Consequences can play a key role in motivating people to change. As a result the temptation for some is to dole out consequences with passion and tenacity. Yet, external consequences alone don’t invite addicts to change, and overreactions can actually drive them away from the internal contemplation of change. Caution is required in considering when and to what degree we ought to issue consequences for those addicts whom we love.
Addiction impacts everyone. It involves deception and betrayal of others. It impacts social and familial relationships. Addicts inevitably hurt the ones they love. Often, caretakers can become so frustrated by these cycles of hurt and betrayal that they turn to punishing the addicts in their life. As we’ve said, consequences do have a place in caring for addicts, yet punishing with overreactions will tend to drive the addict away. It will tempt them to become bitter, to feel like yet one more person has given up on them, or it will tempt them to believe they are better off alone. After all, they keep hurting everyone they love, best just to isolate yourself so no one else gets hurt. Overreactions also tend to confuse the addict because they are often inconsistent. One deception may be overlooked while another, seemingly less significant one, may result in a serious threats of loss and dramatic confrontation. The addict no longer knows exactly what to expect from those he or she loves. It’s important, then, to consider some potential ground rules for issuing consequences.
For starters, it is best to let the natural consequences run their course and not add them. By allowing the natural consequences to run their course we are both providing a context for their own consciousness raising and self-reevaluation, and we are establishing our role as supporters and not as disciplinarians primarily. Carlo DiClemente notes that this process also has benefits for the caretakers and family members, not just in the help for the addict. He writes:
Families that learn the lesson of not interfering with natural consequences often can be more effective with the [addict]. However, the approach has benefits even if it does not provoke change. Families who set appropriate boundaries and allow the natural consequences to make an impact often feel less used and abused by the addicted individual…(Addiction and Change, 123)
Distinguishing between the natural consequences and our punishments can help to manage the appropriate level of “punishment.”
Secondly, caretakers and families should establish consistent boundaries and communicate those boundaries. Advanced warning of what will happen should certain ground rules be violated helps to eliminate surprises and overreactions. A plan of action has already been established and communicated with the addicted individual. This means they’ve been warned ahead of time and should expect you to follow through, and it means that families already know how they should respond when a specific event arises. Often overreactions occur because we are caught off guard and allow our emotions to overtake us. Planned responses can help us to remain calm and be consistent.
Thirdly, keep the ultimate goal before you. It’s important not to lose sight of what your desire is for this loved one. You’re not simply trying to punish, exact revenge, or require repayment. You are seeking to promote change and encourage self-reevaluation. Punishing with overreactions might make you feel better temporarily, but it won’t help the addict. Before you respond think about what should be done and how you can do it in a healthy and appropriate way. See external and objective counsel where necessary.
Because working with the addicted family member or friend is so intimate, there’s no way to avoid taking betrayals and hurts personally. The temptation, then, is to retaliate, respond in frustration and anger. Consequences, of course, matter and we shouldn’t avoid those or spare our loved one the natural consequences of their choices. Yet, punishing with overreactions won’t draw them closer to us and may result in increases resistance to change. If we know when and how to issue consequences we can better serve those we love.