Being in a Relationship with an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

I wrote the following article about what it’s like to be in a relationship with an adult child of an alcoholic for the Love & Life Toolbox (here’s the article). Sharing here as well!

Being in a relationship with an adult child of an alcoholic

Have you heard the one about the confused man whose girlfriend of a year and a half suddenly got mad and left him? Just up and left. They’d never fought, not once. The relationship seemed perfectly fine. He’d introduced her to his friends and his whole family. They were engaged. They were going to get married. Then she split.

Haven’t heard that one? Well, I have. Time and again. Loving someone whose parents are alcoholics is challenging and often unpredictable territory.

How can anyone really know if their partner, potential husband or wife, came from an alcoholic household? It’s rarely clear. Sometimes it’s not known that someone’s parents are alcoholics — plenty of people have alcoholic parents without realizing it. Other times a person can have alcoholic parents and know it, but not understand the extent to which growing up in that environment affected them.

While the confused man stands shell shocked, we can examine his fiancee’s perspective. She met and fell for a wonderful man. He had his life together, treated her kindly, and wanted a future with her. It was love (it must be)! Everything seemed to be going well, and although she’d never had a healthy relationship modeled for her, this seemed good. She didn’t know that she was supposed to just be herself, be vulnerable, honest, and imperfect as well as expect to be loved for all that. One day after being and doing what she intuited her boyfriend expected of her, she finally broke. It was too much to continue faking a perfect self, being pleasing, affable, not having needs, or sour moods. The skills that had served her so well in childhood weren’t working. She felt imprisoned and false. She had to get out, to flee, to breathe.

For people who grow up with an alcoholic parent, getting into relationships is like getting on a fast ride with a one-way ticket. We commit to someone who’s interested in us because we’re the ever-loyal children of dysfunctional, rigid parents, and then we buckle up and enjoy (or something) the feeling of rushing along, fast, on a course to…wherever. The sensation of beginning relationships is much like being swallowed whole and re-wiring one’s self for a new identity — the identity of our new love, whatever he or she needs us to be. With that kind of beginning, it’s easier to understand the hallmark get close-pull away pattern that often gets established in relationships in which one partner grew up around addiction.

The Survivalist Approach to Childhood Works, Yet It Doesn’t Stop

Children of alcoholics are survivalists by nurture. We do quite well in crisis and seem most calm during chaos. We are not very at ease when things are calm and ordinary because in our world calm always meant a storm was around the bend. The ability to survive an emotionally and often times physically abusive childhood environment was essential. The ability to survive required a tough exterior or a polished one (we’re often called “well-wrapped”), our armor. It required a hyper-vigilant awareness of impending danger: bad moods, yelling, or violent outbursts, all of which could strike at any time. We came to expect the unexpected and predict the unpredictable behavior or our volatile parents.

Unfortunately, we continue to live in survival mode after we leave home and set up our own lives. There’s no national agency that visits the apartments and condos of newly sprung children of alcoholics to present them with a certificate of completion. If they did, it would read: This Certifies that You Survived Childhood and Must Now Learn to Thrive in Life. The fine print would read: It’s time for a paradigm shift, so surround yourself with uplifting people, stop trying to be what you’re not, tame your true inner self, and spend the rest of your life coaxing that person out into the open and experimenting with loving yourself unconditionally.

The Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Two important individuals in the awareness-raising of the issues adult children of alcoholics were Tony A, author of The Laundry List and founder of the original twelve-step group for adult children of alcoholics (now ACoA) and Janet Woititz, author and psychologist. Each developed a list of characteristics and common traits that children of alcoholics struggle with. Those include:

We judge ourselves mercilessly (we considered ourselves unlovable as children)
We don’t easily relax and have fun (chaos is more comfortable)
We feel somehow different from other people (sensing deep down that something is wrong)
We have a tendency to isolate (because we feel like freaks)
We have a tendency to be afraid of authority figures (because our original ones were volatile)
We seek approval (because our self-esteem is under-developed)
We feel guilty about our needs and shame about our true feelings (needs and feelings were unwelcome in childhood)
We get addicted to excitement (like a moth to the flame that is chaos)
We react to others rather than act from our desires (because being our own self was risky if not deadly)
We tend to be very serious (we’re not sure it’s okay to let our guard down)
There are more ACA traits and characteristics on Janet and Tony’s lists.

Thanks to a reader who scanned Tony’s book, you can read Tony A’s book The Laundry List online - here.

Watch out for the Trespasser Known as Transference

If your partner hasn’t yet done the work to distinguish between their past and their present, they may be subconsciously reacting to you as if you are their parent or as if current struggles are actually past struggles. This can be very confusing for both of you.

How might you know if your partner is transferring feelings from childhood onto a present-day situation, or onto you? Their reaction may be much bigger than the situation calls for, but not only that — their reaction will also have a feeling of intense or deep emotion and they won’t quickly recover from the upset. You might sense that something else is going on, something deeper or complex, given the level of hurt your partner is showing. You may feel that a great misdeed is being attributed to you, and that despite your apology and explanation, noting seems to lessen the hurt for your partner. They are stuck in the hurt.

When someone reacts to you, or your actions, based from their feelings about another person from the past, that’s known as transference. This happens when a person transfers their thoughts or feelings about one person onto another. (Transference is different from projection, which is when another person accuses you of embodying their own thoughts, feelings, or traits.) Because children of alcoholics grow up with so much unprocessed emotional trauma, it’s easy to understand why they would transfer their hurt feelings onto someone who resembles the original source of upset — they are yearning to have the reaction and process that was never allowed and was tamped down for years.

A transference dynamic can be wearing on a relationship; it puts one partner in the position of role-playing the childhood of the other partner with no knowledge of what’s going on. It means that one partner is having the other’s feelings and possibly accusations directed at them from another time and place, not based in the present situation. This makes it hard to learn the other person’s emotional landscape. Part of getting to know a partner involves coming to understand what they like and don’t, what pushes their buttons, and what brings them joy or causes them sadness. It’s hard to get an accurate reading on a partner’s emotional landscape if they are living in the past, still wrestling with old wounds.

And from the perspective of the person who grew up with emotional trauma, it’s confusing to be unable to differentiate the amount of hurt that comes from past wounds and what amount of hurt is coming from a present scenario. By relating to a partner as if they’re the ghost of our past, like a hitching post for us to tie our hurts to, we’re unsuccessfully resolving past issues as well as distorting what’s occurring in the present. This can bring anguish when what we most desire is to be truly present and participate in the relationship in an authentic and productive way.

Seeking to Understand, Resisting Fix-It Solutions

It can feel like walking on eggshells at times with someone sensitive, who has been emotionally traumatized, and who seeks approval. Tiptoe-living is an exhausting life. If your partner had childhood trauma, they have some self-healing work to do. It’s important for you to internalize the distinction between what “understanding” looks like for you and what “fixing” looks like. As a partner, you show love through listening (especially active listening) and by learning about and understanding the person you love, where they come from. That’s all. In terms of helping, fixing, and changing your partner and their resolution of a difficult past — that is not your terrain to adventure through. If your partner is ready and willing to do the work of helping and healing themselves, they’ll do it. It cannot be rushed and you cannot do that work for them.

Be sure that you understand where the line is between understanding and fixing, and remember the simple truth that to love is to listen and to understand. (The fix-it work is the work for a therapist and your loved one.) What does that leave you with? That leaves you with the responsibility of loving your partner as he or she is, for who he or she is, rather than who they will become or what you can shape them into.

When a partner has emotional work to do, it’s easy to make a habit of focusing on their issues. It’s incredibly common — many of the emails I receive from readers of my blog include exasperated pleas for helping their boyfriend or girlfriend get un-damaged. I can only tell them that when their partner is ready to do the work, they’ll do the work. It’s fine to share a book or forward a link to someone and let them know you think they’d be well-served by reading it, but the work cannot be forced and it cannot be done by proxy.

