The Dance of the Family Disease of Addiction

The Dance of the Family Disease of Addiction

Families with untreated, unhealthily discussed addiction develop the family disease of addiction. All it takes is one partner to change the dance. If both change and learn the new steps, a new dance is created.

Addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol) affects everyone in the family, which is why it’s commonly referred to as a “family disease” — the family disease of addiction. It causes members of a family to develop coping methods that help them interact with one another because no one really knows , understands and/or is willing to admit, let alone confront, the underlying problem – namely that substance misuse (not the job or the kids or a bad day at the office…) has changed the way a loved one thinks, how they feel, what they say and what they do. I call it, “The Dance.”

To help you more fully understand what I mean by “The Dance,” as well as my suggestions for change, let me first give you some background on one of my own Dance stories…

If a loved one enters a residential treatment program – it usually lasts around 28 days. At the end of treatment, clients are encouraged to go to an SLE – Sober Living Environment. That can be their home (as long as all alcohol has been removed and all persons in the home agree to abstain from drinking), or it can be a treatment center sponsored SLE (usually a home in a residential neighborhood where other clients also reside, along with an employee of the treatment center), or it can be a similar type of a facility.

Now to my experience… [please note, if you’ve been following BTC, much of this is a re-sharing of my originals posts of previous years, “The Dance – Addiction is a Family Disease” and “The Dance – Understanding the Alcoholic / Codependent Relationship.”]


I’d told my loved one of my fears about what might happen if he insisted on coming home as his SLE, instead of following the treatment center’s recommendation and going to one of theirs. Yet, when the time came, he started doing that “thing” he did, and I started doing that “thing” I did. He with that “I’m so sorry” expression, pressing me to let him come to our home instead of a treatment center SLE, to let him do what he wanted — playing on the notion that if I loved him, I would. And there I was acting on my feeling that I needed to somehow make it okay for him because if I loved him, I should. After all, he’d stopped drinking, gone into rehab — what more could I want or expect him to do? But I wasn’t ready. I was scared – what if I didn’t do what he needed done and he relapsed. And I was enjoying not having the constant worry about “what if…”.

It was us doing the “dance” we’d done a thousand times before. That day, I was furious to find myself even considering doing it, again. I erupted!

I erupted from a place so deep — a place where years of broken promises, lies, disappointments and deceit had festered, until this one. . . more. . . tiny. . . little request proved to be the last straw. I erupted because I simply didn’t know how to feel, let alone say, “No, this isn’t right for me. I don’t care if it’s right for you or the man in the moon. It isn’t right for me!

Instead, I was getting it all mixed up in my love for him and my ingrained belief that I had to do what he wanted as a demonstration of that love. I was getting it all mixed up in my belief that not doing so would be selfish on my part and in my world, being selfish was bad, bad, bad. Suddenly, it all came crashing in, and my fury poured out as we engaged one more time in the dance of manipulation we both did so well – a dance choreographed by years of fear, anger, addiction, codependency, and love.

In dancing, it only takes one partner to change the step and thus the entire dance; it may even end the dance. The same is true in a family’s recovery from this family disease of addiction. You see, everyone in the family changes to some extent – they have to in order to cope. But it’s that changing that contributes to the family disease because no one is talking about the truth of the matter (generally because no one fully understands what it is). And that is that addiction — the substance of abuse — has chemically, structurally and functionally changed a loved one’s brain. Therefore, as long as the substance is in the system — that loved one’s brain — there can be no other outcome. What they say, do, think, feel is muddled / clouded by the compromised brain function caused by their disease. Trying to control or work around or adapt to that changed brain is what confounds the family members and causes them to change, as well.

What’s the answer? Stop the DENIAL that substance misuse isn’t the problem — it IS. It’s not the kids, spouse, bad day at the office…. It is substance misuse triggering the embedded, hijacked, addiction-related brain maps and thereby compromised brain functioning. If the addict/alcoholic cannot control their brains while impaired, the family member certainly can’t control their loved one because the brain is what controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does.

It just takes one to stop the dance, to change the steps and start a new dance. But if both change and learn the new steps and practice those steps, together, a new dance is created. Sometimes one or both will go back to the old one – that’s normal – it’s what is most comfortable; it’s what they’ve practiced for years. But a new dance is possible. It may be together; it may be solo, but it is possible. It takes learning the new steps, and it takes a lot of practice.

