First off, let’s define “ACOA” for those who don’t recognize the acronym: Adult Children of Alcoholics. Is your partner one of them? Being an ACOA does not mean your partner has a mental illness, but the effects of having an alcoholic parent can greatly affect your partner’s mental health, especially if the parent is still abusing alcohol (or other substances…addiction does not discriminate!)
The effects of parental substance abuse are far-reaching and often last for the adult child’s entire life. As a child, your partner may have had the following characteristics:
- Social immaturity
- Lack of self-esteem
- Low self-efficacy
- Aggression or hyperactivity
- Relationship conflicts
- Problems at school (attendance, grades)
On the other hand, your partner may have swung to the other end of the spectrum, trying to make everything perfect, being the peacemaker in the family, striving for perfectionism, taking on adult responsibilities, and denying their own needs in favor of protecting the alcoholic parent. The Adult Children of Alcoholics website has a list of fourteen characteristics of ACOAs, called “The Laundry List.”
Either way, it’s likely some of these characteristics have lingered into your partner’s adult personality, and may be showing up in your relationship.
Researchers have found that adult children of alcoholics sometimes struggle in relationships because of lack of trust, loneliness, emotional denial, feelings of guilt, shame and rage, sadness, being unsure of their identity, needing control, having issues asserting themselves, being desperate to please others, and overreacting to criticism.
In addition, it’s thought that ACOAs are more likely than the general population to constantly seek approval and validation, feel that they are “different,” be super-responsible, judge themselves harshly, be extremely loyal, and plunge into action without considering consequences.
It’s probably not too difficult to see why being an ACOA can make romantic relationships as an adult challenging. You may not have made the connection between your partner’s family history and what shows up in your relationship, but the impact is huge.
What if your partner’s parent is still in the picture?
Part two of this story is what happens if the alcoholic parent is still abusing alcohol and your partner is still involved with their family. Your partner might still be actively trying to get their parent into treatment, or your partner may have come to a place where they no longer try to intervene. Either way, this situation affects your partner’s mental health. The stress of having an addicted parent is high. As the supportive partner, what is your role in helping your partner?
- Learn about ACOAs. Once you are better educated about the characteristics of ACOAs, many of the behaviors your partner exhibits in both your relationship and their relationship with their alcoholic parent might make a lot more sense. The resources listed below are a great starting point.
- Validate your partner’s experience. Although I am using the blanket term “ACOA,” of course each person’s experience is unique. Allowing your partner a safe space to talk about their experience, whether it is happening now or is ancient history, will bring you closer as a couple. If there are behaviors your partner is doing that are interfering with your relationship, you may want to encourage your partner to seek therapy or attend Al-Anon meetings to gain greater perspective and get support.
- Ask your partner what they need. Your partner may want you to actively help with the situation or not. Your partner may not be in a place where they can deal with their family history and how it is currently affecting their life and your relationship. Or maybe things have reached a point where denial is not working anymore. Remember, this is your partner’s family, not yours, and your partner needs to take the lead on what comes next. Your role is to support whatever your partner decides to do.
Dr. Jan’s site, author of Adult Children of Alcoholics