Addiction ‘conspiracy’ of silence hurts the family and business

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Every night at about 10:30 or 11:00 the fighting would start and carry on for two to three hours or more until the couple got so tired they just fell asleep. This was the culmination of a long day at the office where Joan and Jack, wife and husband, worked side-by-side running their successful business.

By the end of the workday Joan frequently wanted to stop off at a bar for a drink to “unwind” before heading for home to dinner. Jack, in a separate car would go home, relieve the babysitter, and start dinner. When his wife got home she was relaxed and cheerful, the alcohol having taken the edge off of the day’s stress. Two more glasses of wine at dinner contributed to her changing personality.

As the evening progressed, Jack would busy himself with settling the children down for the evening. He didn’t mind doing most of the domestic chores because he understood that Joan didn’t have as much physical stamina as he. When it was time to give the children a good night kiss, he would call to their mother, whom he often found napping on the couch.

A couple more drinks later Joan was no longer napping, no longer cheerful. Her irritability was growing. Dumbfounded, Jack could not figure out why she was mad at him. The accusations started flying, defensive walls shot up and the arguing would escalate to unreasonable and irrational proportions.

Alcoholism and other drug abuse is an epidemic in our country. We are all aware of the general problem nationwide. There are numerous programs in our schools to prevent drug abuse among our youth. The courts are less and less tolerant of alcohol related traffic infractions. Celebrities have established treatment programs to sober up movie stars and politicians.

Many employers are taking a hard look at the problems caused by drug abuse and alcohol addiction. Employers recognize the loss attributable to drugs in terms of lowered production, increased accidents, lower quality work, and loss of skilled employees. They have established employee assistance programs and redesigned insurance benefits to create treatment options for employees. These programs not only treat the addict, but the family as well because it is the strength of the family that determines the addict’s success in treatment.

The concern reaches to the highest levels in most companies. Whether the employee is the president or the line worker, today’s employers are cracking down on drug abuse. No one is allowed to jeopardize the welfare of the company or fellow workers by engaging in dangerous addictive behavior. But the goal is not punishment. Instead, employers want to rehabilitate and return a healthy employee to the job.

Yet among family firms, drug addiction and alcohol abuse are frequently overlooked. Many people who have worked in family firms, yet are not family members, talk about the “secret” at work. The secret that everyone knows is that there is a family member who is addicted or engaging in drug or alcohol abuse, yet no one is to talk about it. The family member is protected not only by the family, but also by a general conspiracy among employees.

In previous columns I have explained how this conspiracy comes to be. The function of the family is to nurture and protect its members. This function is alive and well in a family firm, and usually takes precedence over the welfare of the business or other non-family related employees. This is a rule that families have followed since the beginning of human civilization, and therefore is not likely to change.

If there is an alcoholic in a family firm, be they founder, spouse, son, daughter, or in-law, the family is likely to overlook, condone, deny, rationalize or minimize the problem for the sake of keeping the family system in tact. If the founder is alcoholic, alcoholism may be a family “tradition” that will be hard to break. That is, drinking may be interwoven into the fabric of family life and corporate life.

Leaders in family firms have a tough job. They must weigh the success of the business against the needs of the family. Allowing addictions to go untreated is no way to take care of either the business or the family. By ignoring the problem the addict accepts this as tacit approval of their behavior. And by ignoring the problem, the potential threat to the integrity of the family and business grows. Alcoholism and other addictions leads to the breakdown of the family, just what a family firm wants to avoid.

What can help members of the family firm address these problems is to consider that the addict is fortunate to have the backing of both his/her family as well as his/her business. With the support of the two most important systems in one’s life, the addict has increased potential to succeed in treatment. They have a loving family and they have a job to come back to.

Another thing to consider is that everyone in the family has to support the decision to confront the addict and to seek family therapy with them. If there are dissenters, the addict will solicit allies to defend their continued drug abuse. While it is painful to acknowledge one’s own addiction, it may be even harder to acknowledge the addiction of a loved one. Often family members feel helpless in the face of the overwhelming problems caused by addiction. Therefore, the “enable ” the addict rather than face the problem squarely in the eye.

