Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Patterns of Alcohol Use in the Family

As our conference on addictions and the family system approaches it is timely for each of us to ask: What patterns in our family, can contribute to misuse of tranquilising substances (or behaviours & activities)?

Many families can look back over the generations and see that there have been people who have been over reliant on alcohol. Certainly in my own family the consumption of alcohol is an interesting theme. My mother came from a strict Methodist family where alcohol was viewed as a social evil. The Methodist church of her day was strongly connected to the temperance union. I recall my mother organising church events where the Women’s Christian Temperance Union demonstrated mixing a range of non-alcoholic cocktails. I have wondered if there is anywhere in the preceding generations, where reaction to someone’s alcohol problem may have intensified the transmission of her strong stance. I’m aware that these polarities often flip flop between generations.

I have an inkling that there is a “problem” drinker in my father’s parents’ generation with one uncle described as a black sheep. With both my parents dead for many years and few relatives alive on my father’s side of the family it is difficult to get more objective information about this. (Writing this blog has opened up the value for me to do some more family of origin research in this area.)

When my parents married in the 1950s my father agreed to my mothers’ wish that alcohol would not be consumed in our home.  My father would drink when at outside social and community events, such as rotary club dinners, but to my knowledge this social drinking was not a point of tension between my parents. It was interesting that when I first was introduced to alcohol late in high school I declared to my parents that I thought that Cinzano and Coke was a great cultural discovery!  As the child who was most aligned with my mother I think my father sensed that my endorsement of alcohol provided a path to introducing liquor into our home. My Dad bought me some Cinzano Rosso and we would share a drink together on the weekend in front of the rugby (football) – me with my Cinzano and Coke and him with a beer. It is so interesting that this triangle alliance with my mother enabled my father to bypass his earlier marriage agreement. As far as I could ascertain, my mother did not protest.  When my mother died of cancer in her early 50s (interesting for me to note that her cancer diagnosis coincided with this shift in alcohol use at home) my father was quick to purchase and set up his own bar in the family lounge room. It became his pride and joy and gave him a way to entertain his friends and us adult children & our friends. He complimented his bar with a fancy flashing light sound system. I don’t recall that this resulted in any drunkenness at home but as the years progressed I could observe that evening glasses of whiskey became a coping mechanism for my Dad in the midst of the ongoing shock wave of grief. This would have been compounded by the avoidant way our family dealt with our mother’s illness and death.

It is useful to be curious about patterns of drinking and temperance in our families of origin; and to reflect on one’s own potential to use alcohol as a coping mechanism (or alternatively to be vigilant about monitoring another’s drinking) when stress is running high. This is certainly a pattern in our broader society that interacts with family patterns. How does one get a balanced view of alcohol consumption? How does one learn to deal with relationship stress more openly and directly so that there is reduced propensity to resort to substance use (or other potentially addictive anxiety management mechanisms)?

Bowen’s first research interest was with chronic alcoholism. He has some fascinating observations about alcohol use in the family. He writes:

“From a systems viewpoint, alcoholism is one of the common human dysfunctions. As a dysfunction, it exists in the context of an imbalance in functioning in the total family system. ….every important family member plays a part in the dysfunction of the dysfunctional member.” FTCP p 262


He writes of two functional positions that can be linked to over drinking.

  • At one extreme is the pretend independent one “who handles the emotional attachment to his/her parents, and especially to his/her mother, by denial of attachment….a posture which says: “I do not need you. I can do it myself”…..The harder he/she works to meet high expectations “the more he/she becomes emotionally isolated. When he/she feels most burdened and the isolation is most intense, he/she often finds relief from alcohol.” FTCP p 264
  • At the other end of the spectrum is the person who remains sensitively attached to their parents and struggles to manage a productive life. These people’s “need for emotional closeness is so great, yet they go to such extremes to deny it….they can have the same kind of emotional attachment in marriage that they had in their parental families. They are emotionally isolated from their spouses, who play the reciprocal role in the drinking dysfunction.” FTCP p 265


Bowen writes that most people with drinking problems fall somewhere between these extremes of 1: pretend high functioning and pseudo independence and

2: the one who is hyper sensitive to attachments, with their life functioning compromised.

I can see potential versions of both in my family system. It may be useful to consider where on this spectrum you and others in your family might be. For myself I’m alerted to the potential posture of an unrealistic sense of responsibility. To ensure that drinking does not become a problem for me at times of stress  I need to watch out for any denial of my need for others and work to reduce the effort to meet impossibly high expectations for my self—and watch those who are close to me unknowingly inviting me to maintain these success standards. Being mindful of the emotionality attached to alcohol use in my family of origin helps to alert me to the potential reactivity around it. Maintaining a proportionate stance towards drinking will remain important for me.

As our conference on addictions and the family system approaches it is timely for each of us to ask: What patterns for managing intensity, in us and our family, can contribute to misuse of tranquilising substances (or behaviours & activities)? The effort to intervene from a systems perspective is very different from treating the symptomatic one as if the problem is just in them.  One family member who addresses their part in patterns of over and under-functioning and over and under independence can contribute to the alleviation of the alcohol/drug dysfunction, “even [if] the dysfunctional one may not have been part of the therapy.” Bowen, FTCP p 262.

Quotes from Ch. 12: Alcoholism and the Family (1974) in Family Therapy and Clinical Practice. 1978 Jason Aronnson.


‘Patterns of Alcohol use in a Family’Jenny Brown


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