Reflections on alcohol use and potential misuse in self and family

drinks glassIt is useful to be curious about patterns of drinking and temperance in our families of origin; and to reflect on one’s own potential to use alcohol as a coping mechanism (or alternatively to be vigilant about monitoring another’s drinking) when stress is running high. This is certainly a pattern in our broader society that interacts with family patterns.

(a similar version of this blog was published by The Family Systems Institute in conjunction with its conference on Addictions & the Family System))

After a busy, quite stressful work day a colleague said to me: What you need is a glass of wine; it got me thinking about the accepted link between a drink and stress relief in our society. I enjoy a good wine and wonder about what goes into turning this into a drinking problem? Some reflections on my family of origin shed some light on patterns of dealing with anxiety that may turn a flavoursome beverage into an addictive substance.

Many families can look back over the generations and see that there have been people who have been over reliant on alcohol. Certainly in my own family the consumption of alcohol is an interesting theme. My mother came from a strict Methodist family where alcohol was viewed as a social evil. The Methodist church of her day was strongly connected to the temperance union. I recall my mother organising church events where the Women’s Christian Temperance Union demonstrated mixing a range of non-alcoholic cocktails. I have wondered if there is anywhere in the preceding generations, where reaction to someone’s alcohol problem may have intensified the transmission of her strong stance. I’m aware that these polarities often flip flop between generations.

When my parents married in the 1950s my father agreed to my mothers’ wish that alcohol would not be consumed in our home.  I assume that my father would drink when at outside social and community events, such as rotary club dinners. It was interesting that when I first was introduced to alcohol late in high school I declared to my parents that I thought that Cinzano and Coke was a great cultural discovery!  As the child who was most aligned with my mother I think my father sensed that my endorsement of alcohol provided a path to introducing liquor into our home. My Dad bought me some Cinzano Rosso and we would share a drink together on the weekend in front of the rugby (football) – me with my Cinzano and Coke and him with a beer – and other siblings where then included.  It is so interesting that this triangle alliance with my mother enabled my father to bypass his earlier marriage accommodation. As far as I could ascertain, my mother did not protest.  When my mother died of cancer in her early 50s my father was quick to purchase and set up his own bar in the family lounge room. It became his pride and joy and gave him a way to entertain his friends and his young adult children & our friends.

After my mother’s very painful death, my father started to introduce his own preferences to the family home. He complimented his bar with a fancy flashing light 1980’s sound system. I don’t recall that this resulted in any drunkenness at home but as the years progressed I could observe that evening glasses of whiskey became a coping mechanism for my Dad in the midst of the ongoing shock wave of grief. This would have been compounded by the avoidant way our family dealt with our mother’s illness and death. The tendency to over drink was clearly a way of managing ‘closed in’ emotions and the effects of distance to cope with grief. This was certainly part of our family vulnerability with some members more at risk than others.

It is useful to be curious about patterns of drinking and temperance in our families of origin; and to reflect on one’s own potential to use alcohol as a coping mechanism (or alternatively to be vigilant about monitoring another’s drinking) when stress is running high. This is certainly a pattern in our broader society that interacts with family patterns.

I reflect on the way my parent’s marriage did not allow for each spouse to have a different view on drinking and to allow room for variance while also respecting each other. Often the more pressure for sameness in a family, the greater the likelihood of anxiety getting attached to any issue where difference isn’t tolerated. Reactivity is not to be confused with open communication of self in a relationship. Maturity can be expressed in a willingness to take a position on concerning levels of drinking and the effect it has on the relationship. Reactivity, on the other hand, may be expressed as attacking, gossiping about and/ or avoiding of another’s drinking patterns.

Being mindful of the sensitivity attached to alcohol use in my family of origin helps to alert me to the potential reactivity around it.  Maintaining a proportionate stance towards drinking will remain important for me.

