HEALTHY DETACHMENT & UNHEALTHY AVOIDANCE:
FAMILY COMMUNICATION STYLES
When we work with families affected by substance use disorder, we make sure to address the topic of communication in our sessions. While there are many different communication styles, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to communicate during times of chron-ic stress. When it comes to substance use disorder, your loved one who is suffering from the disease can be in a state of complete mental upheaval. If your family and the people close to him/her have experienced this type of behavior for years, you and your family’s mental state can be severely affected as well. Learning the difference between healthy detachment and unhealthy avoidance will help improve the relationship and quality of communication between your family members in a system that is still influenced by substance use disorder.
Your body is made up of an incredibly complex system of networks that are designed to help keep you alive. Paying attention to how stressed that system is will be the deciding factor when it comes to handling emotionally-intense situations. Unfortunately, your frontal cortex – which is responsible for impulsivity and decision making – is essentially in disrepair (just like the addict’s). For the addict, your brain begins to think that it cannot survive without the substance. For the family members, it can create unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns.
This is why we call addiction a family disease. Dealing with misgivings about your own behavior or the behavior of a loved one can be difﬁcult, especially when you are close and emotionally invested to the people around you or the addict. However,learning how to communicate in a healthy manner can help repair the relationship between family members.
In our last article [hyperlink to the “how to talk to someone affected by substance use disorder” blog] we discussed how important it is to stay in the 1-5 emotional range to avoid escalation and conflict in a discussion. This de-escalation can help avoid triggering a defen-sive reaction in a person; this is important because emotionally intense confrontations can lead to unhealthy avoidance behaviors such as anger, stonewalling, and blaming. Just like the name suggests, these behaviors lead to avoidance of the problem. Staying calm while addressing a loved one who is refusing to get help or speaking to a loved one who is under the influence can make all the difference between a productive conversation or a slammed door. Depending on how you react, it will either lead you to healthy detachment or unhealthy avoidance.
The bottom line is this: we strongly suggest not to “get drunk” on emotion. This can lead to regrettable things said, damaged trust, resentment, and future apologies. Remind yourself and your loved ones to breathe, and always remember that addiction is a family disease that affects everyone involved – not just the addict.
DETACHMENT VS. AVOIDANCE
What does healthy detachment and unhealthy avoidance look like? These are two different concepts that can look similar. Avoidance – also known as stonewalling – is a maladaptive communication pattern that is synonymous to a cold shoulder. Unhealthy avoidance is when you avoid something indeﬁnitely… as if it didn’t happen. This could be an important conversation, an unsaid apology, or an inter-vention that hasn’t happened yet. It means that no one is speaking their true feelings about the addiction or situation, which convenient-ly keeps the truth out of the situation. The truth can be uncomfortable. On the flip side, healthy detachment essentially means letting go emotionally of the person or situation without ignoring them or avoiding them. Feeling bad or upset about a situation will do little to change the person or situation in question. This doesn’t mean that you have to love anyone in your family less – essentially, detachment is radical acceptance of the idea that you can never truly control another person or their actions.
WHAT DOES AVOIDANCE LOOK LIKE? (AND HOW TO AVOID IT)
Unhealthy avoidance looks like uncomfortable and quiet family breakfasts (or none at all). Unhealthy avoidance is when everyone is
looking at their phones and not speaking with one another – despite the fact that there is a heavy air of tension in the room.
For example, your family could be in the middle of an argument where nothing productive is being said. Perhaps your family is trying to
decide how to handle your loved one who is in the midst of active addiction. One person may be yelling too much, one person may be
trying to dominate the conversation, and another family member may be stonewalling. When emotions are at an all-time high, it is better
to address the same topic the next day, when everyone involved has cooled off. Whoever said “don’t go to bed angry” had it wrong. Go
to bed angry, don’t explode, and do not try to stay up late to “figure out” the situation. You’re not avoiding the subject – you’re postponing
it until the next day.
Get some sleep and try to resolve a stonewalled conversation in the morning when you are well rested and everyone is calm/sober.
Recognize that this subject matter – addiction, dual diagnosis disorders, and interpersonal damage – may be too intense for someone in
active addiction. If you can tell that a conversation is not productive, take a break. Get your wits about you. The following conversation
needs to be about “I” statements, not “you” statements, such as: “I need to take a time-out. I need to take a break from this conversation.
We can revisit this later”. Not, “you are the reason x is happening”.
The issue with stonewallers and people that exhibit avoidant behavior is that they probably don’t believe you are going to come back to
continue the conversation. This is why healthy detachment is so important. It breaks down expectations and can build trust. Tell your
family member that this is about trust building, and emphasize the fact that the topic is important. Come back to it later if it gets too
emotionally intense. However, this will not work if you say “we cannot talk about this because YOU are insensitive/mean (etc.)”. “You”
statements place blame – inadvertently or not – on the other individual, which is why it is best to avoid accusatory language. Stick to “I”
statements and respond with love and kindness to avoid stonewalling. So, what would be the opposite of unhealthy and avoidant
behaviors such as stonewalling?
