If You Love Someone with Alcoholic Parents

 

Blog art loving an ACOA
This post is for people who love an adult child.

I receive a lot of emails from people who are in a relationship with an adult child of alcoholics. They are trying to understand the person they love, or are trying to love, but they don’t know how to decipher the code of adult children of alcoholics.

I consider an “adult child” someone who was raised by child-like parents, insecure, needy, narcissistic parents; parents who were unable to assist their children in forming their own, independent sense of self during childhood. Rather than nurturing their child’s sense of self, these parents used their child to attempt to uplift their own vulnerable ego. Here are our issues as described by the experts.

Ideally, every baby born into this world is surrounded by unselfish, patient love and nurturing from at least one or two parents. This comes primarily form the mother in the very beginning, who is supported by a loving, consistent partner. It’s important from birth to around age 3 that the family environment maintains itself as loving and consistent–that is, free of chaos. Parents who aren’t self-knowing, grounded, and ready to raise a child have trouble delivering consistent, loving and patient nurturing to their child.  The more inconsistency and chaos in the household, the more stress on the baby–which means more cortisol produced in the body. Stressed families = stressed babies.  Stressed babies = babies that can’t develop the trust and calm that allows them to fully thrive.

This post describes what it’s like to grow up in an alcoholic family.

As the years go on, the baby raised in a stressful, inconsistent home environment develops a battle-ready Fight or Flight response, does not develop the natural ability to trust, and thrives on chaos simply because it’s so familiar. When the child’s parent is alcoholic and self-centered, the child never gets help processing their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences–so they learn to ignore themselves and focus on the needs of others instead, as they were trained to do.

What follows is in no way to be interpreted as an excuse for bad behavior, by the way.  Just like anyone (adult child, or not), if someone has issues that are unresolved, the relationship will be used, in some fashion, to process the issues. That will often result in a short-lived relationship, but not always.  Find out if the person you care for has done any self-improvement work to deal with their childhood, whether therapy, a twelve-step group, lots and lots of reading, or some other, structured, form of working through the problems that a childhood with an alcoholic parents creates.

If you’ve arrived here looking for the answer to the hard question, “Should I end my relationship?” you may get some information you need, but I’m not sure it will make your hard, important decision that much easier.  (A good rule of thumb, by the way, is to set a time-limit on your decision; put your decision to end your relationship on hold for 2 weeks, 2 months, 6 months, etc. Then, reassess things.  This will help you know for sure, and prevent you from making a decision you’ll regret.  Don’t ever think you’re “wasting time” in a relationship–relationships are never wasted time, not if you’re actively attempting to enjoy your moments with another person.)

Here are some things that I think make us great in spite of our chaotic childhoods.

We Have a Soft Core, But a Steel Wrapper
We are extremely sensitive people and we are very sensitive to other people–all people, including strangers.  And animals!  We feel other people’s feelings. This makes us great listeners and really compassionate people.  The problem is, we often forget to honor our own feelings because we make the mistake of prioritizing the feelings of others first way too often.  Yet, because we were raised in chaotic environments in which we had to be ready at any moment for a family battle, our sensitivity is hidden in a hard-to-get-at steel wrapper.

It’s hard to get at our soft centers, but not impossible.  And worth the effort!

We Are Loyal
Too loyal. Once we know someone, we always have their best interest in mind, and will defend them against all harm to the full extent of our abilities.  We’re kind of like big, protective brothers in that regard. Unfortunately, because we are so loyal, we sometimes make the mistake of staying loyal to a person or situation (or job) that doesn’t deserve our fantastic loyalty.

Trust is Difficult for Us
This is one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” deals.  We find it almost impossible to trust people.  That’s not because you’re not trustworthy, by the way (though if your self-esteem is low, you may make the mistake of thinking our trust issues are about you).  It’s because we grew up in such unstable, inconsistent environments–we were, essentially, trained not to trust. (Years ago, my father yelled at me, “There is no safety in the world, and no one deserves safety from this world.”)

If you were to evaluate us based solely on our upbringing, you’d come to the conclusion that we were raised for battle–to be on-edge and ‘ready’ at all times for chaos to break. We had, and many of us still have, a lot more cortisol (the stress chemical) running through our bodies as children than all other kids. Kids who were raised in consistent environments could relax and enjoy their childhoods because people behaved in predictable ways. But us–we always played with one eye watching the horizon.

