May 16, 2018
Adult Children of Alcoholics — did you know that was a thing? ACOA’s are what we call them for short. If you’re an ACOA it means you had at least one parent with a history of alcoholism, or possibly even a grandparent. The issues you faced as a child can continue to affect the entire family, including the way you relate to others in your life today. Background to ACOA An alcoholic parent or caregiver affects the entire family. Their addiction, the way alcohol makes them behave, their absences and mood swings will all have an impact on you growing up. Being raised in this kind of environment means each family member has to learn to adapt and react to the alcoholic's behavior. You have to learn strategies to cope with the chaotic family environment. These coping strategies often stay with the children into adult life and affect how you may now relate to others as an adult. An ACOA can therefore show unhelpful ways of relating to other people, based on the way they had to relate to people as a child. This includes issues such as an excessive need for control, over-reliance on the opinion of others, emotional distance, lack of trust and difficulties being open and vulnerable. These are all strategies which may have helped them survive in a household with an alcoholic parent but as adults lead to "rigid, controlling behaviors that interfere with individual growth... and the formation of healthy relationships[i]”. ACOAs can also show personal problems caused by the difficulties in their family of origin, including[ii] : Substance abuse Mood disorders such as depression Low self-esteem Underachievement in work/education Alcoholism’s Effects on Marriage So your parent’s alcohol struggles can continue to affect you long after you leave the family home. Let’s look at how this specifically relates to marriage. Attachment is Impacted by Alcoholism As a young child, having alcoholic parents affects the attachment bond you have with your parent, which goes on to form a blueprint of all future relationships the child will have[iii]. Alcoholic parents often display erratic and inconsistent parenting, sometimes being loving and supportive, other times being absent, rejecting the child's needs or even being abusive. This leads to an "insecure" attachment style between parent and child, where the child deeply desires love and affection from their parent but doesn't always find it, leading them to believe they are not worthy of love and support from others. This attachment style continues into adulthood and affects the ACOA's adult relationships, including marriage. A much higher proportion of ACOA have insecure attachment styles as adults than in the normal population[iv]. Because their parents were so inconsistent, the ACOA has learned that they cannot rely on or trust the people they love the most. "As a result, COAs learn from an early age not to trust people and experience persistent fears of abandonment. Thus, although ACOAs may desire love and intimacy, they are likely to be afraid that relationships in their adult lives will be as hurtful as their early relationships[v]". Reading that quote closely you can see the fear that is embedded into one’s belief system based on what you experienced as a child. It often creates insecure attachment. Insecure attachment as an adult is strongly linked to marital problems, including[vi]: Lower intimacy Increased conflict and poor conflict resolution skills Lower stability Less displays of emotion and vulnerability Satisfaction with Marriage These issues are bound to affect the quality of the marriage. A study in 2008[vii] interviewed 634 newlywed couples for the first 4 years of their marriage. A link was found between parental alcoholism and marital satisfaction, but it was dependent on gender: husbands only reported lower marital satisfaction if their mother had been alcoholic, and wives only had lower satisfaction if their fathers had been alcoholic.