Why Do People Become Addicts?
Steven Earll, MA,MS,LPC,LAC

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 his 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 family trauma.

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 will affect our lives and our family’s life for years—or generations—to come.

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.

Defining Trauma

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:

  1. Face a trauma;
  2. Work through the issues involved in the trauma;
  3. Grieve the traumatic event or process;
  4. Move into healing.
When the emotions of a trauma are acknowledged, personal and family issues needing to be addressed become clearer. A plan for healing involves spiritually and psychologically addressing, grieving, and working through each area of trauma.

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 to trauma.

In dysfunctional families, the reaction to trouble includes:

  1. Denial of trauma;
  2. Avoidance of working through trauma issues;
  3. Running from grief emotions; and
  4. Not allowing healing.

This avoidance/denial process allows unresolved trauma to become a destructive force in a family’s lives.

Family Trauma

Family trauma can be divided into five major categories (this division may not account for every possible situation.):

  1. Family Loss;
  2. Unpredictable Families;
  3. Families where Children Take on Adult Roles;
  4. Families of Deprivation;
  5. 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

Family loss is the most widespread area of trauma. Common areas of loss include separation and divorce, various parental addictions, losses caused by major medical and psychological problems, and death.

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.

Addictions

When Paul was 10 years old, he discovered his stepfather’s 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 alcohol.

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 or co-dependency.

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 the addiction.

Common addictions in the family include the following:

  • Alcoholism and drug addiction, including addiction to prescription medications.
  • Workaholism, as seen in long hours, extended and/or numerous business trips, many hours working at home and during vacations, work preoccupation, 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 masturbation.
  • 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 in and out of a person’s life.
  • Rage addiction is a pattern where anger and explosive rage are a dominant method of controlling relationships and dealing with life stress.
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, over-eating, use of food as a means of controlling emotions, and hording of food.
  • 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 an avenue 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 without stress or care. He finds himself getting angry when peers gripe about their parents over petty issues. At home cancer is seldom talked about. Ted feels the pressure of having to face life and death issues combined with the loneliness that no one understands what he is going through.

Major medical conditions also cause family trauma. When a family member has a chronic disease and/or a potentially fatal disease, 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 family.

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 of depression.

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.

Death

Since the death of her husband last year, Ruth’s whole life has changed. Initially friends gathered around and were very supportive. 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 struggles 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.

Unpredictable Families

When Andy left for school in the morning his mother was visibly happy. He returned home to find his mother in bed depressed and suicidal. 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 and chaotic.

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 younger brother and sister. Amanda worries about family income, the bills, and how 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. Such children 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 travel have affected family relationships. Family meals are rare and usually eaten in front of the television. Each family member has their own computer and complete media entertainment center in their bedroom. When the family does do an activity together it usually involves 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 deprivation.

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 family interactions.

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 its 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 sexual abuse.

Emotional Abuse

Karen’s marriage has been hard from the beginning. She believes that relationships involve compromise, but after several years she 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 abuse.

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, name calling, 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 intimidating.

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.

Physical 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 her there until he was done yelling. After he settles down, Steve always feels bad about his behavior and apologizes for what he has done. 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 pushing, shoving, grabbing hair, twisting arms, holding people against the wall or to the floor, striking, using weapons, punching, kicking, 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 victim, the physical violence is often overshadowed by the memory of the accompanying emotional violence.

Sexual Abuse

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 addiction problems.

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.

Conclusion

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 troubled 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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