To deal with the humiliation of recognizing that a family member is alcoholic, education will help. Professional treatment centers emphasize that alcoholism and drug abuse are best understood as diseases. That is, the disease of alcoholism affect the personality in ways that change the one we love. While the alcoholic cannot help that they have a disease (many alcoholics are genetically predisposed to alcoholism), they must be held accountable for their actions. They must be confronted with their irresponsible and manipulative behavior so that they can change it. With professional treatment and ongoing support, they can be returned to their former productive and loving lives.

To learn more, contact Alcoholics Anonymous. They are listed in the telephone directory or you can go to their website You can also visit to find recommended books on the subject.

In any case, if you are a member of a family firm, and you suspect a family member of addiction, do something now. You may the be the only one willing to take the risk to expose the family “secret.” But once the secret is out, trust the strength of the family to meet the challenge of recovery. Families are forever, after all.

Are Co-Dependency and Kindness the same?

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

When yet another check bounced, the sixth in three months, Lenny became worried. He knew that he was not very interested in balancing the books, personal or business. He always left that up to the bookkeeper anyway. The business seemed to be doing well, so whenever a personal check bounced, Lenny always covered it promptly from savings or taking another draw from the business. But this time, things seemed to be getting worse. Lenny wondered if he were slipping up at work, in ways that could cost he and Linda their livelihood. So he asked Linda to meet with himself and their CPA to take a look at the budget. After giving the couple the usual advice on how to tighten the financial system, the CPA pointed out to Lenny that his business accounts were always up to date. Never once in seven years had he bounced a check. Yet in the personal account he shared with Linda, checks bounced every month. Since Lenny was the one responsible for signing the checks at work, he took a closer look at what Linda was doing with their personal account. To his surprise, Lenny discovered that Linda was writing checks for $20.00 or $30.00 over the purchase nearly every time she shopped. Recently one check written on a twenty dollar purchase, was written for $120.00. The problem was getting worse! Lenny confronted Linda privately and in a tearful discussion learned that she was using the money to support a drug addiction. Because the couple is very successful in their business, and have plenty of money to spend, Lenny hadn’t noticed the excesses his wife was spending on her leisure activities. Only when the checks started to bounce more often did he become concerned. His concern about the erratic spending, lead him to discover that his wife was deeply troubled. The story doesn’t stop here, because Lenny and Linda have much work to do to clean up the addiction problem. This isn’t just Linda’s problem though. Lenny needs help in converting his concept of kindness. Lenny knew each time a check bounced that it had been written by Linda. But he took care of it without bothering her. He reasoned that she didn’t have the financial sense that he did. She was good with the customers and vendors so he managed the day to day business stuff.

He thought of himself as helping Linda by taking the financial burden off of her shoulders. You can see however, that he was not really any help. He only helped Linda ignore her growing dependence upon drugs. Lenny’s help is really co-dependence. An individual is co-dependent when they inadvertently or even consciously encourage the addicts dependency upon their drug. You can be co-dependent with drugs and alcohol or any other immature or unwise behavior that leads to serious dysfunction or life threatening consequences. In other words, co-dependency refers to an attitude, not necessarily chemical dependency. If you are ignoring or sanctioning the dysfunctional behavior of a loved one, such as Lenny did with Linda, you are co-dependent. This is no kindness to the one you love. The reason it is so easy to confuse kindness and co-dependency is that they are essentially the same behavior within different contexts. To be kind means to give unconditionally, to share, to show that you care for another person. When the giving, sharing and caring is reciprocated by a healthy individual, the condition is kindness. However, when the kindness is not reciprocated, when you find yourself giving and giving and giving, it may be co-dependency. Lenny found himself taking care of Linda’s bounced checks over and over and over again, without any commitment from Linda to change. This is co-dependency. Kindness does not always require reciprocity. You may feel that you want to give unconditionally on occasion. At the holidays, we often feel that those who have should contribute to those who have not. However, giving should not involve sacrificing oneself, especially if it doesn’t help and if it even makes matters worse. Because Lenny and Linda made plenty of money, it did not seem like a sacrifice to cover the bad checks. However, Lenny’s self esteem was beginning to suffer. He thought that he was becoming forgetful and that he could sabotage the success of their small business, thus risking their retirement.

