Why Do People Become Addicts?
It’s 4:00 am and once again Sandy has spent the night online
in sex chat rooms. At times like this, when she is tired and vulnerable,
she asks herself how she has come to this place in her life. She
feels ashamed when she thinks about the drive to fantasize, talk,
flirt, and possibly “hook up” with faceless men. Sandy
thrives on the attention, mystery and danger that have become the
sum of her sexual life.
This excitement is familiar. Sandy grew up with a mother who
was addicted to pills and a father who valued his sons and ignored
daughters. When she was twelve, she discovered her father’s
collection of Playboy magazines and was fascinated by the perfect
bodies and the obsession that men seemed to have concerning sex.
In her teen years she discovered that she could get male attention
by using her body and control men through sex. These relationships
never fulfilled the need for love from her parents and caused deeper
emotional pain. Years later Sandy is driven by a need to feel loved
and complete. Now, however, her sexual behavior is out of control.
One of the most common questions that visitors to Pure Intimacy
ask is: “What causes a person to become addicted to pornography?” Numerous
variations, such as "How could a Christian become addicted?" crop
up, but all of these variations lead back to the underlying point:
why do people become addicts?
After spending years studying the issue and counseling addicts,
I can tell you that addictions are very complex. Yet, I also know
that many people who engage in harmful behavior (even if they would
not be clinically diagnosed as an addict) do so as a result of unresolved
Unresolved family trauma is at the root of most major life conflicts
facing individuals and families. Addictions, personal dysfunction,
relationship conflicts, divorce, and abusive behaviors often find
their origins in a painful family history. All families and individuals
encounter trauma at some point in their lives; the way we handle
trauma often determines how it will affect our lives and our family’s
life for years—or generations—to come. When an individual
or family does not seek to heal these wounds, the legacy of trauma
is often passed on to the next generation in varying degrees.
This leads us to the unspoken part of the question posed above.
If we understand what causes addictions, won’t we then know
how to cure them? For some people, simply having a personal revelation
will open a vital door to helping them stop their harmful behavior.
Others may need to put forth a much greater effort to overcome their
patterns or addictions.
All families and individuals encounter trauma at some point
in their lives; the way we handle trauma often determines how it
our lives and our family’s life for years—or generations—to
In most cases what is often thought of as a “behavioral” problem,
such as alcohol, drug, or pornography abuse, involves deep-rooted
wounds. The behaviors are the visible aspect of something going wrong
in an individual’s life. But like the tip of an iceberg, what
is going on below the surface is far more dangerous. Identifying
the deeper wounds allows an individual and a family to move toward
recovery and healing.
Not all people who experience unresolved trauma will develop addictions,
but any unresolved trauma can prevent a person from enjoying life
fully and from relating intimately with others. The less unresolved
trauma in our lives, the more likely we will develop healthy relationships,
happy homes, and joyful and fulfilling lives.
Understanding exactly what constitutes trauma will help identify
it in our lives. Trauma can be understood as a severe psychological
stress, injury, loss, or wound. Put more simply, it’s any
experience that wounds the soul. Family trauma can include some
of the following: loss of relationships through separation, divorce,
death, addictions, major illnesses, absent parents, deprivation
or neglect, or emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.
It is no surprise to say that trauma is a part of life. All families
experience varying degrees of trauma such as illness, relocation,
end–of-life decisions, “empty nest,” and death.
Some families are able to handle trauma in a healthy manner while
other families are destroyed by similar circumstances. Many factors
need to be considered when talking about a family or an individual's
response to trauma, but certain basic components contribute to a
healthy response to trouble.
Psychological and spiritual health depends on the ability of an
individual or family to:
When the emotions of a trauma are acknowledged, personal and
family issues needing to be addressed become clearer. A plan
healing involves spiritually and psychologically addressing,
and working through each area of trauma.
- Face a trauma;
- Work through the issues involved in the trauma;
- Grieve the traumatic event or process;
- Move into healing.
This is not to say such a process is easy. Many families do not
know how to work through a trauma or, because of a number of issues,
are unable to do the work necessary to find proper closure and healing.
Individual and family dysfunction results from the improper response
In dysfunctional families, the reaction to trouble includes:
- Denial of trauma;
- Avoidance of working through trauma issues;
- Running from grief emotions; and
- Not allowing healing.
This avoidance/denial process allows unresolved trauma to become
a destructive force in a family’s lives.
