I’m writing letters this week: to people who will never read them, to my younger self, to you. Because we all have things we wish we could say to someone.
To the woman falling in love with someone who grew up in a house with addiction:
I see you wanting to help. I see you compassionate and caring and ready to fix hurting people. I see your heart in the right place.
But I also see your future; I see things turning into a nightmare faster than you planned, quicker than you thought possible.
Listen to me: if his dad was or still is an alcoholic, if his mom helps cover the secrets and enables, please do not insert yourself into this mess. If he tells you his mom struggles with drugs and you think it’s not that big of a deal because we are not our parents or their choices, please know that reasoning sounds good and light, but it is not reality.
You cannot fix the things that are broken here. Your love is not magic or so powerful to right all the wrongs that were present long before you were.
It will end up dragging you in. It will end up breaking you too.
I’ve been married a while now, but I can still remember those first moments of a relationship–how everything felt so sparkly and special and invincible. I love that time. I love the memories of that time. I love the hope of it, the electric feel in your belly and the unexplainable happiness that makes you float as you walk. I love love and the excitement we feel in those beginnings.
There’s something about that time that makes you feel like this is better than anything anyone else has ever done or felt or experienced or touched.
It’s easy to get caught up in those great feelings and moments and ignore the other parts. But the other parts come up sooner or later. They always do. It might be in a few months or it might be years down the road. It might be within a few weeks or it might be after a few kids are in the picture.
I really hope it’s sooner rather than later. Because here’s what I realized too late: that the women who are attracted to the broken men are broken too. Healthy people don’t look at unhealthy people and want to get caught up in the middle of it. Healthy people have good boundaries and don’t go walking through minefields pretending they won’t at some point get their legs blown off.
Here’s what you can expect from a man who has grown up in a family with addiction or alcohol issues: impulsivity, immaturity, difficulty with intimate relationships, lying, lack of follow through, co-dependency, and constantly seeking approval from others.
That sounds exhausting, right?
It is. It absolutely is.
And it’s what you’ll get to spend the better part of your relationship dealing with if you insist on being in a relationship with an adult child of an alcoholic (or addict). I wish those characteristics were the exception, but it’s more like the rule, the reality.
This sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Like I’m just being mean and hurtful and attacking? I’m not. Please don’t think I am. I love my husband. I love him enough to stay married to him through drug addiction, alcoholism, pornography addiction, more lies coming out of his mouth than the truth, and a million other thing that would break your heart and crush your spirit.
But I did not understand what I was signing up for.
And the truth is, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. If I had been more aware or educated or viewed less of my world through naive, love-tinted glasses, I could have seen this coming.
There were red flags. There are always red flags.
I just want you to know what’s coming–in the way I didn’t–so you can decide if you want to sign up for it. I just want to give you a little glimpse of where you’ll go so you can gracefully bow out before you get in too deep or you can buckle up and batten down the hatches for the tornado.
I don’t want to boss you around just for the sake of it. I want to save your heart the trouble, save your future kids the tears, and save your marriage the thousands of dollars in counseling bills and possible divorce.
This doesn’t mean someone growing up in a household with addiction doesn’t deserve love or a relationship or marriage. They’re victims in this too. But they’re victims who need help and healing and things you are not going to be able to give them, even if you love them with your whole heart.
No one can love another person enough to heal them, save them, or make up for a childhood of trauma and wounds. Don’t let those Hallmark movies and chick lit books tell you otherwise. This healing has to be done alone, with the help of a therapist, support groups, counseling, prayer, Jesus, and hard, hard work.
But not you.
So should you go?
For now, probably.
Now is really not the time to jump into this relationship. You can’t build a solid, healthy foundation on a broken person, on broken people. It will eventually collapse; it will eventually ruin everything, even the good parts you’re clinging to now.
Things are not hopeless. Adult children of alcoholics can heal. They can re-parent themselves, reprogram their responses, learn to be in relationship with others, live beautiful, healthy lives.
But it takes a lot of work.
It takes a lot of time.
This doesn’t mean we’re allowed to be mean to people. This doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to be friends or still have them in our lives in some way; but healthy people set up good boundaries with unhealthy people and being in romantic relationship with them is a really flimsy, poor attempt at a boundary.
Love is hard. Healthy love in relationship is hard. Some of us get to pick what extra layers we add on to the standard hard, and I desperately hope you don’t add this to your pile. It will steal so much from you.
I want better for you than this.
(Side note #1: I’m writing from my personal perspective of a woman falling in love with a child who grew up with an alcoholic dad and an enabling, co-dependent mom. But you could reverse the role, I don’t care who you’re dating, if he or she grew up in a similar addiction environment, the effects are the same. If you’re curious, I’d highly recommend you read Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D. Her book not only explains the consequences of growing up in this environment, but points ACOAs toward healing and wholeness. Hope is not lost, but hope is never ever another human.)
(Side note #2: I’m working on a series about adult children of alcoholics; make sure you’re back here in a few weeks if that’s a part of your story in some way.)
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This resonated with me so much, as the wife of a recovering alcoholic who was raised by a destructive alcoholic mother and a functionally alcoholic father who also used marijuana to take away his emotional pain. I thought going into our relationship that he was not a product of his environment, that he would be different. He vowed to stay away from alcohol. Then he said that he wouldn’t try alcohol until he was of age. Then it was just a little bit here and there. And before we knew it, he was sucked into a spiral of addiction and I was sucked into a nightmare. The work we have both put in to get where we are now has been awful and wonderful and exhausting all at once. And while I love my husband from the depths of my soul, I don’t know that I would have taken this on had I known how this would all transpire. Had I known what his addiction would put our family through. And like you said, I wish my younger self had known just what I was getting myself into.
Polly Martin says
You absolutely nailed it with your article regarding falling in love with a child of an addict. I wish I would’ve read your article 30 years ago, and ran, or at least waited, for my spouse to get healthy (on his own). The description you provide of the child of an addict is spot on; it actually describes my spouse perfectly. He is the son of an alcoholic father and enabling mother. My husband is an addict now too. For over 20 years, actually. We’re coming up on our 25 year wedding anniversary in June 2020, and I honestly don’t know if we’ll reach it. We’re almost empty nesters now, and it’s been more difficult than when the children were all at home. We had distractions. Now it’s just us. Please pray for my husband and for our marriage. We both need healing and help. Keep up your amazing writing. It’s helping more people than you (probably( realize. As an aside, I listen to Relevant Radio daily, and during pledge drives hear Patrick Madrid introduce a Mary Graham. Is this you? If so, thanks for your service!
Have a great day!
This article resonated with me so much.. I am one of the lucky ones in that I identified my brokenness and bad childhood and as a result, my need to want to fix someone else. The passion and love I felt was deep but I made the hardest decision ever and didn’t follow my heart. Instead I married the good guy, my very best friend. Through much counselling, I came to peace with who I chose and that for my future and my future children I chose the best option, not the passionate option. There are times when I wonder what my other future would have looked like. But reading things like this reminds me again, that life is hard as it is – and that overwhelming ‘love’ and feelings of excitement and unknowns aren’t enough to build a life on.
Thank you Mary for being vulnerable.