* Note : Just as Bowen theory places levels of maturity on a continuum, levels of problem drinking sit on a spectrum. From drinking as a compliment to food and as a proportionate part of social gatherings, to the next level of also using it to reduce stress but not over drinking, to stress relief and some over drinking, to episodic binges when stress (especially in relationships) is high, to chronic dependence. The relationship system plays a key part in intensifying and in reducing the conditions that lead to addiction.

Questions for reflection:

  • What were the patterns of alcohol use in my family growing up?
  • How does a person get a balanced view of alcohol consumption? Or if making a choice not to consume alcohol how can they not become reactive to those who chose to drink? (this judgement/blaming of the drinker or non- drinker may be a sign of unhealthy reactivity that only serves to stir up challenges in the relationship)
  • How does one learn to deal with relationship stress more openly and directly so that there is reduced propensity to resort to substance use (or other potentially addictive anxiety management mechanisms)?

Relevant quotes from Dr M Bowen

Bowen’s first research interest was with chronic alcoholism. He has some fascinating observations about alcohol use in the family. Bowen doesn’t discount the role of biology and genetics in the vulnerability to symptom development but he does see that openness versus anxiousness in family relationships plays an important part in whether or not an individual develops a symptom such as alcoholism; and whether or not it becomes fixed.  The way a person manages their relationship with their parents in leaving home is considered an important part of how the adult manages in life.

Bowen writes:

“From a systems viewpoint, alcoholism is one of the common human dysfunctions. As a dysfunction, it exists in the context of an imbalance in functioning in the total family system. ….every important family member plays a part in the dysfunction of the dysfunctional member.” FTCP p 262

“Systems theory assumes that all important people in the family unit play a part in the way family members function in relation to each other and in the way the symptom finally erupts….The symptom of excessive drinking occurs when family anxiety is high…. The higher the anxiety, the more family members react by anxiously doing more of what they are already doing.” FTCP p 259

Quotes from Ch. 12: Alcoholism and the Family (1974) in Family Therapy and Clinical Practice. 1978 Jason Aronnson.

From Dr M. Kerr, One families Story

On the pattern of one spouse giving way to the other to preserve harmony:

“One spouse pressures the other to think and act in certain ways and the other yields to the pressure. Both spouses accommodate to preserve harmony, but one does more of it. The interaction is comfortable for both people up to a point, but if family tension rises further, the subordinate spouse may yield so much self-control that his or her anxiety increases significantly. The anxiety fuels, if other necessary factors are present, the development of a psychiatric, medical, or social dysfunction.”


“Reflections on alcohol use and potential misuse in self and family” – Jenny Brown


Making room for distress in relationships

 Reflections from a sisters weekend awaysisters weekend

“I could appreciate that our family has made some genuine progress. To be able to tolerate the stirred up emotions of another’s upset and not respond in ways that swiftly shut it down is very different to the way we grew up.”

It was jarring witnessing one of my 3 sisters’ breaking down in tears as we shared breakfast together. I felt my heart rate escalate in readiness to do my automatic smooth things over. On this occasion however, I managed to restrain my impulse and join my others sisters in acknowledging her hurt. I could then observe how this gave her space to be in charge of what she needed to do for herself at that moment.

Let me explain the context. I was away for a rare weekend break with my 3 sisters in a charming rural setting outside of Sydney. We had relished a relaxed time of walking, chatting, reminiscing, laughing, country store shopping, and cooking up some great food to match our wine selections. On the Sunday morning I’d suggested listening to a pod cast and had randomly chosen one from a site I follow that linked to the theme of mother’s day (which coincided with our weekend). I had thought it might be interesting to reflect on our own mother, who we’d lost some 30+ years earlier; and I also hoped that this post would add some helpful Sunday faith reflection. The message went straight to interviews of mother’s talking about their deep intimate experience of their baby’s expressed love and dependence. For my dear sister, who has lived the complex heartache of infertility, this touched on a raw and deep grief; and through tears she asked that we stop the tape saying it was too painful for her to continue listening.

