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General Systems Theory of Addiction and Recovery Implications

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D. Updated: Jun 5th 2019

General systems theory stresses the importance of groups and their influences over individual people. We all exist within a set of nested social systems. These nested social systems can include families, organizations, neighborhoods, societies, cultures, etc. According to this theory, we can only understand individual behavior by considering these group influences.

social networkAccording to general systems theory, addiction is caused by larger social systems that surround an individual. To illustrate this somewhat confusing concept, consider a single cell within an organism. In order to understand the behavior of a single cell, we need to understand the tissue, the organ, the organ system, and the body, in which the cell is functioning.

Systems theory proposes that all systems like the maintain balance and harmony. The common expression, "Don't rock the boat" aptly describes a system's need to maintain balance. Therefore, every individual within any given system participates in the maintenance of that balance. However, if the natural balance (status quo) of a system is dysfunctional, then the system serves to maintain that dysfunction. In other words, it would "rock the boat" if we tried to improve the systems functioning. This is how some dysfunctional systems can promote and foster addictive behavior for some individuals in that system. With respect to addiction, the principal system of interest is the family system.

Like all systems, families operate to maintain a balance. Usually this entails activities and pressures to avoid conflict, hostility, aggression, or other things that leads to disharmony. The cost of maintaining this balance can be quite high. When someone in a family attempts to discontinue their addiction, it affects all the family members. In other words, recovery "rocks the boat."

Recovery involves family therapy that evaluates the family system. This evaluation serves to uncover hidden forces that serve to continue dysfunction. These forces have allowed addiction to flourish. Once these forces are identified, family members work together to foster a more functional family system that does not promote addiction. For instance, mom may drink in the evening because she is lonely. This is how she copes with raising three children by herself. Meanwhile, her husband spends most of his time watching TV. Whenever her husband complains about her drinking a conflict erupts. In response to this unbalancing conflict, mom drinks more, and so the cycle continues. A systems approach would suggest the husband delay watching TV until all the children have finished their homework and are in bed. The therapist may ask husband and wife may to spend time together in the evening sharing an activity they both enjoy. These activities help the family system maintain a more functional balance.

Questions for personal reflection from general systems theory: Don't I need to take a hard look at the dynamics of my family? Everyone says they want me to get better. But, isn't it odd they seem to set me up to remain addicted? Why is it that my wife leaves me alone when I'm stoned? Yet, the moment I try to recover, she has a mile-long list of things she wants me to do. Every time I start to get better, I swear they do things that push me back in. Maybe a good family therapist can help us.


A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D.

Practical Recovery, established in 1985, is the world's leader in collaborative addiction treatment. Located in San Diego, California (USA), we offer a full range inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment services that are customized for each person. We rely on proven methods, informed by the latest neuroscience and addictions research. Our methods empower people to create their own solutions for healthy living, rather than relying on the 12-step powerlessness approach. Most services are provided by doctoral level, university-trained clinicians. We provide individual and group sessions; medications and detox as needed; flexible length of stay; and optional holistic healing. We offer modern comforts and conveniences such as private rooms; gourmet meals; excursions to the beach; mobile communication; and computer access. For a complimentary consultation, call 800-977-6110.

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