Suggestions for partners (addict/alcoholic, parent, spouse, child, sibling) wanting to change their dance:

  1. Accept that addiction (whether it’s to drugs or alcohol) is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. It is not a moral weakness, nor a shameful lack of willpower. It is generally a misunderstood disease that often goes undiagnosed for some time. Until diagnosed and treated, it causes the person with the disease to act and behave in ways they normally would not act or behave because of the chemical, structural and functional changes in the brain caused by the disease.
  2. Accept that your partner (or you) has/have the disease.
  3. Accept that the partner dealing their addict/alcoholic partner’s undiagnosed, misunderstood, unhealthily discussed brain disease has suffered their own brain and physical changes (aka the health consequences of secondhand drinking); brain and physical changes that must also be addressed and/or treated, if necessary.
  4. Understand that healing the brain disease is complicated and takes time but there are many, many options for doing so.
  5. Do not look to one another for help, otherwise you will pick up your old dance. Seek individual help (there’s plenty of time for partners’ help down the line once everyone is more settled in their individual recovery) and do what you can immediately to start healing your brain: nutritional eating, exercise, adequate sleep, mindfulness practices. If necessary, get therapy with a professional who is an addictions specialist around any underlying issues, such as childhood trauma or mental illness.
  6. Most importantly – Relax. Breathe. It takes time, but there is great joy to be had in moments of every day. Just remember, you’re learning new steps, a new dance. It will take practice, but the learning and practice can be interesting, fun, engaging… as well as life-changing along the way.

My book, Loved One In Treatment? Now What!, provides more detail and implementation suggestions on all of these concepts (and it’s just over 100 pages, so it’s a relatively quick read!).

© 2012 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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37 Responses to The Dance of the Family Disease of Addiction

  1. Thanks for the valuable ” Suggestions for partners (addict/alcoholic, parent, spouse, child, sibling) wanting to change their dance.” I didn’t have such tools when I was a child to deal with a family member who was addicted to alcohol. This article is priceless! I am sure anyone reading it, will find it helpful.

  2. Olga Hermans says:

    Great information, I remember the years in our family that my sister was anorexia plus alcoholic and how helpless we felt to really help. All we did was ponting to her what was wrong with her, what of course never helped her…wished I had the info that you gave us today back then!!

    • I can so relate to what you say — I did the same things with my loved ones who were alcoholics — I am so grateful there is finally the research that can explain this disease and help us all to let go of the blaming and shaming. Thanks so much for adding your comment, Olga!

  3. Martha Giffen says:

    This is such a valuable post for anyone trying to deal with an alcoholic/addict. I speak from experience. With the help of Alanon, I have come to understand the dangers of the “dance.” The whole family has the sickness, even if you are the sober one. You bring that out so well. I am passing this post on to others I think will benefit. Thank you.

    • AlAnon was a great help to me, too, and I find the daily readers (Courage to Change, Hope for Today) a tremendous help, as well. I’m so glad you found the help you needed and thanks for passing this along to others who may benefit from reading it. Take care!

  4. this is great Lisa. I came from a home with an alcoholic father that was be tired and ill at the table every night. Food and criticism blurred. The dance.. my dad was just tired and it was okay for he to say we had not measured up. Overlook it.. he worked hard for us. I see it and also know it’s where I get enraged from criticism constructive or not because I got way more than I deserved. Very nice Lisa!

    • Oh boy do I remember those kinds of dinners — absolutely crazy making. And often the non-drinking adult adds to the confusion because they’re in their own denial or trying to manipulate the situation either through anger or being super nice and forgiving or _____________, so as a kid you’re in the middle, bouncing between the two “moods,” chasing the constantly moving target of “good enough.” I’ve found this new brain research on addiction as a brain disease, as well as on the brain changes for the non-drinking family members caused by the chronic stress of trying to cope with the disease-changed brain, incredibly helpful. Thanks so much for your comment, Elizabeth. Take care!

  5. This is great information for the family and I love the metaphor. “It just takes one to stop the dance, to change the steps and start a new dance” was an important line, really reinforcing the idea that it’s not all about the addict/alcoholic. Thanks for the great work that you do, Lisa.

    • You are absolutely right — it’s not all about the addict/alcoholic. In fact, the non-drinking family member can be just as destructive – myself, I was a martyr extraordinaire — I felt entitled to my righteous indignation and could rattle of lists upon lists of all that had been done to me. And in my craziness, I was desperate to control something so tried to control my daughters — “I was the parent, after all.” I am forever grateful for the excellent therapy I received with an addictions specialist, this new brain and addiction-related research, wonderful daughters [with whom I now have a very healthy, respectful relationship], terrific family and friends, faith and long, long hikes and lap swimming that have made it possible for me to finally accept my role in The Dance. Thank you so much for your comment. Take care!

