parents. But many do. And in the course of recovery, your family of origin is an important component to examine.

Also to be clear: However individual negative behavioral issues originate, spontaneously or familialy, the path to recovery for principals and their family members frequently follows the guidelines laid out in this book.

Q: To follow up on the Beaver Cleavers, Theo Huxtables, and the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” Bradys, those with normal childhoods (or anyone else, for that matter), who inexplicably turn to antisocial behavior in adulthood: Why do some people become selfish enough, regarding relationships and illicit material gain, to use toxic manipulation and spitefulness to fulfill their sense of twisted entitlement?

A: Why do some people in nuclear and extended families lie, cheat, and steal from each other? Why do they attempt to divide their families and manipulate members into picking sides, forcing those members to choose integrity or weakness? Why do they selfishly intimidate their adolescent and young adult children into those same false loyalty choices, causing untold psychic damage? Why do they employ insidious cruelty to implement and cover up their selfish, pernicious, larcenous pursuits, often under cover of religious vanity?

There are several known (and unknown) reasons, which go well beyond the scope of this book. One place to look is within the psychiatric diagnoses of “Cluster B” personality disorders: most notably antisocial and narcissistic (as well as borderline and histrionic). 5-6

Another good source is M. Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. You might know Peck, a psychiatrist, from the more well-known books in his The Road Less Traveled series. In People of the Lie he lays out his findings, as a psychotherapist, about the basis of evil in certain persons and how it is manifested in pathological self-serving duplicity and other antisocial behavior.

“Another reaction that the evil frequently engender in us [is] confusion. … Lies confuse. The evil are ‘the people of the lie,’ deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception. …

“It is necessary that we first draw the distinction between evil and ordinary sin. It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistency and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it … their absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness. …

“A predominant characteristic … is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. … Scapegoating works through a mechanism psychiatrists call projection. … When they are in conflict with the world, they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault … They project their own evil onto the world.” 5-7

(— M. Scott Peck, MD)

Always Room for Self-Improvement

Q: I’ve heard a lot about this new concept of “mindfulness” recently. What’s it all about?

A: Mindfulness principles are rooted in ancient Eastern religious and philosophical traditions that have been appropriated (and watered-down) by Western culture. The primary element is a focus on the present to minimize 1) stress and negative thinking often associated with one’s past, and 2) worry and anxiety often surrounding speculation about one’s future. This can be achieved through a variety of mindfulness meditations or simply a mindfulness outlook.

In this vein of self-improvement, we highly recommend the 1999 book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment 5-8 by Eckhart Tolle. Before mindfulness was a superstar, Tolle melded Eastern and Western principles for a powerful guide to spiritual focus on the present, the now, and recovery from dysfunctional pasts. Many people have found great comfort and improved their lives and relationships through exposure to The Power of Now.

Q: I had a relatively good childhood. I’m having a relatively happy, well-adjusted adulthood. Am I out of the ordinary?

A: No. At least not in our view. We don’t believe most families are dysfunctional to the point of severe emotional disability. Our view is that most families are relatively healthy and functional. Of course, most only requires 50% plus one.

There’s always a spectrum of dysfunction — it’s not all good or all bad, fully healthy or totally sick. This is another way of saying perfection doesn’t exist, and a moderate amount of negative behavior does not preclude a family from being relatively healthy. Besides, life would be pretty boring if we didn’t have one or two “characters” among our relatives, those people with a few quirky traits.

An internet search on dysfunctional families will turn up a list of entries purporting to state the percentage of households that are dysfunctional. A commonly mentioned range is 70-80%, which seems to have originated from Terence T. Gorski’s 1993 book, Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy.

The CDC looks at it with more nuance, measuring a select array of ACEs, i.e., adverse childhood experiences (parental abuse, neglect, chemical dependency, etc.), in each person’s history. It states that 1 in 6 adults have experienced four or more types of ACEs. Does this stipulate “dysfunction”? Not automatically. But often likely to some extent. An ACE score is the sum of a person’s “yes” answers to a series of 10 questions about individual families of origin. Even one “yes” is associated with significantly higher rates of chemical dependency and other problem behaviors. Additional factors would include the intensity of ACEs and the amount of support a child might have had to offset their impact. 5-9

Here’s the point: There’s a wide spectrum of ACE effects on adulthood. A mild case of temporary victim mentality or low self-esteem is a far cry from major depression or perpetuating persistent rageaholism toward your children. We urge you to follow the premise of this book: Wherever you are on the spectrum, commit to moving forward from there on the road of self-improvement. 

Q: OK, I’ve read the full draft of this book. The first half is about all us “dysfunctionals.” In the second half there’s a lot of focus on “be the best you can be,” so to speak. The authors seem to be telling readers, “be the best you can be, like us — we’re perfect, and now we’ll show you all how to fix yourselves and be perfect.” Do they always live up to every positive point they expound on? 

A: I can research and learn methods to improve my batting average without always batting a (perfect) thousand (1.000) — or five hundred (.500) — or two-fifty (.250). This applies whether I’m a professional baseball player or an after-work softball league participant.

This author is far from perfect, having grown up with more than my fair share of dysfunction. In fact I’ve recently come face-to-face with several glaring personal imperfections that have tried my marriage. These came to a head this year, and I was presented with two choices: 1) I could have activated my stubborn denial mechanism and said take me or leave me as I am; or 2) I could have employed mental agility and critical thinking (examining personal biases and assumptions), components of cognitive behavioral therapy (examining distortions in thinking and emotions), the wisdom to realize how much I don’t know, humility and mistake admission, acceptance, balance, compromise, conflict resolution, creativity, flexibility, listening — and above all, the desire to self-improve by using these principles.

I chose No. 2.

And those issues were just a sample of more faults that surely will continue to bubble up within me. When they do, I always have a choice: Door No. 1 or Door No. 2.

I’m thankful for the information I’ve learned, researched, and been blessed with enough to possibly pass on to others. I now know that, though it takes effort, Door No. 2 exists, that a path to greater personal rewards, increased well-being — and an improved batting average — exists.■


[Tom Ersin holds degrees in communications and counseling. He’s examined long-term dysfunction from both sides of the counselor-client relationship and from within his own nuclear and extended families.] Click here to purchase book. Please leave a rating.