I immediately felt foolish and insensitive at my contribution to her upset. It would have been easy for me to try to compensate for this by lots of apologising and quickly moving the conversation and activity to something cheery. (This would have been the kind of apologising that was driven by wanting to feel better about myself as opposed to genuinely taking responsibility for wrong doing toward another.)  On this occasion I just stayed quite, along with my other sisters, and we listened to an honest insightful description from our sister of her living through extraordinarily challenging times. She was able to describe so many aspects of her life at the time which added an understanding of our whole family system and the different ways we were each impacted by the death of each of our parents while trying to make our way in our adult lives. It revealed her personal journey of coming to faith in the aftermath of suffering, providing a gift of encouragement that no online pod cast could have delivered. After a period of listening and learning I walked over to my sister and gave her a quiet hug. It had been a moment of connecting that would have been missed if any of us had tried to relieve and distract from the expression of pain and loss.

Our family has certainly shifted from our previous ways of dealing with distress. As we were growing up, the jolts of suffering and loss were minimised in an effort to keep going and to survive. As a family we closed up expressing our hurts and fears to each other and took the path of ‘soldiering on’. This happened in the face of grandparents’ deaths, the trauma of our house burning down and of our mother’s excruciating battle with terminal cancer. This closing up conversation in the face of upset was entrenched in the coping patterns of previous generations. It has taken its toll on each of us and our relationships in different ways.

As the years have been on fast forward to this sister’s gathering, I could appreciate that our family has made some genuine progress. To be able to tolerate the stirred up emotions of another’s upset and not respond in ways that swiftly shut it down is very different to the way we grew up. There are many times I see my immaturities when I’m with my original family but on this occasion, each sister contributed to a precious mature space where no one got in another’s way. It was a moment of intimacy and appreciation for the different experiences each has dealt with. The younger sister was trail blazing courageous honesty to her elders (yes elders in sibling position even though in reality our ages are so close we are peers). It was an opportunity for getting to know, at a deeper level, one of our siblings and to show love for each other that would not have been possible with the old pattern of smoothing over another’s distress. Our brother, as the youngest after 4 sisters (tough gig right?!), was in many ways the most vulnerable to the isolation that came from our closed communication about grief. As part of my effort with ALL my siblings, I need to keep working at becoming more open and honest in the way I relate with him.

The growing up lesson for me is to be aware of the old stress reducing family impulses, while at the same time, slowing down the reactions so that conversation can open up. For me it is not making it all about my embarrassment for upsetting another by self-protective apologies; on this occasion it was about learning from another as they had the space to truly express themselves.


Note: I sent this blog to the sister I have written about to as a check that I had represented the situation factually and was not inappropriately crossing privacy boundaries. Her feedback provided a few extra ideas that I included.

Questions for reflection

  • How was distress responded to in the family I grew up in?
  • To what extent did my family system allow open communication from each person about their response to difficult circumstances?
  • What are the signs of closed communication (shutting down, avoiding, distracting, smoothing over, taking over…) in my relationships?
  • How can I practice tolerating the tension in myself when another is expressing strong feelings?
  • Are there ways I am unknowingly preventing others from having the room to speak their experience? Or am I accommodating to others smoothing over my own expression of difficult times?

Relevant Quotes from Bowen:

“An open relationship system is one in which an individual is free to communicate a high percentage of inner thoughts, feelings, and fantasies to another who can reciprocate. No one ever has a completely open relationship with another, but it is a healthy state when a person can have one relationship in which a reasonable of openness is possible.” FTCP p 322

“The closed communication system is an automatic reflex to protect self from the anxiety in the other person., though most people say they avoid the taboo subjects to keep form upsetting the other person. “ p 322

“From family research we have learned that the higher the level of anxiety and symptoms in a family, the more the family members are emotionally isolated from each other. The greater the isolation, the lower the level of responsible communication between family members and the higher the level of irresponsible underground gossip about each other in the family and the confiding of secrets to those outside of the family.” P 291


“Making room for distress in relationships:  Reflections from a sisters weekend away” – Jenny Brown