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Assertive Communication Within Open Family Systems

Mar 30, 2021

Stephen R. Honaker, LMHC, QS

In my work with families impacted by the disease of addiction, one of the primary changes to the family system that occurs is within the area of communication. Assuming that healthy communication existed before the presence of addiction, which is frequently not the case, communication patterns can deteriorate towards very unhealthy extremes within the family system.

In this article, I will look at several unhealthy forms of communication. I will also review common barriers that contribute to a breakdown in assertive communication. Finally, I will address how healthy, assertive communication supports the overall health of the family.

If you or a loved one need help, call our admissions team today at 561-270-1753.

What is Assertive Communication?

While there are likely many definitions of assertive communication, I love the Impact Factory’s explanation. This London-based organization trains individuals and organizations in the area of personal, professional development. They identify assertive communication as:

  • The ability to express positive and negative ideas and feelings in an open, honest, and direct way
  • Recognizing our rights while still respecting the rights of others
  • Taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions without judging or blaming other people
  • Constructively confronting and finding a mutually satisfying solution where conflict exists

On the “continuum of communication,” assertive communication is the destination we strive to work within for individuals and families. Direct, honest, open (respectful) communication helps create an environment to express ideas and emotions in healthy ways. It also allows for conflict resolution and problem-solving in which individuals are less likely to become defensive. Assertive communication is vital for healthy relationships within the family.

Unhealthy Forms of Communication

While assertive communication is the goal in healthy (open) families, often other communication patterns become predominant in the presence of addiction. As the diseases progress, family members find it more challenging to communicate assertively.

Three unhealthy yet common communication styles that can develop are:

  • Passive Communication
  • Aggressive Communication
  • Passive-Aggressive Communication

Passive communication occurs when family members begin to walk on eggshells around each other and avoid difficult topics. Frequently family members will avoid speaking about the “pink elephant” and pretend that it does not exist. There are likely to be secrets within the family, and emotions will be superficial or non-existent.

Aggressive communication occurs when family members communicate with great force or in a loud, demanding, aggressive manner. Aggressive communicators express their feelings and opinions in a way that violates the boundaries or rights of others. Aggressive communicators may be verbally or physically abusive and often attempt to dominate or control others. They frequently are hyper-critical, and because of their low frustration tolerance, aggressive communicators will often attack or blame others.

Passive–aggressive communication occurs (according to the University of Kentucky’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center) when family members communicate passively on the surface but act out anger, bitterness, or resentments in an indirect way. Family members who share passive-aggressively often feel powerless or incapable of dealing directly with the person who has upset them. Passive–aggressive communicators often use sarcasm, communicate indirectly with various forms of body language, or attempt to “get even” through subtle forms of sabotage.

While addictions can occur in any type of family system, how family members communicate is one of many factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of addressing the issue in a healthy way. Unfortunately, all three of the unhealthy communication styles listed above contribute to creating an environment in which substance use disorders are more likely to thrive.

Changing Communication Styles within Families

Now that we have identified the importance of assertive communication within families and the various unhealthy patterns that family members may fall prey to let’s examine the barriers that prevent family members from changing the way they communicate. While this list is not exhaustive, it highlights several challenges that I face in my work with families as an Headwaters counselor.

  • Lack of Skills or Knowledge – One of the most common barriers to assertive communication is that family members simply have not been taught or lack the skills necessary to communicate. Educating family members on assertive communication and providing them opportunities to practice these skills can change the family’s communication patterns.
  • Lack of Trust – Assertive communication normally requires transparency and vulnerability missing in unhealthy communication forms. Family members are less likely to take a risk if they feel unsafe in doing so. Creating a safe environment and teaching family members the importance of validating others’ feelings can reinforce assertive communication.
  • Cultural Norms – Communication in other cultures can look quite different and needs appropriate respect to facilitate change.
  • Core Beliefs Regarding Emotions – This is an issue that I see frequently. What people believe regarding emotions will directly affect how they communicate. If a family member believes they are responsible for how someone else feels, they may not share something painful with the other person. Often family members believe that they do not have the right to be assertive or that being assertive is negative. For example, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” These dysfunctional beliefs are almost always developed within our family of origin or through early childhood experiences or traumas.

Closing Remarks

Important areas to address with the family members of individuals with addiction can include:

  • Acceptance of Addiction as a Disease – Whether a family member accepts that their loved one has an illness or believes that it is a choice significantly impacts how they treat their loved one or whether they can develop empathy for their loved one’s struggles.
  • Acceptance of the “Family Disease”– If family members and loved ones understand how their family’s disease impacted them and that recovery is possible, they can significantly increase their overall health and ability to support their loved ones.
  • Healthy Boundaries – The establishment or re-establishment of healthy boundaries contributes to safety and security within the family.
  • Self-Care and Support – Family members benefit from and deserve recovery.

While all of the above-listed areas are vital for family members, changing how family members communicate is often at or near the top of the list. The ability to communicate in a direct, honest, open, and respectful way is the reconstructive glue for families. It can allow healing to occur and these other areas of importance to take root.


Headwaters is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 561-270-1753.

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