Family Healing through Forgiveness

Family Healing through Forgiveness


Systemic Family Disease

Families are hidden victims of substance use suffered by a family member. The family is trapped in family survival behavioral and emotional reactions that resemble a systemic family disease, the impact substance use disorder has on the family system. A systemic family disease affects all members of a family and becomes the central organizing principle of the family system, controlling and dictating family members’ assigned family roles and family rules, unhealthy interactional behavioral patterns and communicational patterns. This systemic family disease forces family members to compensate and give up aspects of their own sense of self as an attempt to keep the family in balance. The systemic family disease (the impact of substance use on the family system) must change by shifting the interactional behavioral patterns between family members.

Mirroring Behavioral Patterns

Consequently, the family system dictates what I conceptualize as mirroring behavioral patterns. Both the suffering substance user-family member and suffering family members demonstrate these patterns. Mirroring behavioral patterns are the result of the substance use disorder becoming the central organized principle within the family system dictating unhealthy family functioning and unbalance within the system. An example of mirroring behavioral patterns is denial by the substance using family member, which resembles enabling behavior by family members. However, after a much closer look into the family system, the denial behavior is actually a mirroring behavioral pattern of the substance user’s behaviors and played out by family members to adapt to the loved one’s substance use rather than confront it (Kilpatrick & Holland, 2009).


Moreover, the centralizing root of mirroring behavioral patterns demonstrated within an impacted systemic family disease family system is the lack of forgiveness that exists within the family unit. Waldron & Kelley (2008) define forgiveness as a relational process whereby harmful conduct is acknowledged by one or both partners; the harmed partner extends undeserved mercy to the perceived transgressor; one or both partners experience a transformation from negative to positive psychological states; and the meaning of the relationships is renegotiated, with the possibility of reconciliation. In addition, the Scripture indicates “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you have a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). As God has done for us he requires us to consider for others: the act of forgiveness. Furthermore, repentance is instrumental in the process of forgiveness. The repentance process is the responsibility of each family members within the family system to embrace and become honest with one another. The family functions as a system, with this in mind, there is also shared harmful conduct that is demonstrated within the family system. It is imperative for the family members to recognize they did not cause the individual family member’s substance use behavior, yet according to Minuchin (1994), the substance use disorder is often a by-product or symptom of a larger family issue. Forgiveness is a relational process, as it relates to a family it is also a systemic process, a shared responsibility that will facilitate family healing within the family system.

Family Healing Through Forgiveness

Family members must be willing to participate in the process of forgiveness. According to Minuchin (1974) family members must be willing to change their interactions with one another, mirroring behavioral patterns in order for change to take place. Recovery, along with the process of family healing reinforces the divine and emotional restoration that forgiveness can bring to a family system trapped within a systemic family disease, such as substance use and demonstrated through mirroring behavioral patterns.  The healing power of forgiveness, particularly when guided by God can break through the dysfunctional family cycle of mirroring behavioral patterns. Forgiveness, a family healing process, allows a family system to work through the shame, guilt and control that are often manifested through mirroring behavioral patterns demonstrated by the substance user and mirrored by family members. More importantly, family healing through forgiveness alters mirroring behavioral patterns from being unhealthy survival strategies into the facilitation of transparent and transformative family communication of emotional reactivity accompanied by behavioral change within the family system.


Brown and Lewis (1989). Family in Recovery at the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto. California: Palo Alto.

Kilpatrick, A.C., & Holland, T.P. (2006). Working with Families: An Integrative Model by Level of Need. (5th edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Fields, R. (2001). Drugs in Perspective: A Personalized Look at Substance Use and Abuse (4th edition). Boston: McGraw Hill Publishing.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Waldron, V. R., & Kelley, D. L. (2008). Communicating Forgiveness. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Dr. Tracey M. Duncan
is the Chairperson of the MA in Counseling Program at Pillar College in Newark, New Jersey and Associate Professor in Counselor Education. Dr. Duncan obtained her Ph.D. from Drexel University in Couple and Family Therapy and Educational Specialist Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from the College of New Jersey. Dr. Duncan is a Licensed Professor Counselor (LPC), Certified Substance Abuse and Addictions Counselor and Certified Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS). Dr. Duncan’s areas of specialization are Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Substance Use Disorder Counseling, Clinical Supervision/Mentoring. In addition, Dr. Duncan has presented at various national and international conferences and learning institutions on alternating topics associated with her areas of specialization, specifically her use of the modified Delphi Study methodology approach used to conduct and publish current research studies such as, Exploring the Experiences of Transporting Functional Family Therapy into Community Based Programs and Exploring the Facilitators and Barriers for Implementing CACREP-accreditations standards in Counselor Education Programs. Dr. Duncan currently serves on various peer-reviewed publications journal editorial boards, such as the Journal of Family Therapy Review, Journal of Counselor Education Supervision (ACES) and Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision (NACRES).  In addition, Dr. Duncan also serves on various committees for the International Association of Family and Marriage Counselors (IAMFC), Chi Sigma Iota, International and the International Association of Addictions and Offenders Counseling (IAAOC). Furthermore, Dr. Duncan’s research interests are families impacted by substance use within the family system, project-based learning methods used for course instructional designs in substance related disorder counseling and marriage and family therapy and translational research of family evidence based interventions designed to treat adolescent substance use disorder.