  6. Karen P says:

    Lisa, I was blessed to not have grown up in a home with someone who had an addiction, but I do know that I have family members that are addicted. Your post is going to touch so many people. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Brilliant post on how the disease of alcohol affects everyone in the family. As I read through this I had flashbacks to when my husband decided to drink again. After years of sobriety and being blessed with another chance at marriage and family, alcoholism took its grip. It was a nightmare I have no wish to repeat.
    Our dance was ‘the tippy-toe’ dance! Despite all my knowledge of enabling, addiction, recovery it didn’t take long for me to be sucked into my husband’s disease where my main coping mechanism was to tippy toe around him to keep the peace at all costs.
    It wasn’t just physically keeping out of his way or literally tip-toeing around the house so’s not to wake him, it was emotionally too. I didn’t dare talk about alcohol on any level and I avoided confrontation at all costs.
    Eventually I reached out for help and we managed to get back to life without alcohol. But one thing is for sure, if it happens again my husband knows that will be dancing by himself!

    • I LOVE your description of the “tippy-toe dance!!” I remember that one, too. I had a similar experience with one of my loved ones who’d been sober for 11 years (6 of those years in AA) and decided he could drink again — just one now and then. And that made perfect sense to me because he’d not had anything to drink for 11 years. Just like your husband, it wasn’t long before he was back into his alcoholism full-swing. And, that’s the part of this disease I did not understand at the time — that addiction (whether it’s to drugs or alcohol) is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease because “logic” would say he/she can control it this time but the person doesn’t understand that any amount of the substance will jump-start all their embedded (though in remission, so-to-speak) brain maps around the addiction. If they drink (or use their drug), it may work for a short while, but it won’t be long before it’s “off to the races,” as they say. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been able to save myself years of grief trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Carolyn!!!

  8. Marie Leslie says:

    what a great post. While I have never had to live in a home with someone addicted to drugs or alcohol, this applies to so many more family issues that don’t really get addressed or resolved. I can see much of this in my own history–and in the changes I need to make myself.

    • You are absolutely right, Marie. It applies to any of the many elephants that live in people’s living rooms — such as undiagnosed, unhealthily discussed, misunderstood mental illness or a family member’s serious health illness or domestic violence or ….. It’s any condition that causes family members – especially children – to forgo their needs and deny their truth in order to support the system which is trying to accommodate the person with the “problem,” without ever honestly talking or sharing feelings about the problem. Not that anyone does this out of deliberate malice — they just don’t know how! Children, in turn, wire neural networks around those coping mechanisms, which often sets them up to marry or get involved in relationships that mirror those they grew up with — even though they’d NEVER have dreamed nor planned to do such a thing. Thanks so much for reading and adding your comment!!

  9. Anita says:

    I agree that addiction does have a huge impact on families, but as I have overcome a few addictions myself, including alcoholism..I was never sold on the idea it is was disease…OR the labeling of people…I tell folks I had a problem with alcohol now and I never label myself anymore :)….But that a long going debate of many.. 🙂

    • Wonderful that you have overcome your alcoholism, Anita, and as they say, “whatever works.” There is no one or right way to view or treat this. I have a problem with labeling people, myself. I do believe in the disease research, so in my work, I help addicts/alcoholics and their families appreciate the addict/alcoholic is a person who has the brain disease of addiction, they are not their addiction — just as someone with cancer is not a canceric. Rather the person with cancer is a person with the disease of cancer and their best chance for recovery (remission) requires doing whatever s/he can to treat their disease. Thanks so much for adding your comment!

  10. Susan Myers says:

    Very touching Lisa. I have a family member who is addicted to drugs and I couldn’t agree with you more on “the dance” and all the reasons behind doing it for this person. I have bookmarked your site, as I know I will need to read more of your information.

    • I’m sorry to hear you have a family member with addiction, Susan. It is so pervasive — we often don’t realize just how many families are affected. I’m glad you found this post helpful and have bookmarked my site. Take care and thanks for commenting!

  11. Lisa, this is such a powerful article. I loved the tip “Do not look to one another for help, otherwise you will pick up your old dance. Seek individual help (there’s plenty of time for partners’ help down the line once everyone is more settled in their individual recovery) and do what you can immediately to start healing your brain: nutritional eating, exercise, adequate sleep, mindfulness practices. ” It takes outside support and help to make such a huge change in your life. Thank you!

  12. Solvita says:

    “Accept that addiction (whether it’s to drugs or alcohol) is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. It is not a moral weakness, nor a shameful lack of willpower.” This is what people often are not aware of. It is so complicated and not that simple. Thank you for the great information Lisa!

    • You are so right, Solvita! Although with the addicts/alcoholics and family members with whom I work, their learning the “mechanics,” if you will, of how substances hijack the brain, how the brain embeds brain maps around the addiction – which is part of what makes the disease relapsing, the contributing risk factors to developing the disease, how family members embed brain maps around the chronically activated fight-or-flight stress response system and what it takes to for all concerned to heal (re-wire) their brains is proving hugely helpful. I know that sounds like a whole lot of complicated understanding, but when it’s simplified, it really can/does help. Thanks so much for reading and adding your comment!!

  13. Thank you, Lisa for sharing this Amazing post! When you spoke of the ‘Dance’ it hit home for me, as I remember too well doing that dance for almost 23 years when I was married to my ex who is an alcoholic. When I finally left, I had all but a thumbnail of who I was, for I had done the Dance way too long. I am so grateful that I left and was able to heal and then grow into the person that I am today.

    • I’m so sorry you went through the decline of the Dance for so long. I admire the incredible courage and strength you have in order to have pulled yourself out and heal yourself to become the person you were meant to be and then to go on to create your successful business as a mindset motivator, speaker and relationship builder. What an inspiration! Thanks for reading and adding your comment.

  14. Sharon O'Day says:

    As I read your article and the comments below it, I realize how fortunate I am to have grown up in an environment free of addiction. We had our own dysfunctions … all families have something … but I was spared having to do the Dance. Keep doing what you’re doing, Lisa! Priceless.

  15. Mary Pougnet says:

    Lisa, after reading all the comments I doubt there is much more I can add. It’s all excellent; I relate … oh so well, as a child I never knew if I’d be alive come morning. I can still say to myself ‘come on Mary, there must have been some ‘normal’ nights in there’. Not in my memory bank, none that I’m consciously aware of. I was able to tell if my dad had even sniffed a bottle top, his addiction and brain were so entwined. Years later, I realized I’d married someone with his own addictions, including alcohol, repeating the cycle once again. No longer, that’s over for me. I applaud what you are sharing, not always easy in a public forum, yet always worthwhile. The more hearts you touch, the more you educate, the more you help. Thank you for sharing a wonderful post:)

    • Oh Mary… it sounds like your experience was especially horrific. I’m so glad you’ve found your way out. Thank you so much for reading and adding your comment. Take care!!

  16. Great information on addiction and its affects on the entire family. Acceptance is so important on so many levels. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Laura says:

    Thank you for this article! It took me 30 years to finally walk away from a family of addicts (everything from alcohol to prescription meds to food and all things in between). Not ONE of them is willing to speak to their addiction issues, yet it is clearly prevalent throughout generations. Now that I have divorced the addict to whom I was married, I have become “the bad guy” – I have been demonized, vilified, rejected, cut off. It hurts more than I can say, but I do not regret leaving their family dance. Now I pray for them ALL to get some help!

    • Laura – I’m so sorry that’s been your experience. It takes great courage to walk away from the family dance, but when the disease is not acknowledged, let alone treated, trying to convince, argue with or control a brain (brains), whose functioning is compromised – changed – by the nature of the disease of addiction, staying is impossible if one wants to live an enjoyable life. And in continuing to try, the family member suffers brain changes – therefore quality of life changes, as well. It is terribly, terribly painful to walk away, to be shunned, demonized, vilified and rejected. Unfortunately – that’s what their brains tell them they need to do — shun, demonize, vilify and reject — it’s the only way they can continue in their disease. That does not minimize your pain, to be sure, but perhaps it helps to know it’s not you or the “real” them, it’s the consequence of this brain disease. Thank you so very much for sharing your experience!!

  18. Elizabeth Everett says:

    Im a drug addict in the beginning stages of medication based recovery. My husband of 17 yrs has moved out of our home and refuses to accept that I haven’t had control over my choices.We also have a 13 YR old daughter. He’s under the misguided believe that if I loved him I would of stopped. How can I convince him I had no control? He’s hurt and very resentful very angry! HELP!!!

  19. […] The Dance of the Family Disease of Addiction and that you’ve been deeply changed, too – check out The Brain and the Secondhand Drinking […]

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