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Common Relationship Challenges for Adult Children of Alcoholics

Do you wonder if what you experience in your relationships is normal?

It is not uncommon to question how your relationships compare to those of others. Yet for people raised in homes with substance abuse, it is even more difficult to envision what a healthy relationship looks like.

Unpredictability, mixed messages, erratic displays of emotion, and threats to physical and emotional safety are common experiences in the homes of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACAs). It is likely that you or someone you love will be in a relationship with someone who was raised in a home with substance abuse. Almost one in five adult Americans (18 percent) lived with an alcoholic while growing up (1), and there are an estimated 26.8 million children of alcoholics in the United States (2).

ACAs often find themselves attracted to… partners who exhibit the kind of inconsistent behavior and moods they encountered at home.-Marni Greenberg

ACAs often find themselves attracted to or drawn to friends and partners who exhibit the kind of inconsistent behavior and moods they encountered at home. Concurrently, they may feel “crazy” when they are unable to understand their partner’s behavior. It can be difficult for ACAs to express their honest emotions, and they may resort to guessing or looking to others to figure out how they should feel or express themselves.

Having protected their families by keeping secrets, ACAs may try to act in a certain way in order to be accepted by others, which can come across as inauthentic. They may also avoid their true feelings in order to focus on those of their partner. Assuming they are the cause of their partner’s emotions, they may direct their behavior in the hopes of eliciting a desired emotional response, which often causes frustration for both ACAs and their partners.

ACAs can be extremely self-critical. As children, they were often blamed or identified as the cause of trouble. Thus, they may take responsibility for and attempt to “fix” their partner’s mistakes, even when doing so makes them feel resentful. They may feel adored by their partner one day and rejected the next; they desire closeness with others and subsequently push them away. They fear abandonment, yet also shy away from the real vulnerability that intimate relationships require. Some ACAs may assume that they are not worth the love of their partner, and feel that they will ultimately be rejected. Thus, ACAs may seek approval from and be loyal to others even when they are taken advantage of – fearing that love is only conditional.

Adult Children of Alcoholics: A Case Study
Stewart, age 27, was a client whose parents had been addicted to both alcohol and drugs. Stewart remembered nights as a child when his parents did not come home from the bar. He and his siblings were frequently criticized and shamed for their behavior.

When he started therapy, Stewart was in a relationship with a woman he met at a bar. He wanted this woman to commit to a relationship with him, despite her promiscuous behavior. She would tell Stewart that he was too needy, but then she would call him to spend the night. Stewart’s moods would vary depending on her behavior; he was happy when she expressed a desire to be with him, but he was in despair when she disappeared. He believed that if he acted in a certain way, he would gain her affection. Stewart was willing to tolerate the lows of the relationships given the excitement he felt when she would come back.

Therapy helped Stewart to become aware of how the chaos in his home growing up shaped his perception of adult relationships. He discovered his tendency to disregard his worthiness and allow others to discount him. Eventually, he was able to seek out partners that offered unconditional love and respect.

ACAs and those who love them can shift the patterns that have been created in their relationships. Here are some strategies:

  • Focus on self-care: Self-care is a way of taking responsibility for your own needs. While you focus on activities that assist in your growth, you will be less tempted to rescue others. Figure out which activities and people can help you when you are overwhelmed and in need of empowerment.
  • Communicate authentically: Try to be aware of when you are trying to control or manipulate a situation, because if you are, then you are not speaking your ultimate truth. If you feel numb, disconnected, or confused, attempt to gain clarity before communicating by writing down your thoughts and feelings.
  • Have conversations after releasing emotions: Acknowledging, feeling, and releasing your emotions will help you to clearly express your feelings first before sharing them. After doing this, you will be able choose your words more carefully, which will make them more powerful and meaningful.
  • Say what you mean, even when it’s hard: Be careful of committing to things you don’t want to do, or saying what you think others want to hear. The more you say the kinds of things that are difficult for you, the easier it will become. To gain confidence, start by opening up to people that you think will be supportive, and work your way up to speaking truthfully when it’s more difficult.
  • Set healthy boundaries: Communicate to your partner what kind of behavior you will and will not tolerate, and what you plan to do if they do not respect your boundaries. This can be difficult to do, and it requires self-awareness and practice.
  • The healthiest relationships require two complete individuals coming together to share themselves with one another.-Marni Greenberg

  • Foster your independence: Be aware of tendencies to depend on others. Ask yourself what you think you cannot fulfill for yourself. The healthiest relationships require two complete individuals coming together to share themselves with one another. When there is a balance, you can receive from others while still feeling confident that you can rely on yourself.
  • Ask for help: You do not have to do this difficult work on your own. There are many resources available. You can find support groups at, or call 211 to find a local therapist.

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