It hardly makes sense that helping Linda means that Lenny should sacrifice his self confidence. Remaining a kind person while at the same time breaking co-dependency may seem like a difficult task. I have certainly had many people complain that I am asking them to be mean when I suggest breaking the destructive co-dependency pattern. If you love someone who is in trouble, why can’t you help them? The key word here is help. Was Lenny really helpful by continuing to cover Linda’s bad checks? If you are doing all of the work toward solving a problem, what is the other person learning? If the other person is chemically dependent, they learn from your kindness to continue their troublesome behavior. But if you stop helping in a co-dependent way, you may offer your loved one the chance to show you they can solve the problem themselves. Lenny controlled the situation by paying for the checks but he didn’t resolve it. Since there was plenty of money, the problem was not hitting the pocket book, but Lenny’s conscience instead. This is usually your first clue that you are in a co-dependent relationship. For some reason you accept the responsibility while your partner gets off the hook. Instead of control, however, consider another form of kindness, respect. If you respect your loved one, then trust that they can take responsibility for their faults and clean them up. In other words, show the chemically dependent person that you respect them enough to let them show you what they are made of. If they have the right stuff, they will clean up their own act. In fact, the very act of turning the problem back to the person who created it, frees both of you to take responsibility for your own actions. So how do you tell the difference between co-dependence and kindness? Well, one feels bad and the other feels good. One covers up the real problem, while the other brings the problem to the surface. One destroys self esteem, while the other encourages self esteem. Since you have a choice, the choice seems pretty simple. Choose positive self esteem, honesty in solving problems, and taking and giving appropriate responsibility for one’s actions.

Love,hate, and guilt in the family business partnership

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Love+Hate=Guilt. How many of you have this type of relationship with one or more of your parents? Or how many of you have felt like this at least once with your parents? Or are you suspicious that this is how your teenage or grown children feel about you? Unfortunately these feelings are all too common among parents and children. They are the natural byproducts of normal human development that has not been allowed to progress to completion. Anger and Love are healthy human emotions that emerge often in our daily lives. Learning methods to process these feelings constructively so that we can mature is the work of childhood. Guilt, on the other hand, is not a normal nor healthy human emotion (unless of course you have legitimately committed a serious offense). To feel guilty for being angry at your parent or child is a misunderstanding of the relationship. Nobody is perfect and so it is very likely that someone you love will do something that makes you mad, even if they don’t mean to. You are under no obligation to stifle your anger or to feel guilty just because it is a parent who has misbehaved. Many people balk at the idea of Blaming their parents. They feel guilty for being angry at their parents whom they love and admire. They haven’t learned how to reconcile those feelings of love and hate. They either feel guilty about their anger, but more often they deny it altogether. Blame isn’t really necessary, but holding your parents (and others too for that matter) accountable for their mistakes is important. Just as you give others credit for their successes, it is important to note the failures, the misunderstandings, the faulty choices. By holding others accountable you accomplish two important goals. First, you are actually treating the other person with respect. You are offering them the opportunity to correct their error. In other words, you are treating them as if they are capable.

