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 our partners actually want to see the real, imperfect us…and we don’t know how to show it and it’s too threatening to.
      Sometimes, it’s all just too much to handle, and we melt down. The key, when healing and growing ourselves up as ACoAs, is to learn to see the small triggers as they occur, being to decode them and honor them, so that they don’t mount into massive shut-downs and PTSD responses (those are real, very real). But when you come from a childhood where there were horrible scenes and no explanation to the kids about what happened, no help in processing emotional trauma, the only response is: shut down. So even our small emotions spark big, out of range, and out of perspective with the conflict at hand. It takes time to cultivate the self-esteem to navigate the territory of relationships. It’s a process.

  16. Seaotter says:

    I had/have a great, comfortable relationship with a person who is an ACOA and has also been in AA for 11 years – sober all that time. We argued and he asked for space, says he can’t be in a relationship right now and that he needs a break. He is trying to get counseling – his decision. We’re going on our 3rd week – he still contacts me from time to time, says he misses me. He has always been in relationships with unavailable, abusive people. I am not and recently found out that he has been pleasing me and not discussing his own needs. His last meaningful relationship he was completely engulfed and seems to have wrongly transferred all of his anger on me thinking I am engulfing him too (saying things like, remember you said we should do something different on the weekend – you’re trying to change my lifestyle). He suggested we both get counseling separately. I am trying to be supportive, but keep thinking the longer we are apart the more he will like being on his own? I come from a normal, June Clever-type family and do not understand this behavior. I’ve tried talking to him but he seems terrified and I’m pushing him away – he has no idea what he’s feeling and is very frustrated. I am willing to be with him and hopefully support him through this, but by doing this am I making him retreat further? If I end the relationship will he chase me or just think I knew it? In all honesty, he is a beautiful person and I’m not interested in dating anyone else – I want him, but how much time do I wait and what is the risk. He says I’m different, I care. Is he staying with me because I care? Gah, so confused. For those who isolate can you explain why? Any help is appreciated. TY

    • Amy Eden says:

      Sounds like he is asking for space. That might feel wrong to you or concern you, and that’s fair. Is there any harm in pulling back and letting him lead for a while, until he discovers the pace that is comfortable for him? Is there any risk in that? It could be very trust-solidifying for him to see that you can adjust to his needs, even if you don’t understand them, and it could be interesting for you to see what it feels like to let him set the tone and pace. If he’s in a terrified place emotionally, he may have shut down and gone numb and will need to recover from that before he can realistically approach the relationship again. That’s not your fault, it’s his stuff.
      You could tell him you’ll give him the space and time he needs, and go from there. He may need to define “space” and other terms he’s using, and it’s fair to ask. Ask him what he needs and really listen. If it doesn’t make sense to you or threatens your sense of security, you can share that with him honestly and lovingly. It’s a real fear to have that he’ll like being on his own, and it may be true that he does but it could also be true that he decides as much as he enjoys his aloneness, that he wants to have a relationship with you – that is entirely his decision and his alone. Can you try to approach it with open hands and open heart for the moment? The only way to break the cycle of push-pull is to behave differently – don’t push or pull, just be responsive with kindness and without expectation, but also according to what honors your self and self-esteem.

  17. Seaotter says:

    Hi Amy,

    Thanks for those words of wisdom – it is so nice to have some real information instead of simply “let go and let God”.

    We’re coming up to the 2 month break/broken-up marker and it’s really hard. He still believes that I will change automatically into his ex. (engulfment) I am not her by any stretch. It’s really hard wading through what he perceives and look at the reality of the situation and who I am. He has the black and white thinking. Will he always think I’m the bad guy or does the reality/truth ever come back? He seems to have textbook charachteristics: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-tian-dayton/adult-children-of-alcohol_b_300572.html

    I put my relationship status as single (and hid it) on Facebook last week and txted him to tell him and he responded with …I’m leaving mine the way it is. So his says “in a relationship” and it’s so confusing. I realize it could be he just wants everyone to back off but the hopeful side wonders if there’s hope.

    He still has physical reactions to me – I can tell by the way he looks and the way he stands – like he’s going to run. He is definitely in trauma and all I want to do is hug him close. He wants nothing to do with me right now. Last week I saw him at the “sport” we both do and I played it nice/standoffish/cool and he was kind of flirty and he “was there” for a brief moment. He approached me – so I left pleased. He is afraid of any heavy conversation so I’m trying to be the girl he met without any drama – but I have so many questions. This week I reached out via FB with a How’s You? and he pretty much shut me down. So no reaching out – distancer/pursuer style.

    If I’m honest I really don’t understand this shut-down – I understand why it happens – but not what happens next. In this shut-down does he just loathe me or is there love in there? I have no idea what to do as a partner (ex-partner sigh) of someone going through this when we do not live together. I wish there was a book where we can learn our part (hint, hint). This post you wrote, Amy, is the best thing out there and the fact that you reply individually is amazingly helpful. You have a wonderful writing style.

    Thank you!

  18. Brock says:

    Thank you so much!!

    Seriously, from the bottom of my heart i am so thankful for this article. I was so lost, thinking that I would have to break up with the girl that i love. It was incredibly synchronistic how I came upon this, a new understanding has blossomed within me and I love her even more if thats possible :)

  19. izzy says:

    hi amy,

    thank you so much for posting this. have been in a relationship with an ACOA (both parents, unfortunately), and he has gone numb and started to run, saying that he can’t be there for me as a boyfriend and he doesn’t know how or why he’s so shut down.

    this gave me so much beautiful insight into what he’s going through and how i can support him, even as a friend, as his feelings finally start to surface. i have suggested counselling to him (not for us in a couple-sense, but for him, so that he can feel like his anxiety and stress are more manageable), but perhaps that reads as telling him what to do?

    any advice you have would be so much appreciated.

    thank you thank you thank you. this is the first time his behaviour has mad any sense to me.