We Can’t Truly Relax Very Often
(But we’re working on that!)  Because of the chaos always about to strike in our households, we’ve always got one hand on our sword.  Even if we look relaxed, even if we appear to be laughing without a care in the world, we’re still ready to steel ourselves against the attack of a drunken parent’s words upon returning home–or for you to turn on us (again, we don’t really think you will, but we were raised to expect it).

We Appreciate Patience
We wish you would be really, really patient with us. As smart as we may be, sometimes, when it comes to emotions, it takes us a while to sort out how we feel.  It might seem like a simple thing, to know how you feel…but it’s not always obvious to us.  The same goes for what we want to do today…we need time to sort out what we think you want from us versus what we want for us.  It’s sometimes an effort for us to remember what we like to do.

We Don’t Like to Be Told What to Do
We don’t particularly like to be told what to do. We don’t handle that well, because we have no learned respect for authority figures, because we’re stubborn, insecure, and we seek approval constantly(well, depending on our level of self-improvement, that is!)  No matter what you do, we’re probably going to interpret what you say as if you’re (a) criticizing us and/or (b) telling us what to do.

It’s the job of an ACoA, of course, to learn to cope with this issue, so as not to take everything personally, because it causes us a lot of pain.  However, while we’re working on that, there are some tricks you can use to side-step the issue.

Instead of saying, “You should…” Say, “I would…” instead.

Instead of saying, “Why are you…trying to carry all the bags at once?”  Say, “Let me help you with those…” Or, “You’ll still be a champion, even if you make two or three trips to carry those in.” (Again, sneak in some humor and loving kindness.)

It Takes Us A While to Pull Ourselves Up Again
Sometimes, after a hurt or personal setback, we will need to mentally, emotionally, or verbally piece ourselves back together again (or all three).  What I mean is that if we experience a setback or hurt of some sort that we’re not quick to bounce back like other people are.  We will often need to go through an emotional process in order to cope with the event, before finally coming to the conclusion that we can recover and move on.  (If we’d had parents who had given us the space and opportunity to be upset and helped us process our feelings and resolve them, it would be a much faster process for us as adults.)

We Need Laughter, Desperately
We wish that you would laugh at us more (but laughing with us is good, too).

We don’t really want you to laugh at us, in a mean way, but in a loving way–so that we can laugh at ourselves.  We really, really need to learn to laugh at ourselves.  We just first need a very safe, loving space in which to do it. Laughter is healing.  What makes a safe and loving environment?  Well, if we do something “typical,” and you poke fun, and smile, then hug or kiss us and say you love that about us, then that’s cool.  The exaggeration technique works well.  Like, say you said this to your girlfriend or boyfriend, “You realize that you’re not going to fit all those shoes and jeans in that suitcase, right?”  And your love shoots you a hurt+angry look because he or she interprets your comment as, “You are greedy to want to take all that on the trip, and you are dumb to be trying to make it work.” But, because he/she is an ACoA, he/she really believes that all the stuff will fit, even if that defies physics and gravity. We’re stubborn. So you say something like this instead: “I sure hope you’re going to try to pack my clothes in there too, and the cat, more hangers, a frozen pizza, a few more pairs of shoes, and….”  (You get the idea.)  Play to their determination, make it funny. Again, exaggerate.

Thank you for loving us, and for caring enough about love to understand where another person comes from.

-be kind to yourself.
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Another article I wrote about loving an ACoA is this one, which I wrote for the Love & Life toolbox in April 2015, “Being in a Relationship with an Adult Child of an Alcoholic.” Enjoy!

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Comments

  1. Wow! This post is spot-on!
    I have a narcistic father, and I feel exactly the same way. I’m going to print this list for the day I actually trust someone enough to start a relationship …

  2. amy eden says:

    For the day… Thats optimistic, you know? :-) Love it.

  3. Greg_poland says:

    It’s tough to be with us in a relationship, but hey..your choice :)

    • mia says:

      I’m in one. I feel like my patience and research are never ending.

