We all find our way to the realization that our family history includes alcoholism, we just find our way there differently. Some of us find our way through finding ourselves in a relationship with an addict of some sort again and again, until we examine our family history and codependent leanings — and, through that reflection, we spot alcoholism in our family tree. Others of us come to realize it through observing our partner’s parents’ drinking habits, their eternal happy hour, and we probe more deeply into our partner’s family tree and the parents’ behavior while our partner was being raised (and perhaps during visits we will hear enough stories to have a picture of how the grandparents or great-grandparents behaved, too). Still others of us grew up with an alcoholic parent, in recovery or actively drinking, and while we knew that, we only fully discover later in adult life what that means for us in terms of emotional inheritance and our connection to the family tree.
Some Alcoholic Families Are Alcohol-Free
One of the best (and shortest) books on adult-child issues is Wayne Kritsberg’s The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome (I reviewed the book in a past post). These images are from that book, and illustrate the four main family tree types that make up an alcoholic family system. These are the “main” types.
It can surprise some people when they find themselves relating deeply to the characteristics of adult-children of alcoholics, but didn’t have drinking parents. That’s where the Type 3 family comes in. Type 3 is fascinating because it reflects that family system in which there was “no alcoholism” and yet the characteristics and behaviors of adult-children were still passed on through the grandfather on one side.
The Other Three Types of Alcoholic Family Systems
There are others arrangements of family systems, of the four main types. These are all from the Wayne Kritsberg book, The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome.
My Family Tree Doesn’t Look Like That!
Without question there are other family tree assemblages beyond these four. If you don’t find your family tree reflected here, don’t worry — yours existed, so it counts; find the one that matches most closely. For example, you might not know for sure that your partner’s father or grandfather actually was an “alcoholic,” so there may be some unknowns to the puzzle. Go with your hunch. A tip: when you know that a grandparent had some kind of mental illness, that can sometimes be the information you need to fill in the picture (many, many people with depression or bipolar disorder self-medicated and became alcoholics – the two are often intertwined). So regard all clues as clues.
Type 1 (above) illustrates a family tree with two alcoholics at the head of the two branches; however it does not illustrate “double” alcoholic parents, where both parents on one side drank. This may illustrate how rare that is. Yet, Type 1 is the closest match to the “double” alcoholic family tree structure.
If it Behaves Like an Alcoholic Family System, It May Be an Alcoholic Family System
Aside from regarding what Type of family system we come from, it’s very important to look through this lens: What characteristics of alcoholic family systems are still in play in our families?
It’s very important because it can be hard to identify with certainty if there were alcoholics or not — denial comes into play — but it’s easy to identify dysfunctional behaviors. Actions speak louder than words – so, observe. Look at your own household first before you extend your gaze to the families you see your children and their children establishing.
How Dysfunctional Is Your Household and/or Family of Origin?
Does your family behave like an alcoholic one? Maybe. Maybe not. Study it. Take a week to reflect on these questions, and see what you observe and remember.
Questions to ask can include:
- What is the level of rigidity in your household? (Rigidity, control, rules-based, hypervigilant, or…no rules and no consistency.)
- Are there secrets within the family?
- Do you have fun, behave spontaneously?
- How serious is everyone?
- What’s tension like around the house?
- Is there any degree of tiptoeing around people or topics in your house?
- Is everyone in the family afforded personal boundaries?
- Is someone ‘in trouble’ if they disagree with mom/dad or others in the house?
- Are there any issues, fights, or situations that have been ignored instead of resolved?
- Does the family have a center, and come together, or is there avoidance of each other?
- Is there a ‘with us or against us’ spirit in the family?
- Are there aunts/uncles who can’t be discussed because they are “bad” people or did “bad” things?
- Is love conditional and based on ‘good deeds’ as opposed to being who one truly is?
Both of my parents drank. My mother died of an alcohol overdose at age 53. That takes a lot of sustained self-loating. I talked about her death in this video. My father stopped drinking and has lived thirty years and counting sober. Their addictions took very different trajectories, but they both knew the pull of addiction, a force greater than their wills alone.
My guess is that most marriages in which both heads of the family drink don’t last. So the question is, how do the ones that do manage to last work? They manage their dysfunctional dynamic differently. Alcoholics often have an un-quenchable need for love and approval, which they seek from their family — children — and partner. If their partner is also a self-loathing/love-seeking addict, then it can be an explosive and extremely high-conflict situation. In order to stay together, they may have to take turns in the dynamic, by loving and hating one another in alternating cycles of chaos. (This cycle happens unconsciously, just like the cycle of abuse, a form of chaos, that revolves in families with one alcoholic parent.)
In families with one alcoholic parent (or addict of some sort — compulsive spender, porn addict, etc.) and one non-alcoholic parent, the non-alcoholic parent will be the peace-keeping codependent. That role is the one who keeps things going, keeps up appearance, makes few demands, and complements the addict’s role by reassuring them of their love for them and sometimes rationalizing the abusive behavior that comes their way. This role varies in its level dysfunction. Some codependent spouses of addicts will hold addicts to reasonable behavior and establish boundaries and consequences for behavior that’s unacceptable, others will simply leave the marriage, and still others will rationalize the situation and the addict’s behavior in hopeful and creative ways in order to stay in the marriage for reasons that are important to them.
Alcoholics are people, people with an addiction to the substance alcohol. So when looking at the two-alcoholic parent family, it’s helpful to examine the nuances of behavior and the dynamic between the two parents when analyzing the family (the two alcoholics in a “double” alcoholic partnership won’t be exactly alike). Since two active alcoholics in the parental roles can create an unstable force, it might be worth thinking about whether one of the two drinking parents drank more than the other, or if one holds the alcoholic role a bit more than the other. That could yield some interesting observations. Although both my parents were addicts, I tend to think of my father as the alcoholic parent in the family system (analysis-mode), rather than my mother — my dad is whom I was raised by after age five. My father remarried when I was six. His new wife wasn’t a substance addict, and she filled the codependent role. My mother went on to remarry three times after my father, and held the addict role in those marriages. So you could say that each found a way to be the one alcoholic at the head of the family system.
When both parents are actively addicted to alcohol, that means you essentially have two children at the helm. This means that children raised by two alcoholics will certainly grow up to be adult-children. They’re adult-children who were raised by adult-children. Are children raised by two alcoholic parents worse off than children raised by one alcoholic parent? Nope. They will still identify with the characteristics of children of alcoholics, just like every other adult-child.
For people raised in an alcoholic family system — whether Type 2, Type 4, or any other type – the parenting given during the developmental stages of childhood will have been insufficient.
What are the stages of development?
- Bonding Stage (from birth to 6 or 9 months)
- Exploratory Stage (from 6-9 months to 18-24 months)
- Separation Stage (from 18-24 to 3 years)
- Socialization Stage (from 3 years to 5 years)
- Latency Stage (6 to 12 years)
- Adolescence (13 to adult)
You can read more about these stages in the healing from and understanding codependency book Recovery From Codependence: It’s Never Too Late to Reclaim Your Childhood by Laurie Weiss and Jonathan Weiss). I’ve adapted them, here:
Bonding Stage: From Birth to 6 or 9 months of life
This is the stage of asking for needs to be met — crying out for your primary caretaker because your diaper is wet, you are hungry, or you want to be held. This happens through repetition. You cry and your caretaker responds in the appropriate way by providing food, the breast/breastmilk, holding you, using eye-contact, smiles, cooing, song, loving looks, etc. From getting the response consistently to expressed physical needs when we are infants, we learn the basic, foundational sense of trust in self and others, the “sense that they world is a safe and responsive place.”
When the Bonding Stage isn’t fully experienced as an infant: A deep, fundamental shame about our needs exists in us as teens and adults, until we can discover and resolve this fundamental developmental issue as adults.
Exploratory Stage: From 6-9 months to 18-24 months
Here we’re moving out of our mother’s arms onto the floor, moving farther from the womb than ever before (a few feet away or a dozen feet away!) and creeping away bit by bit and learning about our environment through exploratory play, we’re crawling or even walking, and touching the environment around us. When our attachment to our primary caregiver is secure (we know they are there and will respond to our needs), we can experience this realization without anxiety and fully experience this stage. In this stage we need to be afforded the freedom to move around physically and go after he things that attract us (while the parent keeps watch, unobtrusively, looking out for our safety.) The idea is that our exploration is supported and our safety is looked after.
When the Exploratory Stage isn’t fully experienced as an infant: As adults, we refrain from taking initiative, are passive in our lives and relationships, we hesitate, we people-please, and we deeply fear of abandonment and/or engulfment in relationships.
Separation Stage: From 18-24 months to 3 years
As very young children we’re now coming to understand that our parents aren’t a part of us, we are not a part of them, and that we are truly separate entities inside and out — we begin to get this with our minds. We experience this by interacting with the word ‘no’ and beginning to understand that “thinking” is the way to cope and resolve the conflict between what the caregiver says and what we, as the baby and toddler, want. We’re feeling our way through what it means to have a need/want. We’re beginning to understand at a very basic level that our wants and someone else’s needs can co-exist and be reconciled.
When we don’t complete the Separation Stage in a functional way: As adults, we find ourselves in Stay/Go, I Need You/I Hate You types of push-pull interactions. We give until we’re empty. We feel, as adults, that we have to be attached to someone in order to feel complete and safe. In our romantic relationships, we’ll try to please the other and abandon our personal needs and rights, and this sets a codependent dynamic into spin.