  20. Lisa says:

    My husband is a child of alcoholic parents. He is now in an alcoholic recovery place and has been since mid October. He went 1200 mi away from home. I’m very glad for this but in doing so he has taken away us in not allowing me and our two children to be involved whatsoever. We live just 40 minutes away from the highest medical Mecca place in the US. We have been married for almost 26 years. There are so many moving parts I’m dizzy. He has a problem with bringing other women into our marriage. Any thing that is even purely platonic he keeps a secret. There is no trust. He never has learned boundaries as a child. I have always seen the affirmation he looks for in others. I think most especially women as most recently I had found out about an affair he had had when we were first married (there was a potential of a child there, but now the woman has supposedly lied about that). He also had a girlfriend when we were engaged that I had known nothing about til after our marriage, but often questioned him about her. (My husband was in the military and he was stationed in CA at the time while I was on the East Coast.) I would also say his parents–his mother most definitely–was a narcissist. My husband is a middle child and pretty much got caught up in the middle of it all. He is highly intelligent but was often called stupid by his father. At times I think his father was the way he was because he was reacting to the neediness and self centeredness of his wife, my husband’s mother. His siblings each regard their mother as someone who is beyond belief angelic and of the saints, while my husband experienced her having slit her wrists when he was 15 and being the only one home to bring her to the hospital, her beating him on the head with a phone while he was in bed because he had told his father that she was at the Officer’s Club when he had asked. So much sadness.

    I wish this type of internet and information was readily available 26 years ago. It would have put things in perspective for me instead of me feeling as though I was going crazy. I’d often mention things of the above written article to my husband just by experience and also the laundry list and characteristics of narcissists. He has never listened. I am not a martyr and only looked for good things in my marriage and for it to work. He deployed often so maybe it was the lack of consistency in our lives that he was able to hide things well. Having read all this doesn’t make me feel better. I wish I had some of the tools in my head then on how to approach things and his diminished sense of self hiding behind his facade of such great self importance. Having read this I feel like it doesn’t give me much hope especially when I read comments. I still do hope though. I think I am a very strong person. I believe in God and pray for this man, my husband, but I also believe that as someone who posted and described themselves as an atheist that they have found their inner strength and inner self to help them stay on track. I think that is to be commended because when it comes down to it it is up to us to make decisions to be the person we want to be and want to be to others. I hope I have given the necessary tools for my children to go off and be good, caring adults with a sense of self peppered with humility.

  21. Kelly says:

    I am an adult child of alcoholic parents. I struggle daily and I so related to this and it was truly helpful! I have come a long way and make personal strides on a daily basis. I do well as a parent and as a friend and even at work, but in my personal relationship life, I can never truly relax. Thank you so much for sharing this. Very insightful!

  22. BNea says:

    Dear Amy,

    I am in love with an ACoA. We have been together for three years. We do not live together, initially, because of my son from a previous relationship, but more recently for other reasons. He is also a recovering alcoholic. He has not drank for 20 years and has dedicated his live to supporting others into recovery and has set up many very successful community projects for addicts. He had an extremely traumatic childhood. I admire him immensely for what he has managed to overcome. He is the kindest, most giving man I have ever met and this is why I love him so much. He has been incredibly kind and patient in getting to know my son, who has not always been welcoming.

    There have been problems in our relationship. He has helped me realise that I am very critical of myself and others, including him, and has encouraged me to seek counselling which I will soon start. I was raised in a household in which I would describe my parents as emotionally void in many ways. This has had considerable impact on how I relate to others, and my happiness. I am very keen to change this and with his help I feel I have made considerable progress. As well as this, I think many of the problems in our relationship stem from unresolved issues in his childhood. While I do agree I can be critical, his reactions to what seem to me to be quite minor things, are often extreme. There seems to be considerable misplaced anger. Sometimes he says very hurtful things and his anger really upsets me. He seems very unaware of how hurtful he can be. He almost seems to become a completely different person and seems to really struggle to show me compassion. While he has attended extensive therapy and is very dedicated to his own recovery as an alcoholic he has done very little as far as I can see to his recovery as the ACOA. He attended Al anon briefly but, recently, I was very surprised that he has rarely discussed his own mothers’ alcoholism and that of others in his family in therapy or addressed this through AA.

    He has extremely resisted taking responsibilities for the arguments that happen between us, always blaming me and painting a picture of me behaving in dysfunctional ways (I accept this is true, but there is more to our problems than this).

    I accidentally fell pregnant last November. He was very pleased instantly. However, I was very concerned because we do not live together, because of the impact it will have on my 9 year old son from a previous relationship, because of the relationship difficulties we have yet to resolve and because I am so unclear as to whether he wants to live with me in the long-term. He has been hurt I have not been happier about becoming pregnant. I love our baby dearly but am just very worried about how I will be able to look after her when we do not live together and when he is so reluctant to make plans for a home together in the future. He appears very unrealistic about the stresses and strains a new baby, as beautiful as she will be. I have been crying a lot due the anxiety of all this and he has been unable to provide me with any emotional support. In fact, he seems quite terrified of me at the moment, when I am getting upset and seems to be holding me at arms length. Last weekend when I was particularly upset he told me I was wallowing in self-pity and that there had been many many pregnant women around before me. He also told me my feelings didn’t matter.

    Sadly, I now view myself as a single mother. I do not feel he will be able to cope with me and provide me with the emotional support I will need after our baby is born. I found it difficult after my son was born. I was very tearful and emotional for several weeks afterwards. I feel we should limit our time together during this time. I do not live in my home country and i am estranged from my own mother and am very concerned about who will practically support me as I will have a c-section.

    He has finally acknowledged that he needs to consider the impact growing up with an alcoholic mother, step-father and others and the traumatic childhood he has had continues to have on him, his relationship with others and on our relationship. This has given me great hope. He has agreed to start attending ACOA meetings, to find a new sponsor and to go through the 12 steps with a new sponsor from the perspective of an ACOA rather than an alcoholic himself and that he will seek therapy. I have full faith in him that he will give himself completely and courageously to the healing process. I have done considerable reading on ACOAs and work on myself in terms of learning how I can be less critical of myself and others and more compassionate and how I can support him through this process he is about to go through. I lovingly accept the challenges that go with loving an ACOA and helping and supporting him in whatever way I can. I accept that it may be many years before we have a home together and am happy if we have a very unconventional relationship where I may need to provide him with quite a lot of space a lot of the time. However, I am concerned there will be times that I need him when he will be unable to be emotionally and physically available to me exactly because I need him so much at those times. Right now I am finding it so so hard due to pregnancy hormones and concerns I have about have about the prospect of being alone quite a bit after my baby is born. I desperately need his emotional support but am frightened to convide in him in case he gets upset or angry with me. I am frightened of what lies ahead for me and our baby and my son if we cannot resolve the difficulties between us.

