Vaillant, in examining the course of recovery from alcoholism, found that quite commonly those who recovered “acquired a new love object.” Basically, those who recovered found someone to love and be loved by, someone who had not been part of the active alcoholism. This cannot be used as evidence that family treatment is not warranted because there has been too much water over the dam, too much pain, and too much guilt. The sample he studied were those who were treated prior to the time in which family involvement in treatment was commonplace. So who knows what the outcome would have been had attention been directed to family members as well. Early intervention was not the rule then either. His sample consisted of long-established cases of alcoholism. However, it does serve to remind us of an important fact. Not all families will come through alcoholism treatment intact. Divorce is not uncommon in our society. Even if alcoholics had a divorce rate similar to that for nonalcoholics, it would still mean a substantial number of divorces. Therefore, for some families, the work of family counseling will be to achieve a separation, with the least pain possible and in the least destructive manner for both partners and their children.
Issues of family relationships are not important just for the alcoholic whose family is intact. For the alcoholic who enters treatment divorced and/or estranged from the family, the task during the early treatment phase will be to help him make it without family supports. Other family members may well have come to the conclusion long ago that cutting off contacts with the alcoholic was necessary for their welfare. Even if contacted when the alcoholic enters treatment, they may refuse to have anything to do with him or his treatment. However, with many months or years of sobriety, the issue of broken family ties may emerge. The recovering alcoholic may desire a restoration of family contacts and have the emotional and personal stability to attempt it, be it with parents, siblings, or the alcoholic’s own children.
If the alcoholic remains in follow-up treatment with a counselor, the counselor ought to be alert to this. If the alcoholic is successful, it will still involve stress; very likely many old wounds will be opened. If the attempt is unsuccessful, the counselor will be able to provide support and help the person find a new adjustment in the face of those unfulfilled hopes. As family treatment becomes an integral part of treatment for alcoholism, the hope is that fewer families will experience a total disruption of communications in the face of alcoholism. It is hoped that a more widespread knowledge of the symptoms of alcoholism may facilitate reconciliation of previously estranged families.