    • Terri says:

      It’s not really a free choice for many of us. I allowed myself to believe a bunch of lies and now I have three kids with someone I consider to be a narcissist, at least mildly sociopathic, and very, very destructive to me and the kids. The emotional abuse, the lies, the gaslighting. . .love isn’t always enough to sustain an actual relationship with someone this hurt and damaged in their childhood. Wish I’d known more. My advice would be don’t get sucked into this in the first place. If you do, don’t ever plan on having kids with someone who has these kinds of issues until and unless they are fully resolved. . .not just buried and waiting to explode.

      • Amy Eden says:

        Exactly. If the issues haven’t been explored and dealt with — as well as managed in an ongoing way — things will…eventually…surface if not explode.

        Thank you!

  4. Chanel Bags says:

    Thanks a good deal! I truly enjoyed reading this.Looking through these posts and the information you’ve provided I can appreciate that I still have a lot of things to learn. I will keep reading and keep re-visiting.

  5. Randomsumm3r says:

    Hi there, thanks so much for this post. My Mother is an ACOA and I’ve been trying to understand her better for the last couple of years. Can you recommend one of the books in your sidebar that would be particularly good for me to read? I know the original has a chapter, “If you love an ACOA” but can you suggest further readings? Thanks again. Rachel

  6. amy eden says:

    Hi! Happy to. This ones the best for a solid, brief intro to what it means to be the child of alcoholics – the Kritsberg book:
    http://www.amazon.com/Adult-Children-Alcoholics-Syndrome-Discovery/dp/0553272799/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8s=booksqid=1280443118sr=8-1

  7. ilovehim says:

    This is a wonderful article and so helpful. I love an acoa and this helps me understand him better :)

  8. Mimi says:

    Often times I feel no one will truly understand me or love me. Then I read an article like this and I feel someone finally gets it.

  9. Kev says:

    Thanks for the posting. My wife grew up in an alcoholic family. She denies (to me anyway) that it is a problem, yet I can run down the list and see that most of it fits. Not a big deal, but we have four young ones and managing a home, them, and our failed relationship is very tiring and troubling. I give you all credit for taking responsibilty for yourselves, and sharing your experiences. My efforts to try to understand with an appearently unwilling partner are greatly aided by the information you share.
    Thank you again.

    • BJ says:

      Hey Kev,

      I’m there also. I worry though about my kids and the randomness of her decisions and the lack of follow through in her promises to them. I stay in this warped relationship because I feel the children need a constant reminder that there are people in their lives that they can trust and, therefore, they should learn to be trust worthy.

      Good luck my friend, I am about at the end of my rope. Again, last night, she gets angry at something important(my dirty car, my hair cut, my work socks on the floor, the weather, etc) and then claims she is done with me and wants to find someone that she gets along with better and she is moving out. But I think of the children and try to present a calm front (sometimes I just can’t). Its getting old 10yrs ( a nine and five yr old son and daughter)…what to do.

      Sorry, I guess this isn’t the proper place for the whining. Good luck.

      • Jimbo says:

        Hey guys. I’m in the exact same boat. I was always aware that she is an ACoA and did my research. In the beginning the unpredictable blowouts were few and far between. I had the clarity of mind to not take them personally. Now 4 years later the blowouts are coming at a rate of 2/week and are accompanied by alot of distant behaviour (not acknowledging things I say, not answering me, dead staring). Have you experienced this and do you have any strategies? Like yourselves, we have kids and I want to keep the family together. Help!

        • Amy Eden says:

          Is talk therapy an option for your partner?

          It can be a great help to the ACoA when their partner doesn’t take their meltdowns personally — you’re lucky in that sense. (When someone takes it personally, that mind frame can compound and confuse the issue – it can confuse whose issue it is.)

          It’s really helpful when the ACoA sees that their behavior is a symptom of a problematic core issue that can — and should — be worked out with a good therapist. Partners can’t be the therapist, whipping post, or sole support because it’s not fair to either person and doesn’t get at the root issue.

          I recommend therapy, for your partner but why not for you, as well? That might feel more fair. There’s also couple’s counseling.

          Also, it’s important to set some boundaries and limits with regard to the blowups. That means deciding what you need to do when they occur so that it’s clear that behavior isn’t okay with you. Don’t make threats, just set boundaries. For example, “When you get upset like this, it’s hard on me, it feels bad, and it stresses out the family. I need for you to see a therapist and find out what’s going on, so that you can stay calm and feel your feelings without losing control. It’s not okay with me for you continue to have these blowups. Let’s solve the problem before it gets too far out of control and deteriorates the relationship.”

          Write a script and practice it, if you need to. It will go better if you know what you have to say.

          What do you think will work best? What do you want to do about the situation?

  10. Christy says:

    I love love love it!!! You seriously took the words right out of my mouth:) It’s really hard being an adult and constantly working through traits I wish I didn’t have. I’m so thankful I’m concious of them and Awesome enough to continuously work on creating new positive habits. I’m 29 and feel like I’m 17 starting from scratch when it comes to relationships. Having a significant other is such a hard task for us adult children. And continously wanting to run from a good relationship is getting so old. Hoping one day I’ll stop dreaming of my rockstar ways and enjoy the simplicity of an everyday life. Thank you so much for taking the intiative and bringing to light that there is a large group of us out there:) Much Love!!!

    • Amy Eden says:

      It’s definitely a LARGE group of us out there. Oof, is it ever.
      I would love it if those close to me, and those who fall in love with me, would read up on what it means to be from a dysfunctional childhood home. (Of course, chances are they’ll be from one, too — and ideally, they’ll have done some Work). It’s helpful if one’s partner can be emotionally wise enough to understand the value of getting to know where their partner comes from. We all bring such different “cultures” with us, whether the culture is dysfunction, a different class, a different geographical location, etc. If my partner has no interest in finding out Where I Come From, then I’m probably attempting to have a relationship with a self-centered and/or low emotional intelligence person. That’s a non-starter.
      The other side of the coin is that it’s also my job to research where They come from, too. To listen to their stories of their family traditions, etc.
      And finally the third side of the coin (never seen a 3-sided coin??) is that we owe it to ourselves to investigate ourselves and where we come from, too, so that we feel more compassionate towards ourselves and where we’re at in life (29 is YOUNG!) and be able to shed light on ourselves for others.
      Why not….blend rockstar with Calm-routine? A tattooed Buddhist… :-)
      Be you.
      Thanks for the comment! Peace, love xx – amy

  11. mondo says:

    This really open my eyes of what my girlfriend goes thru… I had no idea this was going on… Thank you my sweet princess for sending me this link…

    Mondo… I love you more each day because you show me the real you… thank you for being so honest….

  12. Cedar says:

    My husband is an ACOA, as is his mother. He has been working so hard to heal, and to reshape dysfunctional relationships with his family. I am so proud of him, and absolutely committed to our marriage. But yesterday, he spiraled down because he can’t find the title to the truck he’s trying to sell. He is so punishing of himself when he has these kind of human moments. Unfortunately, at that moment I found myself without the internal resources to support him. It’s been about two months since he finally broke down and let me in to his inner world, and since then I have been determined to support him, even when he tries to push me away. Yesterday, I found my reserves empty. I guess my question for you is how to cope when we are both having a bad day? Thanks in advance!

    • Amy Eden says:

      I love how you call his meltdown a “human” moment! Yes, it is human to lose something and to meltdown. I hope that kind of compassionate thinking becomes available to him as well.

      When both people are having a bad day, it’s a good opportunity to remember that you are you. He is himself. His bad day doesn’t mean you need to have a bad day too. It also doesn’t mean that you need to feel guilty about having a great day when his is bad (and vice-versa). You can say, “If you need a listener, I’m here,” and let him use the opportunity to talk. Otherwise, go about your evening and when your husband’s bad mood blows over, he’ll find you. Love from a distance, is what I’m saying.

      When I read your comment, I remembered this quote from “The Mastery of Love,” a little book by Don Miguel Ruiz (it’s the final sentence that I love.) “In the relationship with your dog, you can have a bad moment. For whatever reason, it happens–an accident, a bad day at work, or whatever. You come home, and the dog is there barking at you, tail wagging, looking for your attention. You don’t feel like playing with the god, but the dog is there. The dog will not feel hurt that you don’t want to play, because it doesn’t take it personally. Once the dog celebrates your arrival and finds out you don’t want to play, the dog goes and plays by itself. The dog doesn’t stay there and insist that you be happy.
      Sometimes you can feel more support from your dog than from a partner who wants to make you happy. If you don’t feel like being happy, and you only want to be quiet, it’s nothing personal. It has nothing to do with your partner. Perhaps you have a problem and you need to be quiet. But that silence can cause your partner to make a lot of assumptions. “What did I do now? It’s because of me.” It has nothing to do with your partner; it’s nothing personal. Left alone, then tension will go away, and you will return to happiness.
      That is why the key int eh lock has to be a match, because if one of you has a bad moment or an emotional crisis, your agreement is to allow each other to be what you are.”

