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Articles - Marital Problems in the Family - Business

Addiction 'conspiracy' of silence hurts the family and business

Friday, September 06, 2002




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Every night at about 10:30 or 11:00 the fighting would start and carry on for two to three hours or more until the couple got so tired they just fell asleep. This was the culmination of a long day at the office where Joan and Jack, wife and husband, worked side-by-side running their successful business.

By the end of the workday Joan frequently wanted to stop off at a bar for a drink to "unwind" before heading for home to dinner. Jack, in a separate car would go home, relieve the babysitter, and start dinner. When his wife got home she was relaxed and cheerful, the alcohol having taken the edge off of the day's stress. Two more glasses of wine at dinner contributed to her changing personality.

As the evening progressed, Jack would busy himself with settling the children down for the evening. He didn't mind doing most of the domestic chores because he understood that Joan didn't have as much physical stamina as he. When it was time to give the children a good night kiss, he would call to their mother, whom he often found napping on the couch.

A couple more drinks later Joan was no longer napping, no longer cheerful. Her irritability was growing. Dumbfounded, Jack could not figure out why she was mad at him. The accusations started flying, defensive walls shot up and the arguing would escalate to unreasonable and irrational proportions.

Alcoholism and other drug abuse is an epidemic in our country. We are all aware of the general problem nationwide. There are numerous programs in our schools to prevent drug abuse among our youth. The courts are less and less tolerant of alcohol related traffic infractions. Celebrities have established treatment programs to sober up movie stars and politicians.

Many employers are taking a hard look at the problems caused by drug abuse and alcohol addiction. Employers recognize the loss attributable to drugs in terms of lowered production, increased accidents, lower quality work, and loss of skilled employees. They have established employee assistance programs and redesigned insurance benefits to create treatment options for employees. These programs not only treat the addict, but the family as well because it is the strength of the family that determines the addict's success in treatment.

The concern reaches to the highest levels in most companies. Whether the employee is the president or the line worker, today's employers are cracking down on drug abuse. No one is allowed to jeopardize the welfare of the company or fellow workers by engaging in dangerous addictive behavior. But the goal is not punishment. Instead, employers want to rehabilitate and return a healthy employee to the job.

Yet among family firms, drug addiction and alcohol abuse are frequently overlooked. Many people who have worked in family firms, yet are not family members, talk about the "secret" at work. The secret that everyone knows is that there is a family member who is addicted or engaging in drug or alcohol abuse, yet no one is to talk about it. The family member is protected not only by the family, but also by a general conspiracy among employees.

In previous columns I have explained how this conspiracy comes to be. The function of the family is to nurture and protect its members. This function is alive and well in a family firm, and usually takes precedence over the welfare of the business or other non-family related employees. This is a rule that families have followed since the beginning of human civilization, and therefore is not likely to change.

If there is an alcoholic in a family firm, be they founder, spouse, son, daughter, or in-law, the family is likely to overlook, condone, deny, rationalize or minimize the problem for the sake of keeping the family system in tact. If the founder is alcoholic, alcoholism may be a family "tradition" that will be hard to break. That is, drinking may be interwoven into the fabric of family life and corporate life.

Leaders in family firms have a tough job. They must weigh the success of the business against the needs of the family. Allowing addictions to go untreated is no way to take care of either the business or the family. By ignoring the problem the addict accepts this as tacit approval of their behavior. And by ignoring the problem, the potential threat to the integrity of the family and business grows. Alcoholism and other addictions leads to the breakdown of the family, just what a family firm wants to avoid.

What can help members of the family firm address these problems is to consider that the addict is fortunate to have the backing of both his/her family as well as his/her business. With the support of the two most important systems in one's life, the addict has increased potential to succeed in treatment. They have a loving family and they have a job to come back to.

Another thing to consider is that everyone in the family has to support the decision to confront the addict and to seek family therapy with them. If there are dissenters, the addict will solicit allies to defend their continued drug abuse. While it is painful to acknowledge one's own addiction, it may be even harder to acknowledge the addiction of a loved one. Often family members feel helpless in the face of the overwhelming problems caused by addiction. Therefore, the "enable " the addict rather than face the problem squarely in the eye.

To deal with the humiliation of recognizing that a family member is alcoholic, education will help. Professional treatment centers emphasize that alcoholism and drug abuse are best understood as diseases. That is, the disease of alcoholism affect the personality in ways that change the one we love. While the alcoholic cannot help that they have a disease (many alcoholics are genetically predisposed to alcoholism), they must be held accountable for their actions. They must be confronted with their irresponsible and manipulative behavior so that they can change it. With professional treatment and ongoing support, they can be returned to their former productive and loving lives.

To learn more, contact Alcoholics Anonymous. They are listed in the telephone directory or you can go to their website -www.alcoholics-anonymous.org. You can also visit www.self-helpcentral.com to find recommended books on the subject.

In any case, if you are a member of a family firm, and you suspect a family member of addiction, do something now. You may the be the only one willing to take the risk to expose the family "secret." But once the secret is out, trust the strength of the family to meet the challenge of recovery. Families are forever, after all.