Spouses of alcoholics want to argue the most about facts and research about raising kids in alcoholic homes.
That’s not how it is here.
This isn’t hurting my kids.
Our kids will turn out different.
Don’t you think every single spouse thinks that?
A spouse’s response to information about allowing children to live in an alcoholic home is in direct relation to how healthy or unhealthy the spouse is. No healthy adult can argue a child should grow up around addiction.
Let me say that again: No healthy adult can argue a child should grow up around addiction.
Any rationalization, excuse, or reason you have against that statement is steeped in your own issues. Any rationalization, excuse, or reason you have against that statement is twisted up with co-dependency, enabling, and possibly your own addiction story.
Adult children of alcoholics learn how to be in romantic relationship by watching their parents. If their parents go back and forth between being deeply in love and violent arguments, kids think love has to be intense all the time. If their parents live in the same house but don’t live the same life, kids think love is indifferent and cold.
ACOAs have no frame of reference for what a healthy, intimate relationship looks like because they have never seen one. You can’t have a healthy relationship with an addict or alcoholic. I know that seems like common sense, but you’d be shocked at the people who would argue that it is not true.
This disease does not allow room for healthy relationships, healthy conversations, healthy homes. Your alcoholic house is no different. Denial (and lying, like we talked about yesterday) is a large part of an alcoholic home. Yes, the family living with the alcoholic lies to others, but mostly they lie to themselves. Alcoholics and their families lie to themselves all the time.
Adult children of alcoholics grow up with an overwhelming fear of abandonment. Alcoholism is unpredictable. Lots of promises are made that aren’t followed through on. Lots of commitments are made that get forgotten or skipped. There is an underlying current of is this real? Is someone going to take care of me? in everything they do.
As a result, ACOAs carry that acute fear of being abandoned into adulthood. It’s what makes them stay in dangerous relationships. It’s what makes them keep trying to fix things that shouldn’t be fixed (but they don’t have the appropriate skills to fix a problem so it just keeps getting worse). ACOAs don’t understand what red flags and healthy boundaries look like so they sacrifice themselves at all cost to be loyal to someone they shouldn’t be.
Because that’s what they saw growing up.
This realization shifted something in me. In Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D, she explains that “the fear of abandonment gets in the way of the development of a relationship. The development of any healthy relationship requires lots of give and take, and problem solving. There is always some disagreement and anger which a couple resolve. A minor disagreement gets very big, very quickly for adult children of alcoholics because the issue of being abandoned takes precedence over the original issue.”
This plays out all the time in my marriage. Something comes up that needs to be addressed. I bring up the issue so we can talk about it. Chris immediately begins to panic because what if this is the issue that makes me leave? He says and does what he feels is the best thing to make the conversation go away as quickly as possible: agreeing to things he won’t actually do, admitting things he doesn’t actually want to admit, saying yes to things he has no intention of following through on.
I think we’ve had a conversation. In reality, Chris has just avoided confrontation at all cost because he fears being left.
So then the issue comes up again because nothing was actually handled. I’m angry this time and he’s back to running interference so he’s not abandoned, and we continue this vicious cycle where nothing gets handled because my husband doesn’t know how to get past the fear of being abandoned. Issues keep piling up and nothing ever changes. It is madness.
ACOAs didn’t learn how to love themselves. As children, they didn’t experience unconditional, safe love in their homes. So now they look for love from others instead of learning how to love themselves. This co-dependency means Chris’ value is found completely in how I’m feeling about him at the time. If I’m happy with him, he’s happy and feels loved. If I’m annoyed, he’s scared and unloved.
Understanding this dynamic in our relationship broke my heart. I didn’t grow up with a completely healthy home life, but I grew up with no doubt of my worth, knowing my parents loved me, and understanding they would take care of all my needs no matter what. I don’t struggle with self-worth. I know my value as a daughter of the King and as a human, no matter what others think or say. It was so foreign to me that someone could not understand this. It was inconceivable for me to hear Chris found his worth in me.
At first, I was repulsed by this idea. That type of weakness insulted me.
But then I started to learn how that happens, what children growing up in alcoholic homes learn about love, and what they don’t get from their parents.
Then it just made me more compassionate.
There is a very specific balancing act that has to happen now in our home. I have to make sure Chris knows he is loved and valued outside of anything he does or says. But he is also required to work hard at healing and recovery for his loved-and-valued-self to stay in our marriage. I’m not sure I always walk that line well. My thinking tends to be black and white and this is a gray area. Again, another reason why I keep going to therapy. To check that I’m being fair and not expecting too much. To make sure I’m holding a good boundary and not a bad one. To allow someone else to ask hard questions about what I’m doing and how I’m helping or hurting the ACOA I’m married to.
“Being the child of an alcoholic causes the ordinary difficulties to become more severe.” (p. 71)
That’s the simplest way to put it. Life is hard for everyone. Life is just hard. For adult children of alcoholics, the every day hard becomes more difficult because they were gifted a handicap as children.
We can heal this.
Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about how.
*The information I’m sharing didn’t originate with me. I’m a constant consumer of information, never satisfied with one or two books on a subject. But a lot of the research I’m sharing comes from Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D. Don’t let the ugly cover throw you off, this book is a wealth of information. ((I’ve also read parts of Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome: A Step By Step Guide to Discovery and Recovery by Wayne Kritsberg and it has good stuff in it too. I’ll share a more complete list of resources tomorrow.))
*You don’t have to be married to an ACOA to benefit from this series. Once I started studying this, I realized a lot of my close friends were also adult children of alcoholics. Understanding their stories better makes me a more compassionate friend.
*Finally, Woititz points out in her introduction that many characteristics of ACOAs can be found in adults who grew up in similar dysfunctional households. Sin is sin and if you grew up around violence or untreated mental illness or another addiction, you might also see yourself in parts of this series.
*If you’re just joining this series, this is the introduction and here’s the second post.
John Nanson says
The lifelong intimacy anxiety I have suffered as a child of an alcoholic has made relationships, especially sexual relations very, very difficult. This anxiety shuts me down, killing all desire and causing sevre sexual dysfunctions that prevent me from performing when a relationship starts getting serious. With one night stands and paid sex I have no trouble sexually but it seems the more I care about a woman the harder it is to have an intimate relationship. My almost 3o year marriage has been sexless from the beginning. After visiting a number of therapists we found this intimacy anxiety, most likely caused me to suffer from a Dismissive Avoidant Attchment Disorder which is almost impossible to treat. Needless to say it’s been a very lonely life.