How Being an ACoA Impacts Our Adult, Intimate Relationships

Growing up in a family where there is parental addiction shapes relationships, shapes experience, expectations, trust, and quality of connection. Living with addiction engenders an inevitable hypervigilance: we “wait for the other shoe to drop”, we “walk on eggshells”. Anxiety levels around the kinds of behaviors that surround addiction and the inevitable relationship despair that worms its way into our hearts when we watch those we love change into people we hardly recognize takes its toll on how we learn to be in intimate connection with those close to us.

Maintaining a relationship with another person, if addiction is in the early stages, can feel like a dance in which routines that circulate around drinking or eating, for example, become rigid and uninterruptable. Or there are hidden behaviors that make the family system feel fake, superficial, or tense, since family members make the myriad small, relational adjustments that living with addiction inevitably demands. They learn to adjust their expectations not to expect normal behavior, not to take for granted that plans and people can be counted on. They learn that those they love can have terrible, frightening, and sometimes immoral hidden sides. They learn to hide their true feelings because if they let them out, there will likely be some sort of explosion, implosion, or painful scene.

Over time, the cumulative stress of the sorts of relationship dynamics that surround addiction can be traumatic, and something inside of us changes. The sad news is that ACoAs often import the kinds of experience and expectations that they learned in childhood into their adult, intimate relationships. We layer our childhood experiences onto our adult relationships and all too often re-create some of the relational turmoil that we experienced as kids, whether or not addiction is present. Long after the stressor is removed, in other words, we live as if it’s still present. When old pain gets triggered we overreact, underreact, or alternate between the two.

Wired for Overreaction

One of the salient features of trauma that can rear its head in relationships is overreaction. ACoA can have larger-than-appropriate reactions to slights and stresses in relationships that are based as more on past experience than what is happening in the here and now. We get triggered. Something occurs in the present that hurts us and that sets off old, unresolved, and oftentimes unconscious pain from the past, jettisons to the surface, and lands on whoever is closest.

Because we often never really made sense of what was happening in our families as children, when old pain gets triggered, it’s often that wordless, confused, and unprocessed emotion that surfaces. As adults we don’t know where it’s from or what to do with it.

As kids when we were surrounded by family chaos, we felt overwhelmed. Because we were in a high state of stress, nature took over to protect us from harm: our fight-or-flight responses came into play. Our prefrontal cortex — the thinking, planning part — shut down along with the language part of our brain. Our muscles flooded with increased blood flow and we spurted adrenaline to prepare us for fight or flight…but we could do neither. Where would we have gone? So we froze and all of that feeling of fear, anxiety, and pain went underground and never got “right-sized” or brought back into balance. And because the adults we’d normally have gone to in order to express our scared feelings and get reassurance were often the ones causing the chaos to begin with, that pain remained unconscious and unprocessed. It is that very pain, anger, confusion, and anxiety that is triggered when we try to create intimacy as adults. The very feelings of vulnerability, dependence, and closeness that mirror our childhood parent/child relationships act as triggers when we try to create closeness as adults. Hence, we overreact; we bring all that old pain into our new relationship. Even a mean look, a loud voice, rejection, or anger can make us shiver inside and return to that helpless, frozenness we experienced as a kid. We’re that scared kid all over again, locked in the body of an adult. Some of the ways in which ACoAs re-create old relationship dynamics in new relationships are through:

  • Transference: We transfer or project the relationship dynamics from a relationship in the past onto a relationship in the present.
  • Reenactment dynamics: We re-create the painful, unresolved relationship dynamics from childhood that are still frozen and unconscious within us, in our relationships with our partners.
  • Projection: We project feelings that we cannot bear to sit with onto our partners and make the feeling about them or about the relationships rather than examine where it might be coming from within ourselves.
  • Eliciting responses: We vibrate feelings and unfulfilled expectations or negative expectations into the atmosphere of our relationship, which elicit corresponding responses from our partners — then we get what we expect.

When couples get into a conflict, here is some of what happens.

The Fight: Example A

We are triggered by the intense feelings accompanying intimacy, so we:

  • Blame our partner (or children) for what we are feeling.
  • Make our pain about our partner, rather than recognizing that the intensity of our reaction may have historical fuel.
  • Feel like a victim, see our partner as the aggressor and ourselves as the disempowered victim.
  • Collapse into helplessness and/or become aggressive and intimidate our partner.

Clearly this is a recipe for disaster when it comes to resolving conflict and getting to the other side of it. When we’re stuck in Fight A, we stay stuck and believe our only options are to keep fighting, disconnect, or self-medicate. The following is an example of how a couple might climb out of this stuck place.

The Fight: Example B

We get triggered by the intense feelings accompanying intimacy, so we:

  • Blame our partner (or children) for what we are feeling.
  • Make our pain about our partner rather than recognizing that the intensity of our reaction may have historical fuel.
  • Feel like a victim, see our partner as the aggressor and ourselves as the disempowered victim.
  • Collapse into helplessness and/or become aggressive and intimidate our partner.

But then we…

  • Back up, breathe, self reflect, take a moment to calm down, take a break.
  • Feel, articulate, and explore feelings that have been triggered.
  • Identify sources of transference that may be at the base of projected pain.
  • Identify possible historical sources of overreaction and overly intense emotions.
  • Separate the past from the present.
  • Talk about the issues that have been triggered from the past and move into talking about what is happening in the partnership that needs to be addressed.
  • Ask yourself as a couple how your feelings, attitudes, and behaviors may be affecting your family relationships and your children.
  • Make a simple plan for trying out new attitudes and behaviors.
  • Kiss and make up.

As you notice, the fight looks very much the same in both scenarios – after all, we all fight; it’s normal. How we handle the fight is where the rubber meets the road, where real and lasting change can take place. And then it’s time to move on. For ACoAs, this can be hard. We carry patterns that hold endless scenes of issues that never got resolved within us, or the relationship, patterns in which the solution was to stuff it, hide our feelings and ruminate, complain, stew, or discharge our troubled emotions somewhere else completely. Time to start some new habits, have a fight, handle it, and live to fight another day. But in between, build trust, honesty, intimacy, and good faith. In other words, enjoy life.

For a deeper look into how childhood dynamics get played out in adult relationships read “The ACoA Trauma Syndrome: How Childhood Pain Impacts Adult Relationships” by Tian Dayton PhD.

For a webinar on this subject, click here:
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