    Any advice you have to offer that could help me help him and myself would be very welcome.

  23. Carla says:

    You all just took me trough Step one.

  24. Brian says:

    As the child of two narcissists/alcoholics, I still read this sort of thing and shake my head — I still don’t believe that we children of such households can ever be loved. After years of failed attempts at dating (I became the master at women leaving me mid-date for other men!), I ended up having to become caregiver of my aging parents in my later twenties — getting right back into the same **** that I had dealt with my whole youth (having to leave grad school and my career to come back to my home town for it because my mother had just a stroke and my father has no license due to too many DUIs). My mother’s last words before dying were to announce to everyone how much of a failure I had been; then my father took advantage of having the house to himself to begin years of new “I’m bored” binging, despite an 80-year old’s liver and brain not handling that like a younger drunk sort-of can. Since then, when I have to call the EMTs for him when he poisons himself on a six-pack of Listerine, he likes to threaten to kill me and start throwing sloppy punches (he never did that when I was a kid, but I guess he feels that he can rightly threaten to murder another man). So, yeah, no one loves a child of alcoholic parents — especially their alcoholic parents.

    • J says:

      Hi Brian,

      I can relate to almost everything you have written. The mother with stroke, the father throwing punches, having to look after them in old age.
      So there are women out there feeling the same : )

      Keep your chin up, the right person is out there.
      Sending you a hug today.
      J.

  25. JartyTek says:

    It was nice reading all of these posts as they help me to understand my problem much better.

    I was engaged to a ACoA for two years. She moved in to my home in anticipation of our marriage in late August. In late September, I went out of town on business….there were no arguments, disagreements or any controversy. I received regular texts like we always did in the morning but in the afternoon, I received one from her that said that our relationship was over, she had moved out and that I should NOT attempt to contact her.

    I immediately tired to call and text her but my phone was blocked. I tried to call her family and friends to see what was going on to which I received a text from her threatening to call the police if I attempted to do so again. Later that evening, I learned that she had unfriended and blocked me on social media, did the same with all of the people she had met through me and encouraged her family and friends to also unfriend me (what does one even say to get people to do something like this??? I wonder what kind of stories she is telling them?).

    Since then I have tried to call her from n unblocked hotel room I was staying in while traveling, and sent her a couple of emails from an account she was unaware I used (‘we are better than this, lets talk”). This was greeted by a letter from an attorney threatening if I continued ‘harassment’ (1 phone call and 2 emails) that they would arrange for a personal protection order.

    Three weeks later and there has been no communication at all save the anger that she has expressed through her attorney and the unfriending and such by her and her friends (this is a 43 year old woman!!!!).

    Though she has done variations on this theme in the past, this time the ‘scorched earth’ policy is very surprising. I was very confused by her actions this and the other instances. We did very little arguing and I was sincerely good to her to the extent that people in her sphere would go on about me and how well I treated her (not a pushover my any stretch, but I was very considerate to her).

    I was finally able to make the linkage and realize that her ACoA status was at the heart of the episode. The various articles that I had read that describe ACoA were spot on to the extent that they seemed to be written specifically about her (and her teenaged son). I helped to garner a better understanding of what had transpired and what had governed her thoughts….I never imagined the that fear of commitment could result in a situation like this one.

    So; in the wake of the relationship I am of two thoughts. On the one hand, I could – logically – never entertain the idea of going back with her even if could find a way to contact her (part of me believes that she WANTS me to come for her) after all of this. While the other side of me believes that there is a good person in there that needs help and that I love her. I am a fairly well educated and rational man who is usually sure footed and confident with what I do. This situation has really throw me for a loop.

    I welcome your thoughts and opinions regarding this.

  26. Sarah James says:

    I feel so thankful to be coming across this! Seriously! At 31, I’ve been suffering in silence too long, and I have been trying so hard to have myself heard in my relationships. My mother is an alcoholic and left my family 21 years ago. She has been going down the rabbit hole, so to say, ever since. I am so terribly critical of myself that it has/is taking me getting to my emotional bottom to come grips of my reality: she handed me this disease without the bottle. Now that I am in the most serious relationship of my life, one that I hope lasts forever, I have begun to notice so much more about myself. It’s time to peel back all of the layers, reopen the wounds, and begin to heal. Not only do I want to be better for myself, but I want to be better for the one I love so very dearly. I cannot express enough gratitude to you and others for putting these things out there. It’s because of courageous people like you that scared people like me can begin to be a little less scared. Thank you!

    • Amy Eden says:

      To say you were handed the disease without the bottle is powerful. I can relate. And I’m sure many, many others can too. I’m glad you found the site. Be brave! You already are.

  27. Ken says:

    I just realized I’m an adult child. It’s caused a lot of heartache for both my wife and I. I didn’t realize it was much of an issue until our marriage was on the verge of collapse. Keep this post going. There needs to be more information available. There has been too much heartache already (not just for me) for everyone who have dealt with family alcohol. Kudos!

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you!! This was like a big New Years Day hug. I appreciate your supportive words — very grateful. Thanks for taking a moment to say so.
      And, wow, Ken, I can only imagine what a huge realization that must be for you. (How did you realize it? What prompted it?)
      Clearly – you’re not alone. By no means are you alone.

  28. Meg says:

    I am in a long term relationship (4.5 years) with an ACoA. Two days before Christmas, I caught her in a lie where she had seen “someone from her past” and had told me she was meeting up with old friends. Cue the shock, tears, anxiety attacks, etc. There had been absolutely no indication of any problems whatsoever. I suggested a separation because everything I read said that would be a good idea. However, she was way too relieved with the separation and I have been struggling. It took me 3 weeks to finally make the connection with her father’s alcoholism.

