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Recovery Contagion within the Family

Addiction runs in families, but far less known is the fact that recovery also runs in families. Both of these phenomena have captured my attention in recent decades and been the focus of numerous articles.

Scientific studies are unravelling the factors that combine to elevate risk of intergenerational transmission of addiction and related problems. These mechanisms of transmission include genetic and neurobiological influences, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, assortative mating (attraction of those exposed to parental addition to individuals who share this family history), co-occurring conditions, temperament, developmental and historical trauma, family dynamics (e.g., parental/sibling modeling and collusion), early age of alcohol and other drug (AOD) exposure, and disruption of family rituals. (See here for review of studies). Rigorous studies have yet to be conducted on the prevalence, patterns, and mechanisms through which addiction recovery of one family member increased the probability of other addicted family members also initiating a recovery process. The purpose of the present blog is to offer some observations on these issues drawn from decades of observation of families impacted by and recovering from severe and persistent AOD problems. The following suggestions should be viewed as hypotheses to be tested via scientific studies and more expansive clinical observations.

  • Innumerable patterns of recovery transmission exist within families. Recovery transmission may occur intergenerationally (e.g., parent to child) and Intragenerationally (between siblings) and reach the extended family and social network. The recovery influence may also be bi-directional, e.g., mother in recovery to addicted child, child in recovery to addicted mother). Recovery transmission, like addiction, can also skip generations.
  • The probability of recovery initiation of an addicted family member increases as the density of recovery within an addiction-affected family network increases. The contagiousness of recovery and the push and pull forces towards recovery increase exponentially as other family members initiate recovery and as overall health of the family system improves.
  • The mechanisms of recovery transmission within affected families include:
    1. infusion into the family of increased knowledge about addiction and recovery by the family member(s) in recovery,
    2. withdrawal of family support for active addiction,
    3. truth-telling about the addicted family member’s behavior and its effects on the family
    4. elicitation of hope,
    5. recovery role modeling,
    6. active engagement and recovery guidance by family member(s) in recovery,
    7. assertive linkage and co-participation in recovery mutual aid and other recovery support institutions,
    8. assistance when needed in accessing professional treatment,
    9. post-treatment monitoring and support, and
    10. adjustments in family life to accommodate recovery support activities for recovering members and family as a whole.

These individual mechanisms achieve heightened power when sequenced and combined over time.

  • Recovery of a family member can spark personal reevaluations of AOD consumption of other family members, resulting in a potential decrease in AOD use and related risk behaviors, even among family members without a substance use disorder. This may constitute a hidden benefit of recovery in lowering addiction-related costs to community and society.
  • The recovery contagion effect on other family members exists even when the recovering family member isolated themselves from the family to protect his or her own recovery stability. The family’s knowledge of the reality of his or her continued recovery and its effects on their health and functioning exerts pressure towards recovery even in absence of direct contact.
  • One of the most complicated forms of recovery contagion is between intimate partners who both experience AOD problems. The recovery of one partner destabilizes the relationship and increases the probability of recovery initiation of the other; addiction recurrence in one partner increases the recurrence risk in the other partner. Recovery stability is greatest when each partner established their own recovery program in tandem with activities to support “couple recovery.”
  • Where conflict exists between a family member in recovery and a family member in active addiction (e.g., a father in recovery and an actively addicted son), the conflict can serve as an obstacle to recovery initiation of the addicted family member. Though recovery initiation may be slowed, recovery prognosis is still increased and the conflicted relationship is often reconciled when both parties are in recovery. When not reconciled, conflict can continue to be played out via different pathways of recovery.

It is rare to escape injury to family within the addiction experience. Such injuries increase progressively within families in which multiple people are experiencing AOD-related problems. For those of us who find ourselves in such circumstances, the greatest gift we can offer our family is our own recovery.

Related Papers of Potential Interest

Evans, A. C., Lamb, R., & White, W. L. (2014). Promoting intergenerational resilience and recovery: Policy, clinical, and recovery support strategies to alter the intergenerational transmission of alcohol, drug, and related problems. Philadelphia: Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. Posted at

Navarra, R. & White, W. (2014) Couple recovery. Posted at

White, W. & Savage, B. (2003) All in the Family: Addiction, recovery, advocacy.   Posted at

White, W. (2014) Addiction recovery and intergenerational resilience Posted at

White, W. (2017). Family recovery 101. Posted at

White, W. Addiction/Recovery as a family tradition. Posted at

White, W. (2015) All in the family: Recovery resource review.

White, W. L. & Chaney, R. A. (2008). Intergenerational patterns of resistance and recovery within families with histories of alcohol and other drug problems: What we need to know. Posted at

White, W. L. & White. A. M. (2011).  Tips for recovering parents wishing to break intergenerational cycles of addiction. Posted at: