The All-Too-Common Relationship Mistake Made By Adult Children Of Alcoholics

Photo: Photo: NEOSiAM 2021 | Keira Burton | Pexels
Couple in conflict, woman walking away

Our families of origin function as a blueprint for how we form relationships in adulthood — for better and for worse — and the attachment styles we learn as children can carry over into our adult relationships.

If you're securly attached, this can be helpful in creating a relationship that's mutually rewarding and healthy. But insecure or avoidant relationship styles can make buildling a relationship challenging. 

Adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs), people who were raised in families affected by alcoholism, often struggle with insecure attachment. When faced with conflict in a relationship, they may respond in extreme ways, one of which is to try to always "stay ahead" of problems or to try to solve all the relationship's problems — or their partner's problems — themselves. 

In a recent episode of the podcast Open Relationships: Transforming Together with Andrea Miller, co-host Joanna Schroeder shares with guest Dr. Stan Tatkin a challenge she faces as a child who came from a family with a history of alcoholism and addiction. 

"[I have] an instinct to be ahead of everything that someone’s about to do. To manage it, to protect [myself]." 

She owns that the tendency to try to prevent conflict or discomfort in her marriage is likely an "insecure attachment thing" and asks Dr. Tatkin to share how to combat it.  

The maladaptive relationship trait many adult children of alcoholics share

Many ACoAs make the mistake of trying to solve their partner’s dysregulation all on their own, thinking they’re doing the right thing.

Adult children of alcoholics often seek stability in their relationships by trying to anticipate their parent’s or partner’s reactions and emotions. This pattern of behavior serves as a self-protective measure, functioning as a way to avoid potential crisis or trauma. Yet it also creates a sense of codependency and difficulty feeling safe. 

RELATED: 9 Struggles Adult Children of Alcohlics Know All Too Well

Why being a 'solo operator' in relationships simply doesn't work 

Dr. Tatkin, who is the founder of the Psychobiological Approach To Couples Therapy (PACT), roots his therapy model in neuroscience, attachment theory, and the biology of human arousal. He's truly the perfect therapist to field a challenge like what Schroeder presents, one that is rooted not just in a traumatic or neglected history, but also in attachment and self-protection on a level that is so innate, it's hard to even recognize it when it happens. 

A major part of Tatkin’s work focuses on planning against the survival instincts that get triggered when a person feels threatened by conflict or a perceived lack of safety. He advises couples to legislate as they go, putting the relationship first in order to “work on a problem and work on a solution, together…  without pointing fingers at each other, otherwise we can’t fix it.”

“We have to think of what could go wrong" Tatkin continues, "or what did go wrong, and put something in place for the next time — by agreement and permission to enforce. Those are vital.”

In other words, when people work together and share "permission to enforce", they agree together that it's OK to be each other's care-takers. In agreeing ahead of time, before conflict arises, the decision to care for your partner becomes mutual, balanced and healthy. 

“Under stress, under pressure, we can do really terrible things, and revert to one-person thinking," Tatkin says. And it's easy for ACoAs to fall into this trap.

'I promise I will not let you lose'

In the clip embedded above, Schroeder asks: 

“How do you know the difference between me feeling responsible for my husband’s dysregulation, and then me, acting out that role of caretaker, anticipating all the problems, [and] solving them all yourself [mindset]?”

Dr. Tatkin doesn't miss a beat with this question. Clearly this is not the first time he's been faced with this challenge.

The difference, Tatkin shares, lies in the action of that kind of caretaking being a one-person or two-person operation.

That's when Tatkin says a phrase that is truly a game-changer. He says that during a fight, “I have to simultaneously protect myself and you at the same time… I promise I will not let you lose.”

RELATED: 5 Seemingly Innocent Things People Say During Fights That Sound Like 'I Want To Break Up'

Schroeder noted, “Our brains have muscle memory. To do a different thing and think about bringing somebody back in, that’s going to take practice.”

“We’re going to trigger each other’s memories,” Tatkin explained. “We’re all memory.”

The good news is, we have the power to overcome self-protective instincts that no longer serve us. To do so takes practice, relying on coming together as a unit, even in hard times.

“You have to be able to acknowledge loss and… tolerate differences and separation," Tatkin tells Miller and Schroeder. "You have to tolerate shame and be humble.”

Be your relationship's 'co-architect' 

“We’re the co-architects of this thing called a relationship,” Tatkin explained. In order to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise in a partnership, we have to “learn to give… into the dyad,” continuously consider what purpose we serve for each other, and keep our common goals in mind. In addition, programs like Al-Anon or individual therapy can be helpful for ACoAs or anyone who wishes to work and grow past issues. 

Once we recognize that expressing our vulnerabilities makes us stronger, we’re able to move forward as a unit, putting our shared future first. 

RELATED: How Couples That Stay Together Forever Manage Conflict

Alexandra Blogier is a writer on YourTango's news and entertainment team. She covers relationships, pop culture analysis and all things to do with the entertainment industry.