Our Parents’ Issues Might Cause Us Dating Trouble, But It Is Possible to Break the Cycle

No, you’re not ‘profoundly and irreversibly screwed up.’
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No, you’re not ‘profoundly and irreversibly screwed up.’

I’ll never forget the relationship that I began at age 19 on New Year’s Eve. I was so excited that first Valentine’s Day when he sent me his signed Jack Johnson poster and we spent hours chatting on AIM and the phone.

But things got complicated when I discovered he was seeing other girls. It got even more complicated when he would tell me he loved me and then push me away. Our relationship was long distance, so he would write me love letters when we were apart, but when we’d see each other, he would be emotionally distant. After each time he pulled away, I knew he would call me and say he couldn’t live without me. Most of my friends couldn’t believe I still answered my phone when he called, but I would defend him by telling them that deep down he meant well.

This may sound like your typical dramatic college romance, but for me the desire to cling to men who push me away ran deeper than freshman year.

I dated my 19-year-old flame for seven years, constantly seeking his affirmation, all the while knowing he would yo-yo me around. The truth is, even after that relationship ended, I have had a hard time being in a steady, committed relationship. I always felt much more comfortable in an on-again, off-again relationship. I felt more comfortable when I was trying to convince someone to like me and really didn’t like the feelings I got once I became his girlfriend.

I know it sounds like I was a game player, but my issue really was something else: I had an excessive fear of abandonment. The minute someone committed to me, I became excessively scared of losing him.

For years I have bounced from one unhealthy relationship to the next, wanting a partner but terrified to fall in love. I knew that I was drawn to the wrong guys, but I couldn’t figure out why. As Julia Roberts puts it in Runaway Bride, I feared there was a distinct possibility that I was “profoundly and irreversibly screwed up.”

My life was changed when I opened up about my dating woes to a friend. With one simple but profound question, all my confusing behavior came to light. “Do you by chance have an alcoholic parent?” she asked me.

I was stunned. My dad and I were always close. I thought the world of him growing up. He was caring and thoughtful of other people. He supported our family with his work and came home to help do laundry, cook dinner, and organize the garage. While my friends’ dads sat on the couch after work, my dad would play with us. In fact, everyone loved my dad. He’s a real charmer. But for most of my young adult life at home, my dad was a practicing alcoholic.

“How did you know that?” I asked her. My friend explained that my dating behavior was “classic Adult Child of Alcoholics, or ACOA, behavior.” This comment inspired years of research on the subject, and I found some peace in discovering that my behavior was learned—but more importantly, that it can be unlearned.

According to the National Association of Children of Alcoholics, one in five adults lived with an alcoholic as children. In the eighties, Janet Geringer Woititz started studying a group of adults who had all grown up in alcoholic homes. Woititz noticed that all of the ACOAs who participated in the study had similar difficulties that were unlike other people their age. Woititz explains that Adult Children of Alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is, they have difficulty having fun and with intimate relationships, judge themselves without mercy, overreact to changes over which they have no control, constantly seek approval and affirmation, feel they are different from others and are extremely loyal and impulsive, amongst a few other things. When I read her book, The Adult Child of an Alcoholic: Struggle for Intimacy, I identified with every single characteristic she listed. It finally all made sense.

But it’s not just ACOAs who share these behavioral patterns. In the book Loving an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, Douglas Bey, M.D., says that very similar behaviors occur in children who grew up with parents who suffer mental illness, have died, have severe physical handicaps, or who divorced, and it can play out in their dating lives and relationships, too.

My father’s drinking got really bad when I was in middle school, which happened to be the time when I was developing my understanding of how relationships work. I would call to see if he’d be home to cook us dinner and he would say he was on his way. Two hours later I would call again when he still hadn’t come home and he’d say he was on his way even though I knew he couldn’t tear himself away from the bar where he was with his friends.

When he was drunk, I didn’t recognize him. He was no longer my loving father. He was distant and retracted his love. Life became very uncontrollable for me, and I never knew which dad I was going to get. I internalized the idea that if I was a great kid, got straight A's, did all the right things and showed my love for him, that he wouldn’t need to get drunk and would love me. I didn’t know then that alcoholism is a disease, and I could do nothing to make him drink or make him not drink.

So it makes sense that when I moved out of state for college, I found a man to recreate this relationship with me. I never knew if he was going to want me or not in any given day. I was comfortable with men who in one moment would say something endearing and then the next moment be totally unavailable, just as my dad would become when he drank. I was also constantly trying to be the “perfect” companion as I thought that would make him stick around for good. I thought that temporary love was normal.

The thing is that as adults, whether ACOSs or not, we tend to replicate what we saw as children. Whether it’s how our parents fight, how they love us, or how they love each other, so much of what we experienced in our families and homes impact our relationships. But I have learned that we have the power to alter our learned behaviors. It is our responsibility as adults to look at those thoughts, feelings, behaviors, experiences, and assumptions to decide if they are helping us and our relationships.

Relearning healthy dating behavior has meant doing a lot of personal work. I take dating classes where I have relearned basic healthy dating behaviors and connected with many other men and women who also strive to have healthy relationships. I have also sought healing through my faith, connecting with my church community and seeking out a spiritual director who has helped me forgive my father and myself for wounds in my past. I go to cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps me change old thinking patterns and behaviors. There are even meetings specifically designed for Adult Children of Alcoholics. Finally, realizing I am one of many men and women whose relationships suffer from the choices or illnesses of their parents has helped me feel hope. I find healing in sharing my experience with other women who struggle with destructive dating patterns, too.

Believe it or not, I have also learned from my parents. My parents have been married for more than thirty-three years and currently have a very beautiful relationship that has grown out of trials and hardship. They are also both ACOAs and were not aware of this resource for healing until they were a decade into their relationship. Watching my dad get sober with my mom by his side showed me that cultivating a healthy relationship means finding a partner who will work through these things with me.

For me, learning to have a healthy relationship takes a lot of trial and error. Every relationship that I enter, reveals new things to work through. Sometimes I want to throw up my hands and say "Never mind, I’ll just remain single as to not get hurt again." But the reality that a loving, healthy relationship is such a beautiful addition to life, helps me get back up, brush off my knees, and try again.

Yes, my father’s issues may have made finding love a lot harder, but they certainly won’t have the last word.

Photo Credit: Regina Leah