Turning your focus to your own personal work crowds-out the habitual wondering and worrying you’ve been doing about your partner’s problems.

What might you do with the newfound time you no longer spend attempting to fix your partner’s problems? Why, taking a look at yourself of course! It’s worth considering whether there is something about this person’s history that drew you in, that clicked-into some issues or emotional habits of your own that need to be understood. If you’ve been focused on your partner’s shortcomings, create a new habit around looking into your part in the relationship dynamics. Indulge in a self-inquiry and see what you might uncover about the assumptions, expectations, and perceptions you bring to the partnership.

Upholding Responsibility and Accountability in a Partnership

Each of us wants and deserves a partner who is responsible and respectful to himself, to us, and to the relationship. Regardless of what one’s background of emotional struggles are, meeting one another at the point of shared self-respect is how relationships maintain balance and thrive.

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Another post I wrote on the topic of loving an adult child is this one, “If You Love Someone with Alcoholic Parents…”  Enjoy!

Visit and read more about relationship skills at Lisa Kift’s Love & Life Toolbox.


  1. [...] This is another article on loving an ACoA, which I wrote this article for the Love & Life toolbox in April 2015, “Being in a Relationship with an Adult Child of an Alcoholic.” [...]

    • Lindsay says:

      My husband(ACOA) and I have been married almost two years. After 7 month of marriage his mother was caught drinking while watching her 8 month old grandson and the family acted like it was no big deal. I reached out to an interventionist and through a lot of pain and tough choices got my husband and his family to realize she needed to go back to rehab(3rd time). My husband has been very aware of the side effects of being an adult child and admits denial and has been in group therapy for 3+ years to help. My fear right now is that we have started to try and grow our family- I know he will be a great father but frankly would like for his mother to stay completely out of our lives. I fear and don’t trust him completely with his mother due to her minipulation and narrsastic behavior. I know that he would never trust her to watch a child alone but can not stand to be around her myself let alone let a baby be around her. When I bring this up to my husband obviously it’s upsetting but I don’t know how to move forward without expressing my fears to him.

  2. maks says:

    Beautiful article. There are some artciles on this topic but mostly they are written by therapists so even though they give us some knowledge, they still lack the first hand impression of what it is actually like to be an ACoA. I like the clarifying you added after The Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics for the same reason.
    There is empathy and there is kindess and they are most important – without them we will regress to looking at our loved one as “damaged” and “wrong”. And so many people do this: they do the initial work, read all they can find about being an ACoA… and then hound their loved one with medical labels and diagnosis and books they MUST read and therapy they MUST attend and CAN’T YOU SEE YOU ARE BROKEN???… and then we are surprised this didn’t work, our loved one shut down even more.
    And who wants to be seen as damaged? As wrong and broken?
    What I found to be true in my life is that transference works both ways. ACoA just starts first. But that person is our life for a reason, to show us our own darkness and our own wounds because we armored up just as well. You know how much hurt my brother can provoke in me? I had no idea I had these emotions in me! I was so good at living a “normal” life that was actually just an act because I avoided anything that brushed my wounds, every time I simply ran away.
    I hear often from people who have lived with an ACoA for a long period of time that before they met an ACoA they were fun, relaxed, happy, normal people and now they are broken, and hurting, and anguished… because their loved one “broke” them. I was like this too. And I was angry too! Boy, I was like a caged wounded tiger.
    And going and doing the work of knowing myself better, reading about true love, emotions, growth, even parenting books (no joke) – the most terrifying thing I understood was that my ACoA brother didn’t brake me – he broke my armor, my mask, and that half mad wounded tiger… that was my own true face. 27 years of living a lie.
    I am 31 now. Even though I read and study as much as I can I still relapse into hurt and nager. I am still imperfect and don’t know answers. And my brother is still an ACoA and at times I still think it’s the problem.
    But I would not go back and I would not trade that experience for anything. Because now I am truly living. I am learning something new every day. I go beyond my comfort zone and it’s terrifying but beautiful. Most of my life I lived in armor because I wanted to be comfortable, but turnms out we are put on this earth to grow and that is never comfortable. But it is beautiful and it is fresh – it is actually like “The Matrix”, you choose the blue pill and you stay in comfortable but false reality or you take the red one – and the new reality sucks but… it is real and it means you can change it, you can create a new one.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you. I like that visual you brought to mind, of “brushing against wounds” and avoiding things that would do that. That’s very resonant.
      Going beyond one’s comfort zone is terrifying! Yes. And courageous. An act of faith and vulnerability that has many, many rewards. And I bet you’re learning the difference between what it feels like to hold “bad” fear versus “good” fear. The two feel different in the body. One is a clean fear, the other is sticky and toxic-feeling.
      I also love your “The Matrix” analogy!
      It’s never too late to choose. To choose You.
      Thank you for this, for sharing these thoughts. :-)

