Emotional Addiction: What It Is and How It Impacts Families in Recovery
By Scott H. Silverman

Addiction is often viewed as a physical issue. Whether someone is addicted to drugs, alcohol, shopping, or gambling—the addiction often seems rooted in the tangible world. Take away the substance or habit, and the addiction should theoretically be solved.

However, decades of research and the shared experience of many people in recovery will tell you that addiction can be far more emotional and psychological than so many people realize. Addiction starts long before any substance is consumed.

An example of this lies in the complex nature of emotional addiction. In this article, we will discuss what emotional addiction is and how it can impact both individuals and entire family systems.

What is Emotional Addiction?

Addiction isn’t strictly dependent on substances or behaviors and can be emotional or interpersonal. Addiction can take many forms.

What does emotional addiction mean, exactly? Emotional addiction is an unhealthy preoccupation with a certain feeling, emotional state, or relationship. The person experiencing emotional addiction can:

  • Feel extreme distress if the emotional state is in question.
  • Experience negative, intrusive, or compulsive thoughts if the desired emotional state isn’t maintained.
  • Get a “high” from the chaos and drama of emotional turbulence.
  • Exhibit extreme behaviors to maintain the desired emotional state.
  • Work tirelessly to maintain the emotional state, even if it happens to be a negative one.

Emotional addiction can resemble the traditional addictions (like drugs and alcohol) many people are familiar with. Often, emotional addiction will manifest itself in relationships. This could look like highly codependent romantic relationships and can even exist within family systems. Parents can develop unhealthy codependence on rescuing their children, siblings can build unhealthy attachments throughout their lives, and entire families can get caught up in a web of toxic emotional addiction.

How Emotional Addiction Impacts Family Systems

Most families provide love and encouragement to one another, even when times are tough. However, not all families are healthy or emotionally stable. Some thrive in a system of toxicity and codependence that can create and foster emotional addiction.

Emotional addiction in a family can look like:

  • The entire family justifies, enables, and makes excuses for one family member's unhealthy behaviors.
  • Physical, psychological, or emotional abuse that is normalized by all the members of the family.
  • The family's "us versus them" mentality discourages outside relationships and support.
  • Sabotaging efforts to gain independence or autonomy from the family system.

Interestingly, many families thrive on a member or members of the family engaging in active substance use or alcohol addiction. This sounds counterintuitive, but the stress and chaos can become a source of codependence and emotional addiction, with family members actively or subconsciously enabling and even supporting the addictive behavior. The cycle of emotional turmoil becomes familiar and comfortable, with members of the family acting to maintain this sense of tumultuous normalcy.

Now, very few people would ever admit (or even realize) this kind of pattern on a conscious level. Many family members will justify their unhealthy habits as "just trying to help" by supporting or enabling active addiction in one or several family members. This denial can make the healing process even harder to start and maintain.

How to Gain Freedom from Emotional Addiction Within the Family

The first step to overcoming emotional addiction is recognizing that it even exists in the first place. Emotional addiction is poorly understood by most and may not even register as an actual addiction to many. Often, the concept of “family” is pedestalized in society, which can make breaking free of unhealthy family systems even harder. Many people feel extreme guilt and obligation towards their biological family, which makes disrupting harmful and generational patterns difficult. Often, change will only begin when one of the family members breaks free and seeks their own form of recovery.

Creating an identity outside the family is the next step to gaining independence. This can be a difficult challenge for many who have a lifetime of pressure placed on them by their family to remain eternally dedicated, loyal, and focused on the family. But finding hobbies, activities, and social supports outside of the household can provide much-needed clarity and perspective on the family dynamics that can hold everyone back.

Lastly, there are many skills that can be learned and practiced to overcome emotionally addictive relationships. Often, detaching from an emotionally unhealthy family is easier said than done, and few people can (or are willing to) cut family off completely. But boundary setting, mindfulness, emotional regulation, and self-care can help you stay emotionally strong and healthy regardless of how others are choosing to behave.


If you recognize the unhealthy dynamics within your own relationships or family system, finding support and recovery can help you break the cycle in your life. Individual counseling can be incredibly effective in building self-esteem and identity outside the emotionally addictive family structure. Family counseling can also be beneficial in recognizing and resolving toxic patterns within the family, as long as the participants are all willing and open to change.

If you're in the San Diego area and would like support on breaking the cycle of emotional addiction, call me today at (619) 993-2738, or contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness hotline at 1-800-950-6264 for more resources.

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman is a high-profile expert on addiction and recovery, making frequent public and media appearances for the last 40 years.  He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic, and the Founder and CEO of Confidential Recovery, a San Diego substance abuse treatment center that specializes in helping Veterans and First Responders get and stay sober.


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