Healthy detachment means stepping back from the situation. It means trying to solve the bigger problem – which would be a breakdown
in the way your family communicates – instead of proving that you are right. It’s hard not to take things personally, but you have to
understand that your family’s brains are on survival mode just as much as the addict’s brain is. Always wondering where the addict is,
missed phone calls, and sleepless nights have created an unsafe mental environment for the family, and healthy detachment is one of
the ways that families can begin to repair the damage that substance use disorder causes.
So, what do we really have to do when we learn to detach? Wanting to control the circumstances of an event or avoid the situation
entirely is usually a person’s first response. Avoidance can skew our perspective, open us up to hurt, and can place us in a continuous
state of anxiety. Detachment is needed when dealing with a person who has substance use disorder.
If your loved one is going through addiction, it is important to continue doing the healthy things in your life that bring you serenity and
peace of mind. An addict will often experience anhedonia (the feeling of not being able to experience pleasure) during active addiction,
especially when they first get sober. The same thing can happen to family members who are witnessing addiction in the person who
lives in the same home. For example, the intimacy diminishes between spouses when their own child is staying out late and exhibiting
symptoms of substance use disorder. It means less dates, less intimacy, and more stress for everyone involved. Addiction is a family
disorder, which is why we focus heavily on the family when a new client comes in.
Unhealthy avoidance means not dealing with experiences and conversations that happened in the past. Healthy detachment means
trying your best to confront these issues while letting go of the outcome. You can never truly control what another person does – especially
someone who is addicted to a substance. Your safest bet is to always come from a place of love and understanding while setting
healthy boundaries and guidelines.
HEALTHY DETACHMENT BEHAVIORS
Once again, realize that any outcome based around other people is always out of your control, no matter how perfect the plan seems to
be. Learn how to detach. It could be anything from watching a movie and practicing yoga, to walking on the beach or taking a stroll
through nature. Give yourself permission to do these things. There is a difference between selfish and self-care; recognizing the difference
can help keep you stable during times of emotional duress.
If you are able to recognize emotional intensity and use “I” statements to lead conversations, many of your basic relationship problems
may dissolve. Throw in some healthy coping strategies for good measure and you’ll be sure to practice detachment, rather than
unhealthy and avoidant behaviors. On occasion, however, you won’t be able to leave a room, as the person you are face to face with will
not want to end the conversation. So, what can you do?
You can utilize something called DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) for de-escalation. It’s something we educate any family on when
they come through our doors. Here’s one DBT technique, for example: if you were to stop and just name 5 things in the room… a chair, a
dog, an apple, a pencil, and a table, you would find that this can help to mentally de-escalate yourself if you are experiencing intense
feelings of anger or fear (such as trembling “seeing red”, flushing, and increased heart rate). DBT therapy methods are something that
we utilize at The Blanchard Institute due to their efficacy in treating dual-diagnosis disorders.
This is especially important when we deal with clients who are in early recovery, as their frontal cortex is still recovering from months
(or years) of damage due to substance and alcohol use. It’s even more important when we talk with families, as we need to repair the
entire family system, not just the person affected with substance use disorder. It wouldn’t make sense to get the client healthy and then
return them to a dysfunctional household. Recovery from substance use disorder needs to be a group effort.
The thing to keep in mind is this: you are not in control of someone else’s emotions or behaviors. With that being said, there is no way
to know how someone else is going to interpret your behaviors or statements. We have no control over how someone is going to react
to what we say.
When we start operating from a place of love, rather than desire and fear, we can accomplish much more. As hard as it is to detach and
set boundaries, it is one of the healthiest things that families can do to repair the damage done by the disease of addiction. Healthy
detachment looks like: “I love you and I want you to get better, but I cannot continue to support you if you are using drugs in this household.
We are worried and want the best for you”. Clear boundaries are necessary for healthy detachment.
NORTH CAROLINA DUAL DIAGNOSIS SUBSTANCE USE TREATMENT CENTER
The Blanchard Institute is a world-class and individualized dual-diagnosis treatment program provider that treats the roots of substance
use disorder to support a healthy, life-long recovery from addiction. We develop comprehensive treatment recovery plans and instill
knowledge, coping strategies, and healthy behaviors within our clients. We attribute our client’s success to our holistic, mind-body-spirit
approach, which blends individualized treatment modalities and alternative therapies to create a thorough plan of action.
If you or a loved one is ready to address the disease of addiction and support the individual as well as the family system, call us today
at (704) 288-1097