    • Tom says:

      Maks, thank you so much for posting this. “I hear often from people who have lived with an ACoA for a long period of time that before they met an ACoA they were fun, relaxed, happy, normal people and now they are broken, and hurting, and anguished… because their loved one “broke” them.” It makes me realize that like the scenario in the above article what I’m experiencing isn’t unique- it makes me feel a bit better to know that there is also a path to healing for the person dealing with the fallout from a long-term relationship with an ACoA.

  3. Thanks for this! I am a recovering addict and have been attending ACA meetings for a few months now since I discovered that that is where my real problem lies. Your example in the beginning describes me to a T. I was in a 4 year relationship and then one day decided that I couldn’t do it anymore and left. I never even went back to try and work it out. I’ve come a long way but there is still a lot of childhood healing that I am working on. Thanks for bringing light to the subject!

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you for the comment!
      Sometimes an adult child in a relationship looks like someone with their arm stretched out as if to say ‘don’t approach’ while they’re saying “please love me” at the same time. Oh the irony.
      I now believe that no matter what, every relationship, of small or big magnitude, is a teacher. There are so many lessons. Every relationship has worth. There’s no “failure” or “wrong choices” at all.
      Ah, yes – I’ve heard people who’ve been in AA or NA for years start going to ACA meetings and go, “wow!” THIS really resonates for me. It must be that there’s something unique about how people gather to sort out adult child issues.
      It feels very…exact. :) Amy

      • maks says:

        You mentioned that “Every relationship has worth. There’s no “failure” or “wrong choices” at all” in some other post and it is a very small, simple phrase but it did help me a lot because – weird weird – but it never came into my mind.
        A huuuge amount of my problems – and not only relashionship problems, and not only realshionship with an ACoA problems – stemmed from the idea that our culture enforced on us: we are all afraid that we are going to “miss” the better opportunity, better relashionship, truer love, whatever.
        I would be out of work for MONTHS and in huge debt – yet, I could not seem to hold a job longer than a week because every time I found a place I started to be plagued by thoughts “This one doesn’t pay well enough. While I am stuck here I will pay my debt only in a year. I should drop this one and get that new one that offers much bigger pay” (and I would quit cold turkey and jump into the new , “better” one, only to find out the “better” job was too far away and impossible to get on time, or that the real pay was much lower than the one advertised, or that conditions were horrible. And I am out of job again and I have wasted time and my debt is mounting)
        Same with relashionships: rather than focus on working out the differencies and commiting, I kept thinking “What if my real soulmate/love/friend is out there and I will miss her/him while I waste my time here trying to work out differences that won’t be here anyway if that was the TRUE ONE?”
        And a lot of people thinks this way. We want it ALL and PERFECT because we do not have any time to waste on learning and growing – we are wayyy too busy for that.
        So your little phrase really got me thinking and every time I got that itch to bolt where the grass is greener I would tell myself “this is not a waste, i am learning, no relashionship is a waste” so I was happier and more peaceful and made better decisions – and it turned out the relashionships and jobs were not the problem, my attitude prevented me from making good choices to resolve whatever issues I had.