By stuffing your anger, you feel helpless and like a victim with no where to go with these feelings except to build up resentment (i.e. Love/Hate). Second, by holding others accountable, you are able to view your own flaws more objectively. Not only can you learn from your mistakes but from other’s as well. Take your parents for example. Many adults tell me that they don’t want to blame their parents for the mistakes they made, because the grown child should take responsibility for their life now. Yet that grown child is making the same mistakes their parents made; often that is the reason they are in my office! Because your parents raised you and because they are flawed, they made mistakes. You as a child made mistakes too. One of them is to develop the belief that you should feel guilty for being mad at your parents, even if what they did was wrong. By acknowledging what they did wrong (and right) you are better equipped to correct their and your mistakes. For example, a few years ago, my daughter Bianca was taking interminably long to get ready to go out. I was in my usual hurry to get somewhere, never planning quite enough time to prepare myself and two young children for an outing. I told Bianca several times to get her shoes on so that we could leave, but she was preoccupied with some toy and was not getting to the task. Finally in desperation, I grabbed her by the arm, pulled her down the hall and said “Let’s go now!” She pulled her arm away from me, put her hands on her little hips and looking at me very disapprovingly said, “That is rude!” Several options whizzed through my mind at that moment, but fortunately I was amazed at her perceptiveness. She was absolutely right and she had the guts to tell me. She was four. I apologized for pulling her arm, told her that I loved her and informed her that because I was the mommy she had to put on her shoes now.

She obliged and we had a fun outing. If you want to clear up the Love+Hate=Guilt relationship you have with your parents or children, take a moment to do the following exercise.

  1. As honestly as possible, list your loved one’s flaws, mistakes and even downright nasty traits. Make sure you include everything that makes you really angry about this person.
  2. Now list all of those traits you admire and are grateful for.
  3. As you review these lists, ask yourself, which traits are you carrying on, in the family tradition. Be honest. You might ask your spouse for feedback because you may feel so guilty that you cannot acknowledge your parents flaws, or your own.
  4. Finally, make a plan of action to change the negative counterproductive traits.

This little exercise is very revealing. By feeling guilty and by avoiding blame you may inadvertently be carrying on the same mistakes generation after generation. The goal of each generation should be to improve upon the goals of the last, not repeat mistakes. By holding your parents accountable you are more free to do this. I hope by now that you realize that blame is not really the answer, but that accountability is. Be respectful in your confrontations. Tell your parents what they did that hurt or angered you, but treat them as if they are human beings quite cabable of accepting responsibility for their mistakes and cabable of correcting them. This is especially crucial in a family business. How is the business to prosper if children coming up into the business never correct the errors of their predecessors? How is the business to remain competitive if you hang onto old ways just because you are afraid to confront a parent or grandparent? On the other hand, if you trust that your love for this person and their love for you is strong enough to handle the confrontation, you both benefit by getting things out in the open.

Work related stress – Is it a symptom or the problem?

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

It may be time-consuming to learn that new computer program, or to revamp your marketing strategy, or to take time from work just to go for a walk, but in the long run you may save yourself a lot of grief. All too often we apply a band-aid when surgery was needed.

Here’s just one real-life example. I had heard stories about cats, that they cold be territorial and even jealous. So I was not surprised when my cat, Misha, started having “accidents” in the house just after the birth of my eldest child. After all, her role as my “baby” was being usurped by the new little bundle.

I was prepared though, being trained in psychology. I introduced Misha to the new baby and played with the cat and baby together. I bought Misha new toys and kitty treats so that she wouldn’t be jealous of the baby’s new things. I made appoint of holding and petting the cat more often than usual, so she wouldn’t feel forgotten.

But in spite of all of my efforts she continued to have “accidents.” I was getting pretty frazzled with a new baby to care for and adjust to and a cat that was going off the deep end. I was about at the end of my rope one day when in walked Misha. I was sitting in the recliner feeding the baby, when Misha walked up to me, crouched at my feet and defecated right in front of me.

That did it. The next day, I packed up the cat and took her to the vet, threatening to leave her there if a solution could not be found. Within a few minutes after examining the cat, the vet advised me that she had cystitis and needed antibiotics. Needless to say within a few days, Misha was back to normal and using the garden instead of my living room.

How often have you been unable to solve a problem because you were looking in the wrong direction as I was with Misha? Or perhaps you thought the solution should be more complicated than it needed to be?