Socialization Stage: From age 3 years to 5 years
At this point as small children, we’re getting actively engaged in obtaining information about the world around us, and how it works, and getting an understanding of how we fit into that as people. In these years, we also like to learn what we are capable of and Why things are they way they are. The other important lesson of these years is learning the difference between Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions. Our parents coach us through this stage by helping us understand how things are. (Dear big brother or childish mother, we are too new and young to any ask dumb questions at this stage, only important questions that help us sort out what’s what in this world!)
When we don’t complete the Socialization Stage in a functional way: As adults, we’ll engage in “magical thinking” and have trouble understanding our right to ask questions and learn. We’ll also have a warped sense of what’s true and why our thoughts or wishes don’t make something a reality (magical thinking), and why our feelings shouldn’t necessarily be the source of our actions (particularly in the case of anger and hurt).
Example: We might Feel bad that we weren’t invited to a birthday party, yet we can Think about it and sort out possibilities, and we can decide on our Actions from there, such as inviting that kid over to play or to our party in order to test assumptions, rather than cutting that kid out in reaction to our hurt.
Latency Stage: From age 6 years to 12 years
These are the years in which we develop our rules to live by. “He [the child] must learn that the reasons for rules are more important than the rules themselves, and that following rules is a method for making things work.” (Recovery From Codependence: It’s Never Too Late to Reclaim Your Childhood). So, for example: We brush our teeth after breakfast rather than before because it clears the breakfast food off our teeth. We get up with an extra 20 minutes in the morning so that we don’t have to rush. We mark important dates in the calendar so that we remember them. We don’t watch video games at our house, even though your friend does, because we want to spend that time reading, playing, and getting outside. And on, and on. As children in this stage we will, naturally (and importantly!) argue the rules. The key is that our parents allow our voice and consider is as part of the rule-making, so as not to create blind rule-followers for children nor children who grow up to rebel against all rules for the sake of rebellion.
When we don’t complete the Latency Stage in a functional way: As adults we try to follow a system of rigid and impossible rules that we establish for ourselves, or we have no consistent rules at all. Black and white thinking results. This is the result of learning to follow “rules’ but not having any insight to the “reasons” for rules, and so we get it wrong and wonder why we can’t keep up with adulthood.
Adolescence: From age 13 to 19 years
In this important stage, we re-live all of the earlier stages in our new body and embody them once again, in a way that allows us to go out into the world – the real world. And it is a very important stage for that reason. In these years we learn:
- I can be a sexual person and still have needs
- I can be responsible for my own needs, feelings, and behavior, it’s okay to do so
- It’s okay to be on my own, I’ll be OK
- I’m welcome to come home again
- My parents love me and their love goes with me, wherever I am
When we don’t complete the Adolescence Stage in a functional way: We can turn to eating disorders if we’re too enmeshed with our family, which signals a struggle with the parents and being too intertwined in the family — our only ‘escape’ is their control over how we eat or don’t eat. We might try to “escape” into relationships or marriage if our attempts to be more like our peers than our parents is reacted to with an iron fist and rejection of who we are/experimenting with being. In an effort to be more autonomous, we may try risky behaviors, and find that our parents’ reaction of anger and punishment pushes us further into identification as a “bad” child and we retreat into that identity more deeply (the opposite of both what our parents want and what we want for ourselves).
Who Guided You Through These Developmental Stages?
As you can imagine, it’s impossible to nurture one’s child through these stages well when the parent isn’t sober and emotionally available.
I said that my father was the alcoholic in my family system, but my mother also drank and I lived with them both until I was about age three or four. So, when I consider the Bonding and Exploratory stages, I very much regard both of my parents.
These early stages are tricky to analyze because many of us don’t really have memories of these early periods, we lack the oral histories of them, and it can bring up a lot of pain to attempt to recall these early childhood phases. That said, we don’t have to remember things in traditional ways to know we weren’t well-served; we can know in a way that’s impossible to translate into words, a way that’s known in our bodies.
What kind of alcoholic family did you come from? Who drank (or was depressed or had another type of addiction)? During what developmental stages might you have received the least (and most) parenting? What can you do, now, to re-parent yourself? When you fail, do you comfort yourself? When you have a wild idea or simply want to wear something “wild,” do you love yourself compassionately, do you allow the wildness? Have you found a way to let spontaneity into your life?
Keep asking the questions that led you here. Become open to understanding both your family history and your personal future in completely new ways.
In nearly every moment, week, and year in this life there exists an opportunity to re-parent yourself in a loving, kind, and healing way.
-Be kind to yourself.
Amy Eden is the author of The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion