Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with heart-pounding anxiety, fearful of “losing” a person that you love? If so, then you probably know the pain of dysfunctional relationships firsthand.

In dysfunctional relationships, fear is the force behind the wheel. Since we’re afraid of loss and isolation, we let other people take us to places that we don’t want to go. We abdicate our power, pretending that we don’t have the authority to lead our own lives.

As author Sam Keen writes, “There are two questions a man must ask himself: The first is ‘Where am I going?’ and the second is ‘Who will go with me?’ If you ever get these questions in the wrong order you are in trouble.”

What are Dysfunctional Relationships?

Dysfunctional relationships are connections that aren’t healthy, normative, or life-giving. They’re the ones that you complain about to friends and family, the ones that contain too much drama, trauma, and heartbreak.

Often, dysfunctional relationships are the catalysts that prompt people to seek help from counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals.

The term “dysfunctional relationships” represents a larger category of unhealthy dynamics, including:

  • Addictive relationships or love addiction, which Wikipedia defines as “pathological, passion-related behavior involving the feeling of being in love”
  • Codependent relationships, which Mental Health America describes as “relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.”

Dysfunctional family systems are those with shame-based systems and unhealthy, often-unspoken rules, such as:

  • If you point out a problem, you become the problem.
  • You are not allowed to need or want anything.
  • You are not allowed to feel sad, mad, or scared.
  • You must always put other people first.
  • You must put up with abusive behavior.
  • You must keep family secrets and avoid confrontation at all costs.
  • You must not have opinions or desires that differ from other family members.

Recovering from family dysfunction requires you to take a long look at multi-generational, limiting beliefs and behaviors. It means understanding the family dynamics that you learned from infancy, choosing which work and which don’t, and then growing to become the person you want to be.

The Connection Between Addiction and Dysfunctional Relationships

Dysfunctional relationships both contribute to and result from substance addiction.

First, we know that shame and addiction often go together. Dysfunctional relationships that are shame-based reinforce the belief that there’s something wrong with us … and the pain of that belief then leads us to use.

Second, the pain of dysfunctional relationships is often a significant component in trauma, loss, and despair … the underlying core issues that precipitate substance abuse.

Further, the realities of drug abuse render healthy relationships impossible. After all, if you’re constantly numbing out and hurting yourself through the use of drugs, how can you possibly show up and connect with another person in a functional, healthy way?

Several scientific studies highlight on the link between addiction and dysfunctional relationships. In a study published through NIH (National Institute of Health), researchers wrote that, “Greater degrees of family dysfunction in the areas of affective responsiveness and role functioning were associated with higher levels of substance abuse.” (1)

Translation: the more dysfunctional the family, the more likely teens were to exhibit severe drug abuse.

This makes sense given that, as Johann Hari noted in his TED talk, Everything You Know About Addiction Is Wrong:

“…If you can’t [bond and connect with other humans], because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief …. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

How to Heal Dysfunctional Relationships

Healing from dysfunctional relationships involves two major moves.

First, you need to work on the mental level, examining your thoughts, judgments, and limiting beliefs. Some great therapeutic techniques that can help with this are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Therapy (RET).

Next, you also need to work on the emotional level. You need to learn how to offer yourself love, compassion, and unconditional acceptance. You need to become your own best ally and advocate, rather than attempting to coerce or manipulate other people into caring for you.

Some powerful counseling strategies to help in this effort are:

  • Object Relations therapy: a way to heal underlying emotional wounds through the therapist-to-client bond (and then, ideally, teaching the client create an adult-to-child bond within themselves)
  • Gestalt therapy: a way of healing traumatic experiences from our past by engaging with the parts of ourselves that are hurting; often done by mentally putting people or aspects “in the chair” and working to complete your unfinished business with them
  • Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP): a way of working with the various aspects of our personality to heal our internal and external conflicts.

If substance abuse is involved, our experience suggests that holistic addiction treatment – encompassing all four levels of self – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – is the most effective approach.

Take Care of Yourself First

If you have a dual diagnosis of substance addiction and a mental health concern, finding professional, holistic treatment is imperative for your recovery.

Here are a few potential action steps to take today:

Learning to take care of yourself first will empower you to choose healthy, functional relationships … to define both where you are going and who will go with you on the way.

  1. Family dysfunction and alcohol and drug use in adolescent psychiatric inpatients