Family trauma can be divided into five
major categories (this division may not account for every
- Family Loss;
- Unpredictable Families;
- Families where Children Take on Adult Roles;
- Families of Deprivation;
- Families of Emotional, Physical and Sexual Abuse.
Each category alone constitutes trauma, but, in reality,
most individuals and families struggling
with addictions and other major dysfunction
experience multiple situations.
Family loss is the most widespread area of trauma.
Common areas of loss include separation and divorce,
losses caused by major medical and psychological problems,
Separation and Divorce
Bob and Sue have
been married for 15 years. Over time, especially
after the children were born,
they felt their marriage deteriorating.
Bob spends more time at work. Sue has her career and is also full
time parent and family taxi for the children’s activities.
They argue often and do not feel emotionally close. Many of their
friends have divorced. Bob and Sue think about separation and divorce.
Marriage counseling feels daunting compared to the prospect of
starting over. Divorce would be hard for the children but it may
be better than a family where the parents always fight. After all,
children are resilient.
Separation and divorce are two very traumatic areas
of family loss. The resulting loss of this parental
relationship is like a death
that can go unresolved for a lifetime. A separation or divorce shatters
a child’s core safety beliefs concerning the adults’ abilities
to parent her. In a child’s mind there is only one right family
relationship: Mom and Dad married and living together.
Although our culture tries to deny or ignore it, the reality is
that children develop extreme emotional wounds from divorce. Even
though adjustments are made and a level of acceptance and healing
can be reached, the pain of this loss is always present in a child’s
life, even into adulthood. Such a loss is re-enacted again and again
in their lives and through the lives of their children. All special
events, such as holidays, plays, sports, graduations, marriage, birth
of children etc., bring up the loss created by divorce as well as
the family relationship conflicts that result from the “extended
family” celebrating any of these events.
If the parents remarry, the trauma of divorce is multiplied. The
children are introduced to a multitude of new relationships in the
form of stepparents, stepsiblings, step-grandparents, and other new
relatives. To complicate matters further, often these new marriages
end in divorce, resulting in another loss for the children and the
reintroduction of new dating and yet more potential marriages.
Each relationship requires the children to re-evaluate their personal
loyalties. At the same time the loyalties of each parent and stepparent
affect the children. Every new relationship struggles with the dynamic
of acceptance or rejection of the children. This new network of relationships
makes it nearly impossible for children to feel consistently valued
and nurtured. Their value is especially tested when Dad or Mom has
children with the stepparent. These wounds and conflicts can last
for a lifetime.
When Paul was 10 years old, he discovered his
collection of Playboy magazines. The magazines that he took became
the foundation of an active sexual fantasy life. By age 17, Paul
was sneaking into adult movie theaters and developing his own collection
of porn magazines and videos. Fifteen years later, Paul has a family
and a lucrative public relations position with a large firm. His
involvement now is with Internet porn and cybersex chat room “relationships.” To
deal with the guilt, Paul has started to drink heavily. Recently
his wife discovered his Internet involvement and is threatening
separation. Paul is wrestling with addictions to pornography and
Addictions create substantial family trauma. The addict becomes
preoccupied, gets lost in fantasy, and invests significant time
in his harmful
behaviors, as the addiction becomes the focus of life. In families,
the addicted parent is present but is mastered by his addiction.
The other parent develops his or her own preoccupation centering
on controlling the addict’s behavior and protecting loved ones
from the actions of the addict. This behavior is referred to as co-addiction
The addiction and co-dependency leaves children with the emotional
loss of both parents. Children learn that the parent’s addiction
is more important than they are in the family; they are to sacrifice
their interests, needs, thoughts, and dreams to the “god” of
Common addictions in the family include the following:
- Alcoholism and drug addiction, including addiction to prescription
- Workaholism, as seen in long hours, extended and/or numerous
business trips, many hours working at home and during vacations,
over-involvement in outside interests such as clubs, politics,
religion, or sports.
- Sex addictions, including Internet pornography or cyber relationships,
affairs, pornography, pedophilia, prostitution, chronic
- Relationship addictions involve an adult engaging in multiple
romantic relationships, often choosing people who are
incapable of commitment.
This tends to take a cyclical form, where partners who
all share similar characteristics (usually negative) are recycled
out of a person’s life.
- Rage addiction is a pattern where anger and explosive rage
are a dominant method of controlling relationships and
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, over-eating,
use of food as a means of controlling emotions, and hording
- Compulsive exercise includes driven excessive exercise
(at times combined with eating disorders).
