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.
Why is that? Well, research suggests that children learn a lot of the skills for interacting with the opposite sex from their opposite-sex parent. So if this relationship with the mother/father is impacted by alcoholism, the child will struggle to learn healthy ways to relate to the opposite sex[viii].
This gender effect also points to attachment as the root of the problem: if for example a young girl desires the love and attention of her alcoholic father, but the father is absent, abusive, distant or inconsistent, this becomes her expectation for all future relationships with men, including her future husband (and same for boys with their mothers/wives).
That’s quite a legacy and it shows how what you see happening today is actually about what happened in your family of origin.
Redefining Your Marriage
That’s a great reason to get our bonus guide for this episode. This particular guide will help you regroup in your marriage — since alcoholism has had such an impact — this gives you the opportunity to step back and define your marriage according to your values, not according to the unhelpful legacy of alcoholism. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Alcoholism Fosters Abuse
Both husbands and wives show higher levels of physical aggression if their mother had alcohol abuse problems[ix]. Again this is a learning issue. Maternal alcoholism is a cause of, and response to, conflict within the family. So children of alcoholic mothers learn to relate to their spouse in the same aggressive way they saw in their family of origin.
ACOAs Experience Less Stability
A study in 2002[x] found that marriages of ACOA are less stable than those in the normal population, and that increased emotional distance between the spouses is a likely mediating factor in this link.
Alcoholism in Your Parent Impacts Your View of Yourself
As we mentioned above, alcoholism in your opposite sex parent can lead you to see others as being untrustworthy and to expectations of loved ones letting you down.
Alcoholism in the same-sex parent can affect your view of yourself. For example, husbands with alcoholic fathers report having less positive views about themselves, and believe they are less worthy of love and support from their spouse.
Quite the legacy. So, what to do about it?
How To Combat the Impact of Alcoholism
Address Personal Problems
Many of the personal issues ACOAs experience, such as mood disorders, substance abuse, and low self-esteem can negatively impact your marriage. Seeking help to deal with these personal problems (for example by seeking treatment for mood disorders) can therefore improve the marriage.
As you might expect if you’ve listened to our podcast, a healthy marriage can also help people overcome these issues! For example, love and support from your spouse can help you overcome mood disorders and low self-esteem.
Watch for Issues Around Control
Growing up in a family with an alcoholic parent creates feelings of powerlessness and lack of control in the child: their alcoholic parent is sometimes loving to them (when sober) and sometimes absent or abusive, and as a child, there’s nothing you can do to control this. It’s just very out of control.
Some ACOAs therefore over-compensate by having a need for total control in their marriage in order to feel safe. This often creates an inability to relax, fear of vulnerability, taking on too many responsibilities themselves, and difficulties trusting other people, leading to lower marital satisfaction for both spouses[xi].
Working on building trust in your marriage and sharing out control and responsibility can therefore improve things for both spouses.
Work On Attachment
Most of the marital problems caused by a history of alcoholism in your family of origin can be traced back to the attachment issues[xii]. Insecure attachment styles are formed in childhood but can be changed as adults. Which is great news.
Working on increasing intimacy, trust, communication skills, and vulnerability can help you redefine how you view yourself and your relationships so that they are no longer defined by your parent’s alcoholism. Marriage can also create a safe space for you to process traumatic memories from childhood and re-evaluate those experiences so that they stop impacting how you act as an adult.
Strengthening your marriage and processing the trauma from your family of origin can help you create a secure attachment style with your spouse, where you feel safe being vulnerable and feeling confident you are worthy of love and respect.
That is a very different place to be in than to live in constant insecurity and with the need to exert control over so many variables in response to all that feels out of control.
I hope that this has given you a lot of hope. And I also hope that it has really validated how real the impact of parental alcoholism can be on the children — even when they grow and become adults and marry safe, caring spouses. Alcoholism leaves a profound legacy but — thankfully — one that can be overcome.
[i] Denise Beesley and Cal D. Stoltenberg, ‘Control, Attachment Style, and Relationship Satisfaction among Adult Children of Alcoholics. (Research)’, Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 24.4 (2002), 281.
[ii] Jill N. Kearns-Bodkin and Kenneth E. Leonard, ‘Relationship Functioning Among Adult Children of Alcoholics’, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 69.6 (2008), 941–50.
[iii] Kearns-Bodkin and Leonard.
[iv] Kearns-Bodkin and Leonard.
[v] Kearns-Bodkin and Leonard.
[vi] Judith A. Feeney, ‘Attachment Style, Communication Patterns, and Satisfaction across the Life Cycle of Marriage’, Personal Relationships, 1.4 (1994), 333–48 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1994.tb00069.x>.
[vii] Kearns-Bodkin and Leonard.
[viii] Kearns-Bodkin and Leonard.
[ix] Kearns-Bodkin and Leonard.
[x] TONI TERLING WATT, ‘Marital and Cohabiting Relationships of Adult Children of Alcoholics: Evidence from the National Survey of Families and Households’, Journal of Family Issues, 23.2 (2002), 246–65 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X02023002004>.
[xi] Beesley and Stoltenberg.
[xii] Michelle L. Kelley and others, ‘Retrospective Reports of Parenting Received in Their Families of Origin: Relationships to Adult Attachment in Adult Children of Alcoholics’, Addictive Behaviors, 30.8 (2005), 1479–95 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2005.03.005>.