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