- Smoking and other tobacco use.
- Money addictions include parental overspending, gambling,
or hording of finances.
- Media addiction includes situations where overuse of
the computer, games, television, or reading becomes
of escaping life
stresses and responsibilities.
Medical and Psychiatric Concerns
Ted’s mom was diagnosed with cancer when he was 12 years old.
Now at age 16, he struggles with the reality of moms’ chemotherapy,
testing, and the nagging fear that his mother may die
from cancer. He resents his friends who have a life
stress or care. He
finds himself getting angry when peers gripe about
their parents over petty issues. At home cancer is
about. Ted feels
the pressure of having to face life and death issues
combined with the loneliness that no one understands
what he is
Major medical conditions also cause family trauma.
When a family member has a chronic disease and/or
it requires increased care from the family. The relationship
needs of the spouse and children are often not adequately
met due to
the demands on the primary caregiver. All family
members sacrifice as
the medical concern becomes a primary focus of the
Psychiatric illnesses strongly affect families and become the center
of attention for the adults. With major depression, an entire family’s
concern can be focused on battling the condition and making the person “feel
better.” Bipolar disorder (manic depression) can be very confusing
as the family adjusts to active manic times countered with deep periods
Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia often involve the family
dealing with confusing delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Parenting
and coping with a family member struggling with Attention Deficit
Disorder can be stressful and exhausting. In family situations dealing
with major psychiatric conditions, parents are involved and often
emotionally unavailable to the rest of the family.
It is important to note here that families are not “wrong” or
dysfunctional due to care of an ill family member. These types of
situations, however, are traumatic for all involved and can lead
to unresolved problems if not dealt with accordingly.
Since the death of her husband last year, Ruth’s whole
life has changed. Initially friends gathered around and were very
As time went on it seemed that others continued their lives without
considering that Ruth was still grieving. People even commented
after several months that she should be finished with grief. Ruth
to redefine herself as a single mother, woman, and widow while
facing a society that is not comfortable with her grief and loss.
Death covers a continuum of loss that includes abortion, miscarriage,
sibling death, parental death, loss of grandparents, friends,
classmates, and other close relationships. Death is a part of
trauma that affects
everybody. Loss of a family member, especially sudden or unexpected
death, strongly affects everyone in the family. Grief is a healthy
process but the effects of grief can become complicated if it
is denied or ignored.
When Andy left for school in the morning his mother was visibly
happy. He returned home to find his mother in bed depressed
His mother suffers from fast cycling bi-polar disorder. She
refuses to take her medications that help with this disorder.
As a result,
Andy does not have the basic safety of a consistent and predictable
family situation. He lives with the daily fear of not knowing
what mother he is coming home to.
Most families of trauma respond to problems in a predictable
manner, even those that are stressful and dysfunctional.
Unpredictable families of trauma, however, are often volatile
One category of unpredictable families includes those experiencing
psychotic episodes or major psychiatric problems that change rapidly
or are “fast cycling.” In a family that experiences a
severe psychosis, members are never sure what type of personality
they will confront in the psychotic family member. With fast-cycling
psychiatric concerns like certain bipolar conditions, families can
find themselves in a crisis situation without warning.
Transient families are another type of unpredictable family. Basic
needs—such as having a constant or secure living location or
knowing when a move is going to happen—are not met. Sudden “midnight” moves
involving little time for emotional preparation are traumatic for
all involved. Lack of financial stability, legal concerns, and paranoid
types of psychosis often complicate transient situations.
A third type of unpredictable family involves a rage-addicted parent,
whose anger quietly builds. Repressed anger can reach critical mass,
resulting in a surprising and unreasonable rage explosion—often
in response to an insignificant event. Mistrust and fear of the raging
parent adds to the volatile and chaotic atmosphere of the family.
Families where Children Take on Adult Roles
Amanda is 12-years-old but feels 30. Both her
parents have a drug problem. She cooks and washes clothes for her
and sister. Amanda worries about family income, the bills, and
her parents are going to spend the money. When her parents talk
about divorce, Amanda becomes the family counselor. She takes
pride in her “helping the family,” but Amanda is
more an adult than a child.
When parents fail to behave responsibly, their children often
take on adult roles in an attempt to help the family survive.
tend to worry about the family finances, caring for the family,
and parental relationships. The children “parent” their siblings
to compensate for inadequate parental nurturing. They feel responsible
for family financial problems and relationship conflicts.
