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The Dysfunctional Family Dynamic

by Landmark Recovery

August 30, 2020
A family watching the sunset together on the beach


Family is complicated, especially when figuring out your own family dynamic. This is a sentiment that everyone can relate to, but none more so than those who struggle with addiction.


Unfortunately, for an addicted person, the dysfunctional family dynamic exists in the present and in the past. Though we don’t want to admit it, the struggle of coping with addiction isn’t isolated to the addicted person; it affects everyone in their immediate reality, including family, friends, and coworkers.


It can be excruciating for a family to suffer under the burden of substance abuse. Not only does the addicted individual experience mental, physical, and emotional anguish, their loved ones must watch them deteriorate and make poor choices. Sadly, it would seem that misery and dysfunction are contagious.


Today, we’re going to look at roles in the dysfunctional family.


The Six-Figure Model

In addiction research, there is a model that identifies six recognizable roles in the dysfunctional family dynamic. This model was developed by Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, an expert in the field of addictions, codependency, and family structure. Wegscheider-Cruse developed this theory to explain the relationships between an individual who abuses substances and their family unit.


The Addicted

The Addicted is at the center of the family’s struggles with substance abuse. This is the person who is experiencing the addiction. To cope with pain, discomfort, overwhelm, stress, and anxiety, they recede into their substance of choice to numb themselves or dissociate from reality. As the addiction overtakes their life, it becomes the primary source of motivation, and the thing they always fall back on. They continue to choose the substance, seemingly without regard for the consequences, burning bridges within the family.


The Enabler

Also called the Caregiver, the Enabler tries to cover for the Addicted, making excuses for them in an attempt at harm reduction. They often deny that there is a problem at all, and put on the appearance that everything is fine. Unfortunately, even though the Enabler is well-intentioned, their actions can be harmful to the Addicted, and the rest of the family.


The Hero

The Hero is a type-A, highly stressed individual who seeks positive reinforcement from outside the family unit. They strive to gain outward acceptance and validation through hard work, success, and achievement. They are actively overcompensating for the Addicted by putting pressure back on themselves.


The Scapegoat

Often a ‘troubled child,’ the Scapegoat is a reject who acts out to distract from the Addicted’s problems. They are frequently the recipient of harsh criticism and blame for family problems.


The Clown

The Clown uses humor to distract themselves and other family members from the grief and pain of substance abuse. They may appear immature and goofy, but they are actually using humor as a coping mechanism.


The Lost Child

This family member becomes invisible in times of crisis and fades into the background. They become forgotten or neglected as the family deals with the more ‘noticeable’ issues of the Clown or the Scapegoat. The Lost Child often uses escapism as a coping mechanism.


Next Steps

While not all of the Six Figures exist in every dysfunctional household, many family members find themselves reflected in one of these roles. If these descriptions sound familiar, or if you and your family struggles with addiction, Landmark Recovery is here to help you heal. Reach out today to learn more about our programs.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.