Adult Children of Alcoholics: How to Get Out of Fear and into Healing and Transformation

When the #Covfefe Hits the Fan: Relationships and Recovery
June 7, 2017
The Couple’s Pilgrimage
June 12, 2017

Adult Children of Alcoholics: How to Get Out of Fear and into Healing and Transformation

Attempting to take one’s life over a break-up might seem dramatic and perhaps over the top to some people, but if you’re someone who grew up in alcoholism it may not seem that far fetched. Having protected our families by keeping secrets, we continue to act in certain ways to get approval. We take responsibility for our partner’s mistakes and try to “fix” them, which makes them resentful. It’s hard for us to express our feelings … our honest emotions, and we end up guessing or looking to our partners and others to help us figure things out. We are self-critical, and as much as we want closeness, we push it away. We assume we are not worthy of our partner’s love and believe we will ultimately be rejected. The unpredictability, threats to emotional and physical safety, and erratic displays of emotion are common experiences of Adult Children of Alcoholics.

Although Adult Children of Alcoholics grow up physically–emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, many of us are still stuck back there in early childhood because we never learned a “normal” way of thinking, feeling, or reacting. Adult Children of Alcoholics can do well as long as things are going smoothly, but when they experience conflict, controversy, or crises, we respond with less-than-adult-like reactions—hence the name Adult-Child.

It didn’t take long for me to see that I was an Adult Child. I was always in some kind of relationship turmoil. I was angry, frustrated and dissatisfied. Relationships were a roller-coaster ride of fear, resentment, confusion and a lot of break-ups. I felt stuck in the same patterns and the same arguments. I chose the same kind of partners, and I was always struggling to trust. Love was a mystery, but I was quick to tell my partners, “I love you.”

I began relationships with excitement and a new resolve that this one would last. But all my relationships came with an expiration date. I was programmed to either victimize others or become the victim. Regardless, I always felt lonely, scared, worried, neglected, abused, shamed, and exhausted. Characteristics reminiscent of how I felt as a child … and what I believed was “normal.”

I learned to stomach relationships based on stress, conflict, distrust and abuse. The conflict brought up other feelings that created a relief from feelings of abandonment. I would call folks on the phone and dump on whoever was on the other end. Eventually everyone stopped calling me back. I went to 12-step recovery meetings, but it wasn’t enough.

The final straw came at 3½ years of recovery—I found myself with a gun to my head after a relationship ended.

It is my experience that no strategy, book, affirmation, or technique could soothe the emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain that I suffered because it was the inner messages and beliefs (beyond my conscious awareness) that drove me to attract folks with whom I could co-create the same dysfunctional environment that I grew up in.

Hidden from our conscious awareness–these assumptions, perceptions and attitudes guide our actions in relationships. They define what is good or bad, real or true. They spin our perspective in positive or negative ways and shape our character. They can determine our health, hijack our passion, and direct or limit the actions we take.

A lot of Adult Children are accustomed to just acting out thoughts and feelings, and rarely slow down long enough to observe what is going on “behind the scenes” of their minds. And yet, what goes on “behind the scenes” of our minds has a huge impact on everyday lives and relationships. The fact that we don’t question or challenge them, and accept things as they are … makes them particularly noxious.

After I attempted to take my own life, I was graced to discover personal growth groups, which offered me a safe place to take a powerful and in-depth look at my thoughts, attitudes, feelings and reactions, and the powerful influence that alcohol had had on my life and relationships.

But denial is a bitch! At first, I tried to fix myself and relationships without going outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t want to believe that the messages I grew up with were still affecting me as an adult. I thought that if I’d talked about it long enough my behavior would change. But the proof was in the depth of fear, the depth of the pain and depth of the resentments, as well as the immature and dysfunctional ways in which I thought and behaved in recovery.

Your turn. Are you stuck in the same relationship patterns – the same arguments, choosing the same kind of partners, or struggling to connect and trust? Are you ready to stop trying to change your relationships from your comfort zone?

Are you ready to do what it takes to heal old childhood wounds and get better in relationships? Are you ready to move past the past? Check out

Loving in Connection,

Paula M. Smith, M.Div., M.A., MFT

Certified Imago Therapist

Marriage Scholar | Teacher | Seminar Leader


P.S. Better relationships help you to feel better about yourself. When you feel better about yourself you feel better in recovery.

Comments are closed.