Some children become confidants to one or both parents as the adults
open up to them about mature issues such as relationship and marriage
problems. Children who take on parental roles feel that they are
emotionally responsible for their parents’ well being and many
times act more like a spouse than a child.
It is traumatic for children to take on adult responsibilities.
They become a child in adult armor trying to do battle with the world.
The pressure and expectations assumed by such children lead to long-lasting
consequences, many times resulting in the abandonment of parental
responsibilities when they become adults. Addictions become seductive
escapes for the child weary of adult responsibilities.
Families of Deprivation
The Smith family appears to have it all. Both parents have excellent
careers that provide the family financial security. A closer
look, however, shows that the long work hours and frequent business
have affected family relationships. Family meals are rare and
usually eaten in front of the television. Each family member
own computer and complete media entertainment center in their
bedroom. When the family does do an activity together it usually
the television, a movie, or video games. For the Smiths, entertainment
has replaced parenting and intimacy.
Families of deprivation can be difficult to identify because
they are families of “nothingness;” a family in name only.
Deprivation families are inadequate in the areas of spiritual, emotional,
social, physical, or educational nurturing. Three general family
situations contribute to families of deprivation: The first is a
work-addicted family; the second category includes families who struggle
with media addictions; the third is the product of generations of
The work-addicted family category involves all levels of the socioeconomic
scale. In many of these situations, both parents work, resulting
in little family time or meaningful interaction. In other families,
the work addiction is the result of parents’ careers being
more important than relationships with the family. These families
produce children starved for parental guidance and nurturing.
Media families of deprivation substitute various media for a false
sense of relationship and family interaction. Media includes books,
television, radio, stereos, Internet, computer games, telephone,
and all means of portable entertainment. In families with media addictions,
members attempt to fill relationship needs by watching television,
reading, listening to music or radio talk shows, or overusing the
computer. Media relationships become safer than direct interpersonal
Generational family deprivation is caused by a family lineage of
learned hopelessness and parenting styles that are based on nurturing
deficits. In these situations, children who have grown up with deprivation
become parents of deprivation. This oppression accumulates over generations
resulting in a legacy of chronic depression. For the adult who comes
from deprivation, depression may become a problem that interferes
with healthier parenting options.
Families of Emotional, Physical, and Sexual Abuse
Family abuse covers a myriad of behaviors that wound the souls
of children or the spouse. Legal definitions of abuse only address
physical or sexual nature, or abandonment and neglect. Psychological
explanations of abuse emphasize its emotional and developmental
effects. This examination will address emotional, physical, and
Karen’s marriage has been hard
from the beginning. She believes that relationships involve
but after several
realizes that most of the compromise has been on her side of the
ledger. Her husband has never liked any of her friends and becomes
enraged when she had contact with them. To keep peace, Karen has
cut off all contact with former friends. She now feels alone, trapped,
and manipulated. Karen has allowed herself to be victim of emotional
Emotional abuse is an attempt to control family members by
manipulating their emotions, environment, sense of personal
safety, and self-esteem.
Emotional abuse can be both passive and active. Subtle, or passive
abuse, includes behaviors such as disregarding and downplaying
the abilities of a person or ignoring an individual. Berating,
and verbal harassment for purposes of control are examples of noticeable
or active abuse.
Isolation of a family member is a powerful form of emotional abuse.
This forced seclusion increases the abuser’s control by severely
limiting a family member’s contact with friends or the outside
world. As the victim becomes more isolated, he or she begins to lose
hope. The victim increasingly must rely on the perpetrator for his
or her emotional needs.
Intimidation involves the abuser using actions such as threatening
looks, gestures, and posturing to create fear in the victim. Through
intimidation the abuser threatens to use rage and anger. If the victim
does not comply with the wishes of the perpetrator, she risks being
the target of rage or physical violence.
Verbal threats use the possibility of violence to attack the victim’s
rights of physical or physiological safety. Threats of beating, extreme
physical punishment, bone breaking, or other physical injury are
common forms of verbal coercion.
Threats include promises of damaging or ending relationships. This
abuse often involves the children or other family members. Statements
such as “I’m going to turn the children against you,” or “If
you walk out on me, I'm taking the children with me and you will
never see them again,” are common uses of this type of emotional
abuse. Rumors and lies that would damage his or her integrity or
reputation and turn family members against the victim can be very
Another type of intimidation is when an abuser threatens personal
emotional harm. Examples include comments about leaving or abandoning
the victim, having an affair, or continuing substance abuse.
Economic manipulation is controlling people by monopolizing money
usage or by threatening economic stability. In many families, unreasonable
control of finances or the creation of overwhelming debt can become
areas of emotional abuse.
Judy believes that Steve is a good husband. He is quiet and easy-going,
hard working, and a good father. When he is stressed, however,
Steve has been known to rage at her and the children. On more
than one occasion, he has shoved Judy into the bedroom and kept
there until he was done yelling. After he settles down, Steve
always feels bad about his behavior and apologizes for what he
Judy knows that Steve loves her. She believes that if she tries
harder to be a good wife, Steve will not react so strongly the
next time he is under stress.
Physical abuse is the control of others through intimidation,
fear, and acts of violence. Physically abusive behavior involves
shoving, grabbing hair, twisting arms, holding people against
the wall or to the floor, striking, using weapons, punching,
and biting. Physical abuse is frequently accompanied by out-of-control
rage. Many legal definitions of physical abuse require evidence
of bruising, scarring, or other bodily proof of harm. For this
the physical violence is often overshadowed by the memory of
the accompanying emotional violence.
Five-year-old Robert is being sexually
molested by a male baby-sitter. At first the attention and
touching “games” were fun.
Now, however, he feels guilty about the secrets and hates the nights
when mom and dad leave him with the sitter. Robert’s parents
have noticed the he has become quiet and withdrawn. Robert is afraid
that he will be punished if he tells his parents.
Sexual abuse includes emotional, verbal, and physical actions,
although it is often thought of only in terms of molestation
or incest. As
a result, the most common types of sexual abuse are not recognized
by society as problematic.
Sexual abuse includes being exposed to inappropriate sexual messages
or sexual situations. All families are exposed to some degree of
sexual abuse through media containing inappropriate sexual content.
For many children, their first experience with pornography took place
in the home looking at their parent’s magazines or viewing
televised or Internet porn. Repeated exposure to sexual situations
creates the illusion of personal experience with sex. For teens this
results in a breakdown of sexual boundaries and an increased desire
to act out sexually.
Families can be involved in emotional and verbal sexual abuse through
the use of inappropriate sexual talk. Abusive talk includes sexual
innuendos, crude jokes, sexual comments about a child’s development
or his body, or sexualizing normal child behavior. Many times this
type of abuse is excused in a context of family teasing. Yet, this
can be devastating to a young teen’s developing self-esteem.
Much of what is so-called “routine” teenage sexual behavior
is actually sexual abuse. Sexual involvement at young ages is abuse,
more so if an adult or much older teen is involved with a minor.
Having multiple sexual partners during teen years is a form of self-abuse.
Pressured sexual involvement and date rape is also common with teens
and young adults. Sexual experiences that emotionally wound an individual
can have long-term negative affects on his or her adult sexual life.
Examples can include fear of intimacy, promiscuity, ongoing sexual
shame, frigidity, sexual identify confusion, and possible sexual
The numbers of children victimized by molestation and incest are
staggering. Conservative estimates suggest 1 in 4 females and 1 in
7 males experience physical sexual abuse before the age of 18. The
trauma of childhood sexual abuse is often kept silent, leaving the
victim to search out ways to quiet its pain. Eating disorders, alcohol
and drug abuse, relationship addictions, pornography and sexual addictions
are common behaviors exhibited by victims of sexual abuse.
The sad fact of life is that many people are wounded and that some
families are comprised of hurting people. There is no perfect
family this side of heaven. But recognizing that there will be
families does not excuse the abuse and neglect that often occurs.
Instead, facing the reality of traumatic situations allows an
individual to work through the issues, grieve the trauma, and
move into healing.
In the end, trauma that is unresolved does not get stored away in
a secret compartment never to return. Instead it acts as an acid
that seeps into and poisons every aspect of our lives, clouding our
ability to deal with new trauma and enjoy the good aspects of life.
The good news is that there is always help and healing for those
seeking it. We were not created for misery, but for relationships—with
one another and with our Creator. As Jesus Christ said, He has overcome
this world. Christ is a beacon of hope and healing that can light
the way on even the darkest path.
For further assistance, contact the Focus
on the Family counseling department for assistance and a referral to a local counseling or
mental health resource.
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