  4. Perry says:

    I’m destroying my marriage of almost 20 years. Been sober in AA 13 years and went to 2 ACA meetings. Feeling pretty hopeless all around. Not just with my wife.

    • Amy Eden says:

      How are you destroying it? (One cannot destroy a marriage single-handedly.)

      I’ve heard people say they felt like they’d finally ‘come home’ when they attended ACA meetings, after being in AA for a while. I hope you are finding that true yourself.

      Is it possible your path is now heading toward a place you’ve yet to appreciate, and one that’s good?

  5. lionel says:

    so is there any way to get someone back once they have left…your opening paragraph was me to a t-…she totally cut me out… no arguments nothing…just one day…I was in bliss land with her then….wham!!!! after she broke up with me she said I was the top love of her life, her favorite lover, her soul mate, after that she said sometimes love is not enough…she said I was amazing and she felt lucky to be with me…she made love to me 3 more times after that… said ” means “no right now…but not necessarily forever.”…she said I cant love you the way you need to be loved till I can love myself….and I am losing the ‘me” in the ‘we’… I had NO IDEA…these thoughts were brewing in her at all.. she had insomnia and nightmares from getting rejected where she felt forced out of a job…she is at work… I think it hurt her identity…tremendously…now she wont even talk to me at all …asked if we might want to seee where we are at in three mos. “NO’… even though she maintains that no is not necessarily forever..

    • Amy Eden says:

      It’s so hard to say about getting someone back, because each person has to be in a time and place that it works to try again. While Hollywood movies suggest that someone can “win” back someone’s love, that assumes that love is much simpler than it actually is, and it assumes that one person steers the relationship rather than two. And there’s a third party in the relationship, which is Time (timing). The timing has to be right. I read a great post about how our relationships reflect where we are in our healing journey — we attract what we need at the time.
      Here’s a link, it might be helpful to read it -
      You might like this article – from the self-help site Baggage Claim
      “Is Emotional Unavailability All That Different from Incompatibility?”

      As you’re learning, ACoAs try to be what they think is pleasing to the other person. But that’s not sustainable, and eventually ends in someone running away — which to the other person seems like a “sudden” shift, when really it’s brewing the whole time. The key, for ACoAs, is to learn to love and accept one’s self and then after that healing has happened, to share that true self with others and experience what it’s like to be real/imperfect and still be loved. If she cannot give herself that, she cannot receive it from others. If you showed her kindness and love at one time in her life and yours, perhaps that’s enough and all that’s possible at this time.

  6. Graham says:

    Hello Amy, thank you for writing this compassionate and insightful article. My fiancée is acoa, and I think she embodies many characteristics we have learned come from this trauma. One thing that was very obvious was that minor criticisms would be met with appalling hurt, which would leave me feeling horribly guilty and not sure how I could have destroyed someone so completely. On the other hand, it seemed she found it very hard to express her own needs, almost acting like a “doormat” when I would have been happy for her to say to me directly what she wanted. I have also found that the only emotional states she can express are intense devoted love, or anger.

    Lately she seems to be withdrawn from me, physically and emotionally. I don’t know what to make of it, only that it seems to have come on very suddenly. I haven’t done or said anything which I can imagine would prompt this. It’s very interesting that you write that acoa try to become what they think their partner wants, because this is exactly what I think she has done over 4 years. She was in every respect the most devoted, caring and loyal partner I could imagine, almost to the point where I wondered if she was for real. Now suddenly she has started to act as though she doesn’t really care about what I do or what I think , and I’m very confused by the change. She was ecstatic when we got engaged in January, now I have the feeling she can hardly remember who I am.

    I love her so much and I want to keep our relationship alive. She’s a wonderful woman and I was prepared to love her until the end. Where has she gone?

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