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Dating the Adult Child of an Alcoholic: What You Need to Know

If you’re dating the child of an alcoholic parent, you may be wondering how their past experiences will impact your romantic relationship. Or you may have already seen the effects at work and are searching for healthy ways to understand and resolve them.

First of all, know that this dynamic is not a rarity. One in five people are the adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA), according to the National Association of Children of Alcoholics. This unfortunate reality is common, and the impact of these childhood experiences can be serious. But there’s hope — the more you understand your partner, the more you can overcome together.

How Being an ACOA Can Impact Romantic Relationships

As children, we learn our behavior from the model of our parents. Our ideas of what is healthy, normal and expected are intimately entwined with what we grew up observing. When one parent struggles with alcoholism, it can cause a warped perception of what relationship dynamics should look like. ACOAs have grown up absorbing the behavior of a parent who may have had frequent mood swings, been unreliable, withheld love or affection or been absent entirely. As a result, it’s common for ACOAs to experience lasting impacts in their own future relationships, such as:

  • Deep-seated trust issues
  • Low self-esteem leading to clinginess, controlling behavior or manipulation
  • Impaired attachment strategies and a fear of commitment
  • A tendency to transfer feelings from childhood to the present
  • Dependency or codependency in relationships

Signs That Your Significant Other May Be an ACOA

If you’re unsure whether your significant other is an ACOA, consider some common traits that adults pinpoint as effects of their childhood experiences. They may exhibit:

  • Being survivalist by nature: Is your partner always ready for crisis and comfortable with chaos? Are they prepared for, or perhaps even expecting, moods to switch and things to go wrong? These behaviors and dispositions can reflect the subconscious comfort zones of ACOAs.
  • Trust issues: If your partner has trust issues that don’t stem from anything in their past romantic relationships, it may be a result of their childhood experiences. ACOAs are often used to unstable dynamics with their parent or even being lied to repeatedly, and they may have built-in expectations that you’ll be the same. This mindset can manifest in an unwillingness to commit or an intimacy struggle.
  • Perfectionism: ACOAs often become perfectionists as they grow up with an alcoholic parent. Self-blame and guilt are common effects that lead to a felt need to succeed, perform excellently and mitigate any extra stress in the home by being perfect. As a result, ACOAs can be very self-critical and often struggle with poor self-esteem. They’re all too aware that they cannot reach perfection but often become approval-seeking in hopes of getting the affirmation they lacked during childhood.
  • Isolationism: Growing up as the child of an alcoholic may have led your significant other to spend a lot of time on their own. This behavior may carry over into their adult life, preferring isolation over time with others because that’s simply how they grew up. In the mind of an ACOA, it’s simply safer to be alone than it is to build a relationship.
  • Fear of authority figures: Growing up with at least one parent that struggles with alcoholism means that the person an ACOA looks up to may also be the one they fear the most. As an adult, this can translate into fear of anyone who might have power over them, including a boss, law enforcement officer or significant other, significantly affecting ACOA relationship patterns.
  • Approval seeking behavior: On the other side of the coin, ACOA’s might spend their time seeking approval from those closest to them, even if that means doing things that might typically be outside of their typical behavior.
  • Addiction to excitement: Adult children of alcoholics might become addicted to excitement as a substitute for the emotions they lacked growing up. This upbringing can lead them to seek out dangerous activities or make poor decisions as a way to gain stimulation.
  • Issues expressing feelings: It can be difficult for the children of alcoholics to express their feelings because they spent their entire childhood bottling up their emotions to not trigger their alcoholic parent’s rage. As a result, loving an ACOA often comes with communication barriers to overcome.
  • Difficulty relaxing: Living in a household with an alcoholic can sometimes feel like you’re living on a powderkeg and playing with matches. That feeling of tension and fear can carry over into adulthood, making it more difficult for ACOA’s to relax, even with people they feel safe around.

Of course, if you’re unsure about your partner’s background, the best thing to do is to open up communication and let them share when they’re ready.

What You Should Know If You Love an ACOA

These effects may seem insurmountable, but the more closely you understand your partner, the more power you’ll have to work through their past and rewrite your future together. Work on building trust through increased intimacy and communication.

Are you dating the child of an alcoholic? If so, opening yourself up to vulnerability will create a safe space for your partner to do the same. Take the time to learn more about ACOAs and how their experiences may have shaped their relationship-building skills and love languages. Loving an adult child of an alcoholic comes with some challenges. However, with compassion and understanding, you can make it work.

Ask your partner what they need and help by validating their experiences. They might not want to talk about it at the beginning of your relationship, but make it a point to offer yourself as an ear or a sounding board so that they know you’re always there for them. The more you can share and build a strong foundation of trust and openness, the more your relationship can be redefined and separated from their parent’s alcoholism.

If you or a loved one need assistance with addiction recovery, don’t hesitate to contact Gateway for professionals who will help you every step of the way.

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