Amy Eden, an adult child of alcoholics and long time writer and teacher on the subject, offers insight into navigating the waters of being in love with an “ACA.”
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.
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.12