|Illustration that can be used to demonstrate parentification in alcoholic families|
And wives find it painful and difficult to have to say, "My husband is an alcoholic."
It must be remembered that an alcoholic in a family is a hurricane, so consistently powerful that the entire family is forced to adapt to the threat of imminent violence or a host of other forms of craziness. When a family “adapts” to craziness, they have formed a maladjustment that makes their situation seem normal. But there is no normal way for anyone to adapt to craziness.
Their ways of relating to each other, covering up the unpleasant, not talking about emotional subjects, learning to keep family secrets, all become a deep-set mode of functioning. The fall-out of such entrenchment reaches down from one generation to another to another.
As one example, it seems that the overwhelming majority of daughters of alcoholics tend to marry alcoholics, often more than one. As women tend to do, they are seeking to find their fathers in their husbands; but in their case, Father is a risky model in picking out a mate. Nonetheless, such a young woman will recognize certain personality traits that seem not only familiar but somehow enticing. Her own father, always inaccessible, seems available in another body. Seeing her father in such a one, she sees a chance to have her father at last, after all those years of being deprived.
There can be a conflicting need for such a daughter to gain her “father” but also at the same time to rebel against him. She can develop an unwieldy relationship in which both love and hate vie for the same space in her heart. In such a dilemma, she will seem to hold on too tightly and be prone to extreme jealousy and yet, at the same time, be subject to the sudden powerful urge to reject or punish her mate. She retains the deep and powerful need for her father along with an equally powerful need to vent her rage against him. Yet these emotions will be pushed aside when the alcoholic drinking pattern in her husband emerges—if the marriage lasts that long—and she will undertake again what has always eluded her: getting him to stop drinking. When she fails, it will be her fault.
The term “she” continues to be used here, for indeed it is most often a woman who comes for help when caught in this kind of a life-limiting problem. Certainly young men have been caused to suffer in similar ways, but they tend to handle their problems in a manner that usually remains outside the doctor’s office. For example, when the husband is an adult child of an alcoholic and is playing out the consequences on his wife, whether knowingly or not, he will usually send his wife to the doctor. This is a trait of men in general, no matter what kind of problem prevails. Husbands, regardless of their role in the difficulties, all too often tell their wives, “You go. You’re the one who thinks there’s a problem.”
A girl growing up in an alcoholic family will often be doomed to failure regardless of which parent is the drinker. She will be the peacemaker and the one who tries to protect one parent from the other. All during her developmental years, she hopes that if she tries harder, then Mom or Dad will change. Any child caught up in such a bind will eventually take on the self-appointed label of failure. Trying the impossible over a sustained period of time will produce this kind of condemnation in the adopted self, and she will likely spend a lifetime trying to overthrow the verdict. The theme will be played out on the eventual spouse and on the children, who will find that they also have a parent who cannot be made happy.
The failure identity very often leads such a child to over-achieve, first in school and later in most other kinds of challenges. They will have a tendency to become people pleasers, having failed so miserably with the most important people in their lives: their parents. They will also be prone to relationships of bondage with unreasonable, demanding, inconsistent people, sometimes tyrannical people, just like the ones at home during childhood. Sometimes they work out their early maladaptation by setting the goal of becoming the ambitious, successful, family “savior”, the one who finally brings some dignity to the family name. This course is the most frightening of all, because it consumes nearly all of one’s energy. Failure is always right behind, no matter what the level of success, so to stop running would be unthinkable.
Because an adult child of an alcoholic has not learned what normal existence is, she (or he) must guess as she tries to make her way through life and possibly establish her own family. Whatever a child has experienced in her own family is normal for her, though by reasonable standards her “normal” might very well be crazy. A child brought up in confusion, plus the threat of imminent danger, or at the very least, constant insecurity, must seek by trial and error to discover what the real meaning of normal is. Missing what should have been learned in the family setting, plus having learned much in the way of irrationality, results in a huge learning void that must be made up for by direct, therapeutic teaching.
Such a young adult—or even a middle-aged one—will be further done in by nondirective counseling approaches that forever ask, “What do you think?” The patient is missing some vital information about what normal is, and it doesn’t matter what she thinks as much as what she needs to learn. Thus, the therapist must be a patient teacher who is directive in his treatment.
These victims have difficulty following projects through to completion. They tend to shift priorities and feel that whatever they are working on at the time is the wrong thing. They have not been taught how to establish priorities because they have been raised in a home where there has always been but one priority: keeping the peace and avoiding further disaster.
They are known for telling “little white lies” and sometimes some big ones, because experience has taught them that bending the truth or avoiding it has been the surest way out of danger. This becomes habit-forming, part of the automatic-reaction pattern when dealing with anything threatening. Yet they tend to judge themselves without mercy, not a surprising practice since they have almost never felt the pleasure of reward. Such a tightly-wound individual is not always pleasant to be with because life is too serious a problem with never-ending complications.
To say the least, they have grave difficulty in intimate relationships, having felt the terror of abandonment on a regular basis, and obviously they cannot trust but instead have an insatiable need for approval and affirmation. Working with people on the job or in other cooperative efforts is difficult in that they have no idea what to expect from the other people; they must guess at what the reactions of others might be. Nonetheless, they try extremely hard to please and remain very loyal to relationships.
If ever they find a relationship that works, it is a treasure to be worried about and protected at all cost. However, some have managed to develop a “science” of knowing how to please even the most impossible people and will do so endlessly at great cost to their own personhood.
About the Author Heyward B. Ewart, Ph.D., is President of St. James the Elder Theological Seminary, that combines distance learning with close personal interaction and supervised experience. It offers programs through the doctorate in Christian Clinical Counseling and Theology. He is a doctor of psychology with nearly 30 years of experience in treating victims of child and domestic abuse. Dr. Ewart is the author of AM I BAD? Recovering from Abuse (2007) and SOUL RAPE: Recovering Personhood After Abuse (set for October release, Loving Healing Press). He is also Patriarch of the Holy Catholic Church International. To read more about him, follow the link http://stjamestheelderseminary.org/Home_Page.php.