    We are both in therapy and planning on couples counseling in 3 weeks (she needs more time to “clear her head”..I now know what that means.) I am the most stable person she has ever been with, and what I’m finding is that it seems she went into self-sabotage mode because things were going too well. I have been struggling trying to understand this. It also doesn’t help that I’m by nature a fairly impatient person and have inadvertently put pressure on her (before I knew what I was dealing with). She will only communicate with me via email because she says seeing me and hearing me just causes her to shut down. She has used phrases such as “i’m not a good partner to you,” “I’m not a good person,” “I don’t see how you could ever look at me the way you used to,”. Luckily, I’m in it for the long haul and getting my hands on every piece of material I can find to try and help her. She doesn’t seem to want to discuss anything with me…yet. I know she doesn’t want my help…yet. Right now I’m just trying to do my absolute best to not make her feel that she has to run away.

    If anyone has any advice on how to hang in there, I’m all ears. I’m hopeful our therapists and our couples counseling will pull us through. Thank you for this article. I have printed it and will refer to it often in my interactions with her.

    • Amy Eden says:

      It’s definitely an uncomfortable zone to be in for a not-yet-fully-healed ACoA — that of things going well. Being stable. Routine. Good. That can be so uncomfortable for those more at ease amid chaos.
      You sound wonderfully loving. And like a loving parent, who can listen to their child scream “i hate you” and know that they are solid and loved, you get that your love is suffering a tantrum of the spirit. It sounds like she’s hit something that she needs to deal with and doesn’t know how to sort it out while also being a fair partner to you.
      Only you can decide whether she’s a good partner to you (in response to ‘i’m not a good partner to you’) :-) I know you know that.

      All you can do is what’s in your control – your side, and you can establish boundaries and identify what you need during this time of loving with patience and from a spiritual distance. For example, could you go without contact for a certain period, but say that ‘we can be out of communication for a month, but then I will need to know x, y, an z, at the end of that time’? Or you could say, ‘look – okay, we can be out of communication for two months while you deal with this, but what I need is for you to stay faithful to me – no romance or intimacy’ so that you can have the reassurance you need and so that she can have the separation she may be needing Those are just wild suggestions — only you know what you need.
      You can have needs, and expect them to be met, during this period and still be patient and loving while giving distance. This is still the relationship happening here, what goes on each day – this isn’t a ‘bad period’ or a ‘blip’ this is the road, the relationship, it’s all one.
      The key is to treat each other and the relationship with respect while navigating the storm, the emotional-spiritual interference.

      kindly,
      a

  29. Tom says:

    I dated an adult child for a year. (both parents were alcoholics) She had been the most amazingly compatible and loving woman I had ever met. She and I got married and an new and awful person emerged from this loving and wonderful creature. (its like multiple personalities) She will have short periods of the bliss we had while dating only to out of the blue explode about something that is either tiny or fabricated completely (if she is afraid of something happening, suddenly in her mind it HAS happened and begins to lash out at me for it) That is only one of the types of problems we are having. I did not grow up with alcoholism or irrational outbursts of anger like I am seeing now. I am ill equipped to deal with it and do not know how to proceed. that is what made me seek out information on Adult children. We began counseling. But, she quickly quit after understanding that the problems we were experiencing might be her doing. She just does NOT accept that she has any role in our problems. She projects blame on everyone and everything else. She has a Daughter that she treats the same way (my wife’s ex and father of daughter is also and alcoholic, just as both parents of my wife). I feel the need to protect the Daughter. I love them both and I want to be a good husband and Dad. But after only a few months of Marriage I find myself exploring the thought that I should just get out before more damage is done.

    on the fence
    T

    • J says:

      I am sorry T, but know that you are not alone. I am the husband of an ACOA. Her dad was an alcoholic and she has just recently (after 19 years of marriage) sought help through counseling and AL-ANON. I’m not perfect and I was also ill-equipped and ignorant of all things ACOA during our first 18 years of marriage, so I cannot say our relationship issues were all her fault. But I am more educated now (I wish I had known about this issue when we were dating!) and that education combined with our faith in God has carried us through many storms in the past year.
      I know the road you are on is not easy. I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to “figure” her out and how to walk on the eggshells. If you love her, try to continue your education and continue to encourage her (trying to tell an ACOA what to do is not something that works real well ;-) . Take care of yourself too and may God bless you as you traverse this.
      - J

    • BJ says:

      Oh lord Tom, run!!
      I am like J, I am not perfect but…..
      I have been married to the same person as you describe. Fabrications, tiny items that she blows up about (haircut, car wash, etc) and the belief I push her buttons, lol. Unfortunately, I, like you, had no idea this was her problem. I am a big fellow, ex-military, raised in the military and have a pretty defined sense of honor so I immediately took the responsibility for the ‘problems’. Neither of my parents drank, heck, mom didn’t even cuss. But that didn’t matter, it couldn’t be this nice little woman, no, it had to be the big military man. Reverse sexism.

      Well, I had two kids with her while I commuted 2hrs each way to work and sought help for MY problem. Well, 8 years of counseling, 11 of marriage, two kids, zero savings (“she deserves it”) and nothing has improved but my understanding and ability to take abuse.

      We tried the counseling together (3-4 different) she quit them all. I continued with the first for MY problem.

      Pathetic really. We are broke, although I make great money. My kids get gifts from her to make up for her actions, as her alcoholic parents did her. I am looking at two pair of shoes that cost $100 each ($200 for kids shoes)! She says she spoils them but really its her guilt. I spoil them with kisses, hugs, and comments on my pride in them.

      I had no idea about her mom until we were years into the relationship. No wonder her mother NEVER came by to see her grandchildren. OR has EVER baby sat for us because she needs to medicate at 5:00 EVERYDAY! Funny, when we did have family meals (xmas, thanksgiving, etc) she would drink so much that food would fall out of her mouth. I thought it was an accident, that she just drank too much that day. I believed that until we stayed at her house for a few months when we returned home (our state) from out of state work.

      Buddy, I could go on and on, but you don’t need to endure that just take away the fact that this is a personality disorder and unless you enjoy the abuse or can just “take it”, LEAVE.

      Ultimately, I stay because of the children. She treats the oldest as she does me and can’t figure why he argues with her and doesn’t mind her. Of course, its because of me and the way I treat her…right? That’s an ACOA’s play card. So, I will stay to protect them and moderate her moods, take her rage away from the kids and demonstrate a consistent, calm, and moderated personality.

      What a shame.
      Good luck Tom.

      Sorry about the rambling jumble but I am work and couldn’t concentrate.