In my situation, I was just to darned smart for my own good. The solution wasn’t nearly as complicated as I had made it. But this experience was a great reminder to me of how often we get lost in our own realities. As a psychologist I can easily thing everything is psychological, because psychology is a big part of my world

Problem solving with people is even more difficult than with cats. But the strategy is really still the same. The first question to ask yourself is, “Is this thing I am observing the signal or the problem?” In Misha’s case, I was observing a signal coming from Misha that was creating a problem for me. In order to solve my problem, I needed to interpret Misha’s signal and develop a solution that would take care of her problem before I could take care of mine.

Recognizing and interpreting the signals that others give us is quite a complex process I realize, but you can improve your skills. And if you are willing to take the time to learn, you can stop a number of crises before they materialize.

For example, I often hear from family business owners that they do not have enough time to attend to themselves or their personal relationships. It’s all work and no play. This is a signal that if ignored will grow into a more serious problem.

You need to ask yourself why are you working so hare? Is that your goal? Most people own a family firm because they have a close-knit family who enjoys being together and who can share their talents in a join venture. But if you are too busy managing the nuts and bolts of the business and have no time to really enjoy and communicate with your family, aren’t you overriding one of the reasons why you started a family business in the first place?

Mistaking signals for the problem is another common error. When a person is angry or aggressive, we tend to listen, but when a person is quiet or passive, we tend to ignore them. Actually, those behaviors are signals of something. Just what they are signals of remains to be discovered.

When one of my daughters was learning her math facts in elementary school, she would complain that she didn’t understand. She hid her papers of just threw them away. She avoided math homework as much as she could. As a result, my husband and I were spending hours each week tutoring her, sometimes staying up for hours coaxing her to try. We even began to wonder if she had a learning disability.

When her teacher suggested that she might be manipulated us, I was shocked. She was always such a nice, sweet, lovable child. She never sucked her thumb or threw a tantrum (pretty rare, right?}. Could she be “snowing” us?

To test out the theory I set up a new system of rewards. If she completed her homework within 30 minutes, without any complaining and without any help from her parents, she could earn a fifty-cent “commission” on her allowance. It only took one day. She knew the math facts all along.

One husband was beside himself because his wife could not keep the house clean. The couple ran the business from their home. Although the husband was out all day with customers, the wife was at home taking care of the four small children answering business calls, and running the company office. The couple had already problem solved somewhat and come up with occasional day care and even a once a month housecleaner, but still the house was a mess.

The problem was they were focusing on the messy house instead of what it represented. In this case, it represented that the wife was torn about her goals. She wanted to be part of the business, but she also wanted to parent her children. Making more time for her to clean the house, a chore she really didn’t like anyway, wasn’t the solution. What worked, however, was to set up a system where she could participate in both worlds without them overlapping so much.

The company office was moved from the dining table to a separate room off the garage. Then the wife devised a schedule that kept her work time separate from her family time. Using these two boundaries, the workspace and the time frame, she was able to be fully with her work and fully with her children when she wanted to.

The bottom line here is that all human behavior is meaningful. But the meaning may come disguised as signals that look like problems themselves. Alcoholism is a signal of a pervasive illness. Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, may be a sign of overwork, too much stress, a lack of parental guidance, or even confusion in the work place. If you try to solve the problem of alcoholism by reducing the person’s stress at work, the alcoholic may just have more time to drink. Likewise, if you recommend alcohol treatment for the person who is abusing alcohol, they may stop drinking but find other self-destructive methods to cope with problems at work.

Whenever I am confronted with this dilemma (Is it a signal or a problem?), I ask myself, “How does this behavior make sense to the person engaging in the behavior?” Don’t ask, “How does it make sense to me?”

If the behavior belongs to someone else, chances are it makes sense in their model of reality, which may look very different than yours. In the case of the couple with the messy house, what made sense according to the wife’s model of reality is that the wife wanted to have a neat house but she wanted something else more. In order to get a clean house, it was necessary to help her accomplish what was more important first.

One final word of caution. While my experience with Misha is a reminder that some solutions are easy and superficial, many problems require deeper probing. While a band-aid may suffice for a while, it will save a lot of wasted energy and questioning if surgery is done immediately.

On that note, now is the time to learn that new computer program, revamp your marketing strategy, and take the time from work to just go for a walk.

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