Family of Origin: The Circumplex Model & Addiction

Posted on June 29, 2012


The Circumplex Model (Olson, 2008) is a way of representing family dynamics and expectations.  The model looks at family traits along two axes: Closeness and Flexibility.  Closeness is a representation of the degree of connectedness in the family.  On one extreme is “disconnection” on the other is “over connectedness” (sometimes called “enmeshment”).  For disconnected families there is too much separateness (more “I” than “we”), little closeness, lack of loyalty, and a high level of independence.  Overly connected (disengaged) families exhibit the opposite traits: too much togetherness (too much “we,” not enough “I”), too much closeness, a demand for total loyalty to the family, and high dependency.  As with so many areas in life, health is found in balance.  The healthiest families are able to establish a balance between “I” and “we” (separateness and togetherness).  Closeness and loyalty are present, but not in the extreme.  These families can be viewed as being interdependent rather than dependent or independent.

The second axis is Flexibility, the ability to adapt leadership to the changing needs of the family.  On one extreme are inflexible (rigid) families in which leadership is authoritarian, discipline is strict, roles seldom change, and too little change is allowed.  At the other end of the spectrum are families which are overly flexible (chaotic).  These families may be characterized by a lack of leadership, inconsistent or erratic discipline, dramatically shifting roles, and too much change.  As with closeness, health is in finding a balance.  More balanced families have shared leadership, more democratic discipline, sharing of roles, and the capability to change as the family moves through the family life cycle and faces new challenges.  Along both these axes, families may have leanings to one end or the other but still be balanced enough for healthy functioning.

One of the uses of this model is in looking at family expectation for engaged couples.  In pre-marital counseling using PREPARE-ENRICH, couples look at both their experience in their families of origin and also at their relationship together.  Understanding expectations for connectedness and flexibility in marriage can be helpful to a couple in avoiding conflict over closeness (or lack thereof) and role expectations.

The model is also useful in understanding addiction.  Carnes (1998) noted some commonalities among sex addicts.  First, 87% of sex addicts report that there were other addicts in the family.  Relative to the Circumplex Model, 77% came from rigid (inflexible) family systems and 87% came from disengaged (disconnected) family systems.  Family systems that lack flexibility and a sense of connection (particularly combined with the presence of other addicts) provide fertile ground for developing addiction.  Combining such a family system with early abuse (emotional, sexual, and/or physical) or trauma plants the seed for addiction to grow.

Though most sex addicts have these types of family histories, it is not a given that everyone with such family histories becomes a sex addict.  It is also not necessary for all who become addicted to compulsive sexual behavior to view this as a life sentence.  Many are able to overcome past attachment injuries, family of origin issues, and histories of trauma or abuse.  Therapeutic support is helpful in working through these issues and arriving at a place where one’s past no longer adversely impacts one’s present or future.


Carnes, P. (1998).  The making of a sex addict.  Retrieved from 27 June 27, 2012.

Olson, D. (2008). PREPARE-ENRICH Couples workbook.  Minneapolis: Life Innovations.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

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Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).