      • J says:

        I feel like I know you, cause I have walked the same walk as you. I’m sorry she is not actively trying to work through ACOA issues. I am fairly lucky in that after coming perilously close to divorce, she has worked very hard on recovery. Things are still not “great” at our place, but they are getting better. I am amazed (as Amy alludes) in the patience that is needed…it truly takes an adult child a long time to trust and bring the walls down. Good luck man. Take care of yourself.

  30. BJ says:

    BTW, she drinks too. Let the circle be unbroken….

    That’s when the real fireworks go off…in my bed. Its like gasoline sheets..

    Run brother.

  31. Ninny says:

    I have been dating my boyfriend for nine months who was raised by an alcoholic parent. He has not once mentioned his father’s alcoholism. The man is drunk every night. I know he has a problem but my boyfriend won’t talk about it. He certainly would never admit that if it were an issue that it ever affected him. This article describes him perfectly. What can I do to get him to talk about it and seek help?

    • Amy Eden says:

      You can educate yourself about adult children of alcoholics in order to have compassion for what your boyfriend’s experience may have been like as a child. You can say to him, ‘have you ever looked into adult children of alcoholics, I came across some info…I though of you and you might find it relevant to you,’ but beyond that, there isn’t actually anything you can do. It’s totally up to him to feel the need for answers, seek help, and so on.

      • Ninny says:

        I guess what I’m really wanting to know is how to start a dialog about his father being an alcoholic. He has never said anything to me. It seems like something he ignores or makes excuses for. I don’t want him to feel like I’m accusing his father and have no compassion.

        • Amy Eden says:

          You could start a dialog by sending him a link to the article you found here. Or just openly, non-judgmentally asking, “Do you think you father is an alcoholic?” If he doesn’t, then it’s not the right time to push further. There’s nothing you or anyone can do to cure or turn-around the father’s alcoholism, as that’s up to him (people spend lifetimes and whole marriages trying to get an addict to “see” their problem and then get them liberated and turned-around). If you’re not able to start a dialogue, that may indicate that your boyfriend just isn’t ready to see what you’re seeing. ACoAs spend a lifetime stuffing and ignoring feelings, living by the code of Don’t See, Don’t Think, Don’t Feel. It can be a life-altering, tumultuous, huge experience to suddenly realize, to “get”, that one is the child of alcoholics, and all that it implies and means for us in terms of self-work and healing. It’s not a discovery that can be foisted upon someone. He’ll get the most out of discovering the story of his family when he finds it in his own way. :-)

  32. Queenie says:

    Wow. I am lying next to my BF of 3 tumultuous years reading this blog. This is the most passionate loving fun crazy, white lies, love/hate, I hate you, never contact me again, will you marry me, bleep you!..relationship I’ve ever been in! This week I just learned his father was a raging alcoholic and his mother a functioning alcoholic who abandoned him when he was 12 and left him with his father. Mention counseling? “I’m NO project’” we will have the best weeks of our lives to the darkest times. I love this man. I don’t want to fix him. Just love him and be happy. He’s agreed to counseling for us, not him. He “don’t need fixing.” I’m hoping thru counseling, he will begin to heal. I have to heal from being the brunt of his hate. I finally realize it’s truly not all me. I can see my reactions to his actions were hurtful instead of helpful. I just wish I knew what I was dealing with from the beginning!! I will definitely read more and seek help. This is my life too. I want to make an informed decision to leave or stay. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing pieces of your hearts.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Wow indeed :-) Ah, relationships with someone from dysfunctional roots can feel soooooooo exciting when the chaos is mistaken for excitement! Lies, love/hate….exactly! And: planning vacations then canceling them, spending more than planned all the time, shopping, being impulsive, staying later than planned and having to “catch up” on the admin of life the next day or the next or the next. Everything is “now” and there’s no “later” so the future seems never to be planned for. Sometimes there’s so much chaos that life is like a glass of water with the sediment spinning around making everything cloudy…the sediment never settles or allows for the water to be clear, calm, transparent….quiet.

  33. Kinga says:

    Hi Emy,
    Thank you very much for this text, it was very hard for me to explain to my beloved man how I feel even though I’m now in the end of my two years therapy of ACoA. I managed to work thru most of the issues but you know, the process is still on, as it’s hard to change in one day all the years of childhood and youth you had been living.
    After my therapy I discovered that I feel that my life is much more light then before. And now is the time for another step, to open for another great person who doesn’t deserve to think that he isn’t trustworthy or that I do not appreciate him and all the good things he is doing for me.

    I hope we all will be able to live without considering “what’s normal” but just do it.

    • Amy Eden says:

      It takes time to work through the most painful issues of living through a childhood with alcoholism in it. Everyone has a different healing timeline. Usually we have peaks and valleys — I know I’ve had times I believed I’d learned most of what I needed to know, but found out I had more to learn. What is most important is taking the first step to care about yourself and love yourself even if you didn’t receive the kind of nurturing and emotional education you deserved as a child. Learning to love ourselves is a journey without a time limit, and a great one — it leads to that “lighter” feeling you described. And we meet teachers along the way, sometimes those are boyfriends/girlfriends, or a neighbor, a book, a YouTube interview…or a situation that challenges us to practice our ability to be calm in the face of criticism, or feel brave about changing ourselves even if our partner is scared by it…. such wisdom is everywhere.

  34. Emily says:

    Hello

    I have just started dating someone who is an ACoA and already after only 2 months I’m finding our relationship quite difficult. I want to be there for him and care for him but in terms of our relationship he is unreliable and inconsistent so I don’t feel truly settled with him, I feel like he treats me unfairly that I have to stick to his schedule or we have to plan things when he wants to but when I want to plan things or get a definite answer I always have to wait. I feel like there is great potential in our relationship but I am struggling to understand how he doesn’t see that these problems stem from him. Should I try and work through this?

    • Amy Eden says:

      It’s up to you whether to continue or take another road. Every relationship has a purpose and lessons to teach.

      It sounds like he has a sense of what he needs (waiting/thinking before answering and making plans as well as having a definite schedule that’s consistent for him); the question is, what are your needs? Can you work with that? Can he, in turn, work with your need for occasional spontaneity? Even if it’s “planned” spontaneity? Would you feel things are less unfair if he worked around a need that you have, just as he wants you to work around these needs of his?

      I grew up hearing that relationships take “work.” Many years later I realized that I had never gotten a definition of “work.” Instead I just filed anything difficult, abusive, confusing, oppressive, etc. under the ‘relationships-take-work’ category. But relationships aren’t supposed to feel bad. That’s what I didn’t know. I wish someone had instead defined that as give-and-take/compromise and that being accepted for you you are — and feeling that you’re accepted — is fundamental.

      Have you been in a situation like this before? Have you felt this kind of unsettled feeling before? What do your instincts tell you? Do you feel you are being fair, loving, and accepting? Do you feel that your partner is ready, right now, for what you’d like?

  35. John says:

    Hi Amy,

    Reading your article and the comments on this site has been a life saver for me emotionally!!! My wife is an ACOA. Her mother is the alcoholic and is still in her life. We have two young toddler children and she decided to up and leave while I was gone for a week on a business trip! She expected me to return with rage and anger while I have done the complete opposite. She has an apartment (had been planning this for months behind my back). We are seeing each other almost daily because I want to be with the kids. She has blamed all of the problems on me! Don’t get me wrong, I understand that I am a player in all of this too, but the personality characteristics described above are uncanny. My question is this for you Amy. I watched your YouTube video on the book you have written and am wondering if I bought it for her would that just make things worse? I desperately want her to move back in. She said she cannot make that decision at the moment and needs time and space for at least a couple of months to heal. She is seeing a therapist, but not sure if she has discussed ACOA with the therapist or only spent the entire time talking about me and how I have disrupted our relationship. Their is definitely an issue with self accountability.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Hi, thank you John.

      It sounds like you’re clear on what you want and need: her, and the family together. If you can articulate what it is about her that you love and admire and cherish so much, consider writing about that in a letter to her — a letter you don’t expect a reply to or response about. Just something for her to know, to keep. Appreciation.

      It sounds like she’s expressed what she wants and needs — time to herself. Perhaps you can use that time to re-center yourself, and let her be? Not let her “go,” but to let her be, with love…?

      If you were to by my book, why not buy it for yourself? See what’s in there. And if you then felt that you wanted to share your experience of it with her, you could. It’s hard to set up a situation or predict the time that someone will ‘discover’ their ACoA issues. I wish it were as easy as, “Read this blog – it’ll help you,” but it never is. It’s usually the other partner who first discovers that the one they love is an ACoA, finds the blog, reads the books, etc. It’s hard to wait for them to come to the realizations and understandings on their own, it really is. It’s uniquely frustrating to “see” something your partner can’t yet see, even if you know that seeing it might set them free or change their life. It has to be done very, very humbly and delicately, or not at all.

      Every relationship is a dynamic, with lessons offered for each person. More often than not, when we’re trying to ‘help’ someone we love, we’re forgetting to return the focus to ourselves. What do you see when you shift your focus to you?

      It sounds like she’s trying to carve out space for herself to cocoon and nurse her wounds a bit. Why not give her the two months she’s asking for, bravely? Let the kids see her and go for a walk? It’s scary to let go because there’s of course the fear of what two months of distance will do; however, honoring the need expressed by someone who grew up under alcoholism is a gift. It’s extremely difficult for ACoAs to voice needs and sometimes it takes a sudden burst of anger/upset to be willing to admit that a break or time to think has been needed for quite some time. ACoAs grow up in an environment in which is dangerous to express personal needs. We survived only by stuffing our needs. It gets very scary when we start having needs. It takes time to embrace them and champion them.

      There’s always asking. Asking her, what do you need? What do you want? And then, what does that look like? Tell me more? Is there anything else? What is your deepest desire? Hopes? Fears? Tell me everything…. ask and ask, and just listen.

      Also – ensure that you’re being treated with respect. Taking time away for one’s self doesn’t exempt them from behaving responsibly.

      Hopefully there’s something here for you…

      Thank you again for the note.

      Be kind to yourself!

  36. [...] post on the topic of loving an adult child is this one, “If You Love Someone with Alcoholic Parents…”  [...]

    • mia says:

      This is REALLY good stuff.
      My mom is ACoA. My on again off again relationship is an ACoA. I was married to an alcoholic, who died at the age of 44. (Death certificate actually put cause of death as “alcoholism”)
      I thought I had seen it all, until I started dating an ACoA. This is a level of complex that I have not yet dealt with!!! The sad part is that, on a good day, you have never met a better man….fun, sweet, funny, easy going….but if we spend time apart, at all….the accusations, the anger….it all flys out! This article was great. Until recently, I had no idea what I was dealing with!
      Thank you!

      • Amy Eden says:

        Thank you for sharing this. I’d really like readers (and me) to get more views like yours – the person trying to love an ACoA.
        I know that it’s hard to believe that someone who seems so “put together” can be crumbling and wounded on the inside and hard to understand how threatened they can feel by seemingly “small” things (how triggered their wounded inner child can be). That’s the portrait of an ACoA – that surprising mixture. That surprise, that complication, can drive people away and feel insurmountable. If the ACoA is doing their self-healing work, they should be able to tell you what they need in those situations of vulnerability, so that you have something to work with. So that you can go out and not worry about his hackles going up and so that he can have time without you (without it being a night of internal emotional terror for him).

        Part of what happens for ACoAs, and why it’s so important to do the work, which is a lifelong practice, is that they — WE — didn’t get to develop a differentiated self when we were growing up. So, when someone leaves – it’s like being abandoned. We also were trained to mirror the emotions of our parent, and be chameleons, so we don’t have the skills. We have to learn them.

        This recent post is all about what you speak of :-)
        http://guesswhatnormalis.com/2015/08/when-theres-alcoholism-in-your-family-tree-or-your-partners-family-tree-part-one/
        (Read the SEPARATION STAGE in particular.)

        Do you relate to any of the ACoA Characteristics, having been raised by an ACoA?

        Thanks for the comment!