      amy

  13. Clare D says:

    Thank you for writting this article. I am a the girlfriend of a man who has an alcoholic mother, aunt, and grandmother. I come from a family with no alcoholism so it was hard for me to understand the situation his family was in and how it affects him. He is very aware of what the women in his family do (drink/alcoholism) and i have to give him credit cuz he explains it the best way he can. It is just so upsetting when I can see the pain he is in eveytime his mother calls when she is in that state …and wants to pick fight with him for no reason. And he just takes it and is still far to loyal and giving to her in my opinion. I love him so much…he has such a big heart, but whqt worries me is like the article said a child of acoholics can react badly to stress or are just on a high stress over load and it can be hard to manage. And I have seen this because I believe his stress as a child and adult is the cause of his night terrors…bad headaches and has given him 2 heart attacks (and he has no diease…no deformed heart..apparently the doctors say he’s super healthy??) I believe that all this has to do with stressful events.. and because of his childhood. I am always looking for ways to help him and to be the type of partner that he can lean on. This article hae helped explain lots and it all fits to him. If anyone has anymore advise the better. Thank you!

  14. Barye Dellinger says:

    Oh, this is exactly what I needed this morning. I am married to an ACOA. He is truly the love of my life.

    It is so hard…I generally have no idea what to do and sometimes his behaviors just drive me wonky…like seeking my approval? What is that about? I don’t want to be the approver or disapprover. I want him to be his own self. And, all my attempts to bring calm seem to just fail.

    Frankly, I need an ACOA-Anon group.

    What are the baby steps to building a healthy, mutual partnership. We are 3.5 years in to our marriage and I am getting exhausted but I intend to stay married to him for the rest of my life.

    Ruiz’ statement about loving with detachment is great for the messy times. I really like that and can do it. AND, I want to start laying the foundation for less messy times, open and honest communication, love winning.

    Thanks in advance!

    Love, Barye

  15. Chris says:

    I am in love with and committed to an ACoA. We have been in an exclusive relationship for 7 years. Her “symptoms” existed but I never knew it. She held it in and did not communicate things that bothered her immensely. She also did not trust that I was committed to the relationship, but I never knew it. Then recently she shut me out totally out of the blue – by facebook (we do not live together). Her hurt had built up for years and she finally was running from me. We have managed to work it out to the point of getting back together, except that this has all been so painful that she now needs time to herself to process it all and deal with the pain. She is trying hard NOT to run ( a prior relationship pattern), but right now is taking 2 weeks without contact to pull her emotions together. I take comfort that time to process is one of the factors you discuss. She gave me this website, and it is helpful. I am also so proud of her for ‘researching’ the issue. I have now ordered 3 books to learn more. Thanks for this information.

    • Amy Eden says:

      I hope the books helped, and it’s great that you’re willing to read more, learn more, and try to understand what it’s like to have grown up with emotional abuse and chronic drama/anger/ups-and-downs of being an adult child of alcoholic parents. (Seven years is a hallmark time, whether it’s an ACoA-related relationship, or not. So there may be more than one force at work.) It has probably been very upsetting for her to have this sudden BIG reaction and need to shut-down. I hope that you’re both able to openly and honestly sort out the next steps, which may take time and lots of open-mindedness…and patience. It sounds like she had some deep, deep fears that were a surprise to you and that she kept inside, perhaps because she worried they would scare you…and be unpleasant for her, too. It’s not unusual for someone with ACoA issues to have what looks like — from the outside, only the outside! — a “big” and “sudden” reaction and walk-out of a relationship. It is so, so common.
      We do what we always did: appear to be “fine” so that we wouldn’t be in the way or abandoned. It was ESSENTIAL that we appeared fine. But, that doesn’t work so well in adult romantic relationships, but it’s how we do them – we don’t know that