  37. Angelo says:

    I fell in love with an Adult Child of an Addict (Crack Cocaine). Her family unit on both the mother & father’s side are both very toxic! Both Grandfather’s died of AIDS from sleeping around/drug use. Uncle sexually abused her around 6-7 y/o, mother stayed with & enabled the Addict father. Her relationship history prior to me was extremely dysfunctional. Drug Addicts, Cheaters, Liars, Emotionally Unavailable…and she never really had any real emotional connection with these exes. The ex before me was cheating on her with several women & gave her multiple STD’s. She still stayed with him! They were constantly on & off, she developed major health issues as a result of the STD’s, and eventually they broke up. I met her, things were great the 1st few months, and then she just withdrew, isolated & become aloof & unavailable herself. She had to get a hysterectomy b/c of the damage from the HPV, she ended up getting Cancer on her Uterus as well. She ended up leaving me b/c she admitted that she still had feelings for the same ex who did all this damage to her. Several months after we had dialogue again, and things were interesting. In talking with her and feeling her out, I could tell she had major regrets. Guilt, Shame, Embarrassment, etc…We had 2-3 really good & warm conversations. Where I could tell she has feelings for me, but then she contacted me back and said she knew she wasn’t emotionally healthy or fit to interact with me yet. She said she felt overwhelmed emotionally talking with me, and wanted to get herself right before she spoke with me again. I don’t know how everything will turn out but it’s incredibly sad when you have a real connection with somebody who is very damaged and they don’t know what true love is, but they know they have this amazing connection with you. I can feel it when I talk with her, she yearning to be loved & protected, and I provide that for her…but she can’t handle it! Not yet at least!

    • Amy Eden says:

      Such an interesting perspective. Thank you so much for sharing this.
      That is a lot of difficulty to have had in one’s childhood. And it’s possible to survive all that chaos, to grow up, and even to seem like things are going well and that we have our life set up, that we’ve got our self together…but that’s the outer casing. There is so much more that goes on at a deeper level in us, children of chaos. It takes a while to lear what the difference between thriving and surviving is – a lot of us do survival living and struggle with why that doesn’t feel good enough. Having intimate relationships is very much the final frontier, the golden cup, the toughest trial with the greatest reward for adult children of addicts. It takes a lot of work to learn to love one’s self and self-parent one’s self enough to get to a point at which a relationship can be enjoyed. I admire her for knowing where she’s at and setting a boundary. It sounds like you’re respecting that.
      ACoAs really appreciate patience, listening, more patience, more listening, and compassion.
      Be kind to yourself, :) Amy

  38. Shine says:

    Amy,

    Thank you so much for providing a space for those of us who love an ACoA to better understand how we can help them without losing ourselves.

    My husband is an ACoA, and his mother is a spendaholic, and we have been married almost two years. We knew each other almost 8 years before we got married, and even the dating and road to engagement was tumultuous, but getting married brought things to a new level of crazy. The dual personality, the outbursts from seemingly minor things and out of nowhere, the anger that seems to be always directed at me; thanks to all your readers for sharing these too and for helping me to know that I’m not the only one and it’s not only my twilight zone!

    Even though I’m a health care provider and know a good bit about depression and anxiety, and had some (limited) success with getting him to try talking with psychologists and psychiatrists and counselors – none of us – none of the professions nor myself, put together how much his patterns and reactions were related to being an ACoA. Such a missed opportunity that when he was willing to sit across from a doctor he wasn’t diagnosed. Now he unwilling to try further.

    It wasn’t until my sister-in-law shared a list with me about her own findings learning about growing up as a child of an addict that I started to understand the mark my husband’s childhood left on him, and now me. Reading that list – it sounded like someone had put my brain into an article . . .all the characteristics I had been noticing and found bewildering.

    I have been attending ACoA meeting regularly since then. My husband isn’t yet interested in attending, or reading, or understanding more – though he has let me read a few brief things to him and admits he relates. The ACoA meetings are helpful, I so greatly respect the folks who show up and are doing the work to recover. But there is definitely a gap for folks like us who love and are committed to seeing an ACoA thrive. When they are not willing to do the work, we are left as you say being patient, listening, having compassion . . . which I can do, and do do joyfully. But in the meantime, sometimes I worry I am losing myself and getting sucked into dysfunctional patterns which I have never experienced before, and would never choose. I often feel like I have to be a loving parent in response to his child-like behavior which doesn’t feel right in so many ways. I want to respect him. I wanted to marry the man, not the child.

    A particular grief for me is that I think we will never be able to have children. My husband is so fearful and sure that everything in life is doomed that he is unwilling. And honestly, especially after reading the other posts here – I also do not want to have children subjected to the kind of mercurial behavior and treatment I’m subjected to. But the person my husband is when he is feeling good, when he is feeling “in control”, when he is being sweet and caring – he would be an amazing father. But we just never know when the ugly man will come out. That guys kinda sucks.

    Thanks for reading, Amy. And thanks for sharing and writing and helping us to make sense of this. I want more advice. At ACoA meetings we’re not supposed to cross talk or comment on each others’ shares – but I am so hungry for someone to tell me what is the best loving things I can do for my husband when the demons come out.

    • Amy Eden says:

      You are so welcome. Thank you for writing, for sharing, and helping here, too!

      I think that the cycle of abuse pattern is very much imprinted on ACoAs, because we witnessed it. I wrote about that here and here, too. We were like a backpack on the backs of our alcoholic parents and, also, as a participant in our childhood families, we saw and experienced the cycle of abuse/cycle of chaos repeated over and over. And so — we become uneasy when things are “good,” and we’re uneasy with people who are “normal,” and we are “bored” in normal life. We’re wired to expect everything to fall apart, as if we’re still strapped to the alcoholic. And that’s where our big work comes in — re-wiring, and detaching from those learned behaviors.

      What can you do for your husband when the demons come out? That’s a good question. That’s a question I wish a particular man in my past had been able to ask me. It’s wonderful that you’re willing to be flexible and be with him in his pain (that is empathy at work). I can only speak for me — what I would have liked from my mate would have been to (a) listen without judgement, (b) to remind me that I’m loved and smart, capable, etc., and (c) to ask if there is anything he could do. Above all — the listening is the greatest gift. To listen with out judgment and without reaction. Now, that doesn’t mean to allow yourself to be attacked, and criticized — if that’s happening, you can only walk away. But if it’s self-criticism, you can be a witness to it with compassion if that feels safe and reasonable to you.

      I know that’s not easy. In the past I have seen a great, self-sufficient, and talented man crumble and not be able to get off the couch for an evening, who insisted (and I mean feverishly insistent) that he was being talent-less and hopeless, lost in that darkness. It’s bewildering to witness that. I know the wanting to help them, love them out of it, but the best thing for you both is to care for yourself when that occurs and ask what you can do. You can sit and hold his hand, pat his head, and beyond that — nada. (But, again, witnessing with compassion is HUGE and loving in itself – it feels minor, but is major.)

      The first thing is to do what you need, for yourself, when the demons come out. The second thing would be to ask your husband what he needs. If he can’t tell you what he needs, it’s his work to learn how to discover that.

      You know how it goes — he’ll do his work when he wants to and only he can choose to. In the meantime, he’s lucky that you are getting to know where he comes from. :-)

      Thank you!

  39. Laura says:

    This article, although sad is very spot on. I am in a relationship with an adult child but unlike his parents has not become an alcoholic and the traits mentioned are the exact same traits my partner has, yet somehow these traits have made him the very gentle, sweet and caring partner he is today.

  40. Berton says:

    I’ve been in a ” relationship “for 35 years. It is constant turmoil and hell. It can continue on to future generations. In the event they are also alcoholics , I suggest if you are involved in such a relationship, to run quickly,as fast as you can. For your own life and for that of your children and their children.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks. I hear you!
      The effects of dysfunctional interactions are learned and passed on if they are not dealt with, resolved, and transformed. The impact is far-reaching; I can trace my own struggles to my great grandmother.

      I would add to your advice to also “do your work” so that whatever you’re running toward is something healthy and not just different.

  41. Luke says:

    Hi,

    Im looking for some help, i was recently engaged to my partner who had ACoA. We were together for 4 years out relationship was great 90% of the time however there would be fights over trust issues etc. We were truly inlove, what i am about to say next may make you not think that but we were.

    Anyway her father (the alcholic) became sick mid last year and died after being sick for 4 months. He died due to alchole being a big part of it. During that 4 months i lost my job of 10 years and we were fighting alot. Anyway once he passes things started looking up again started planning the wedding etc. But then boom she left me, no real anwsers why just blaiming me. I later found out that she had been msging her ex during the period of her dad being sick and has had a breif relationship since we have been broken up. Which she accused me of ruining that because i was angry as she was still giving me hope of us again. Anyway I still love her and i know she loves me still. What do i do? I dont want to give her space as such, i want to be there to support her no matter what she is my soul mate.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you so much for the note and sharing your situation. Clearly you have feelings of love. Have you asked yourself what you need? What you want? If you can step back and get clear about what you value and need, that could create a compass that guides you. The next step is to then ask for what you need and state it clearly. For example, that you expect faithfulness from her. You can offer someone you love support best when you are also upholding your boundaries and accepting treatment from them that is kind and loving, and not accepting unfair, disrespectful, and unloving treatment.

      Do we have more than one soul mates in our lives, in this universe? And if we do, what does that mean for your story right now?

  42. P says:

    Hi Amy.
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while and it has helped me and scared me at the same time.. feelings I know lots of other people who date ACoA like me feel.
    I dated my bf for a year and a half, we live in different countries so we decided to get marry next time I visited cause we didn’t wanted to keep being apart.
    His dad is a functional alcoholic, mom’s an ACoA in denial and they are still married. My bf has the traits. Anger is the biggest one, soo much anger. And it’s weird how it all went towards me but not strangers or his uncle or other family members. He was very selfish too, not asking to know about me hardly ever, not wanting to talk period. Self loating, depressive, not knowing what he wants, jumping onto different jobs and places and careers even. Trying to please his boss (males always) and working extra hard. Anxiety attacks.. Isolate himself, say hurtful things to make me go away but not wanting me to. “I don’t know why you love me, I can’t love you like you love me” which I always said good things and that I won’t leave and he smiles and says “you are crazy why would you do that?” He is adorable. Of course the other side of him is this amazing guy which I love so much.
    I come from a “normal” family and didn’t knew how to deal with all of this. Sometimes I used sense of humor and worked but lots of times I lost control and attacked back cause it felt like he was being cruel. But mostly I called a therapist for him cause he knew he had to change since he admited I wasn’t the problem, he was this agressive to every gf.
    Well, long distance got hard. After a month I came back he hit rock bottom between jobs and confusion and broke up with me. Good thing.. He is doing the 12 step program and journaling. I am so proud of him.. But he said he needs to be alone. I do too much.
    I am aware of this (my ideal of love from my childhood) so I’m going to a therapist, doing meditation and yoga, reading self help books and just working real hard. I know I made mistakes too, but I had no clue how to deal and this poked painful areas of myself.
    Sorry for the long message.
    Well. He said when he is ready he will talk to me. He cut communication with everyone by the way, family, mom, me. Said he doesn’t know who he is and telling him and all the advice don’t help. He needs to do this on his own.
    The thing is.. I don’t know how many years this will take. To heal enough to feel like he wants a relationship again. I feel I should move on because who knows you know? It may take a decade. I don’t know how to ask him that when he decides to talk again.. I don’t want to let go but a decade is a lot haha I still want to marry him but I’m curious to know how can he get to the conclusion he is ready again? What has to happen?
    We are both only in our twenties by the way.

    Thank you so much. You’ve helped me already.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you for your comment, and sharing your story. The unknown is very anxiety-provoking! And timing is…everything sometimes.

      What advice would you give yourself in this situation? What’s the most loving, wise advice that you can give yourself? If you imagine yourself at 30 or 40 years old, what do you hope you will do now in your 20s? What is best for you, best for your future strong, intelligent self? You cannot know what he will or will not do; you can only do what feels right today, here and now because that’s the information you have. Work with what you know to be true.

      Kindly,
      Amy

      • P says:

        Thank you Amy. You are so right. I am working hard to live in the present and not think about what will happen. And to do what’s best for me.
        But I’m still very curious about.. How does an ACoA know when they are ready to be in a relationship? What work has to be done to feel like they are ready? Because no one can be alone forever.. But what has to happen in their mind to reach that point?
        And how can I ask him how he feels about love without pressure?

  43. Timsy says:

    Hey, thanks for this article. I really liked it as I could understand myself more. Would not it be great to become friends?
    I mean all people who commented here , I think, are undergoing or underwent the same situation. Then why not be friends?

    Keep me informed, I will contact you all then again.

    Thanks
    Timsy

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