Category Archives: adult children of alcoholics
Controlling is hard to spot, and even harder to talk about.
Several reasons for this:
(1) It’s automatic and unconscious, like blinking or the beat of a heart. You can make yourself aware of your own controlling, but it takes effort.
(2) It’s normal. You do it all the time. Everyone around you does it all the time. So controlling behavior fades into the background of awareness, like a chameleon blends into its surroundings.
(3) We use stunted language to describe it. We apply the verb control to wildly different behaviors, to our handling of everything from feelings to finances, foreign trade to cholesterol, termites to acne. We almost need to construct a new language in order to adequately describe this chameleon we’re looking for.
Let’s try to do that, then.
We’re forming two online study/support groups for readers who want to explore these ideas with me in real time; one is for therapists who want to integrate these ideas into their clinical work. Both groups will be small, six members at most, and meet weekly. Fee is $50 per session, and group members may purchase Monkeytraps (The Book) at half price. Interested? Write me: email@example.com.
First time I heard it, the term adult child made no sense to me.
It seemed an obvious contradiction in terms, like square circle or military intelligence.
I understand better now.
I understand that an adult child is someone who’s adult on the outside, childish inside.
That the childish part is a collection of unmet needs, unresolved conflicts and unexpressed feelings.
That, under stress, this part gets triggered, and the adult experiences all the fears and insecurities of the child when that child’s growth was interrupted.
And that you needn’t have grown up in an alcoholic or abusive or especially dysfunctional family for this to be true of you.
That it happens to all of us.
In other words, that Andrew Malraux was right when he wrote,
There is no such thing as
a grown-up human being.
That we are all adult children.
Ninth in the series
Notes on recovery
Intimacy depends on the quality of communication.
And the first step to raising that quality is by not doing stuff we normally do.
Psychologist Thomas Gordon once famously identified twelve “roadblocks to communication” between parents and children. It’s a good list to memorize, since each item is essentially a controlling behavior able to destroy intimacy between anyone and anyone else:
1. Ordering or directing
2. Warning or threatening
3. Advising or suggesting
4. Arguing or persuading
5. Lecturing or moralizing
6. Criticizing, judging or blaming
7. Agreeing or praising*
8. Ridiculing or shaming
9. Analyzing or diagnosing
10. Reassuring or sympathizing*
11. Questioning or probing
12. Withdrawing, humoring or distracting
A client with whom I shared this list responded, “What’s left? Hand signals?”
I sympathize. We’re so used to these ways of unconsciously controlling each other that it’s hard to imagine doing without them.
But there are alternatives.
I-statements, for example. Ever notice how any sentence containing the word You tends to make the listener defensive? I-statements avoid this by focusing on me instead. I’m confused by what you’re saying, instead of You make no sense. I’m mad at you, instead of You suck. Like that. Which do you think leads to better communication?
Then there’s feedback, a skill I teach in therapy groups. Group requires a lot of emotional safety, so to forestall judgments or unsolicited advice members are asked to respond to what they hear by describing only what it made them think, feel or remember. (When you talk about your anger I remember all the times I lost my temper and how it felt.) These expanded I-statements not only make it safer for everyone to talk about sensitive issues, they help members get to know each other quickly, and to understand their own reactions and perceptions reactions on a deeper level.
Finally, monologuing is an exercise I teach couples who want to learn intimate communication. Each partner takes five minutes to list his/her resentments (I resent when you insult my mother) and appreciations (I appreciate when you make coffee so I don’t have to) while the other just listens. Then they switch roles. Monologuing’s not meant to settle disputes or solve problems; it’s used to keep the air clear, lines of communication open, and each partner in touch with where the other is emotionally. It also teaches them to make I-statements, identify feelings, listen without interrupting, and develop empathy. (I didn’t know you felt that way is a common reaction.) Couples who monologue regularly tell me it becomes a way they can talk safely about almost anything.
*Yes, items 7 and 10 tend to surprise people. See here for an explanation of why they inhibit parent/child communication.
* * *
Since feeling out of control
it makes me seek more control.
The more I seek control,
the more sensitive I become
to control issues.
The more sensitive I become
to control issues, the more often
I feel out of control.
Which makes me
Since feeling out of control
is uncomfortable, it makes me…
* * *
We all have it.
We’re all terrified to talk about it.
The less we talk about it the more we have it.
~ From Part 1 of a PBS interview of Dr. Brene Brown (4:56).
Q: You say that shame leads to disconection. So how do we reconnect?
A: You know, it’s funny.
One of the ironies is that shame fills us with this fear of disconnection.
But it is our imperfection that connects us to each other. It is the fact that our shared humanity is imperfect.
I think if we can find the courage to talk about our lives honestly, and our struggles, not only does that free us, it gives other people the freedom to be more authentic and real as well.
I don’t think connection is possible without authenticity.
~ From Part 2 of a PBS interview of Dr. Brene Brown (5:31).
* * *
Do you know that
most people don’t know
how feelings work?
The truth is,
if you don’t
your feelings work,
you really don’t
understand the world
The truth is,
the way you
see the world
is in large part
that you have not
~ From Let them off the hook by David Viscott, M.D. (4:49).
How can I have you without losing me?
How can I have me without losing you?
You can’t really answer these questions, just struggle with them.
But it’s the struggling that matters.
Because they represent two essential needs each of us brings to any relationship:
Connection and freedom.
Acceptance by another person, and self-acceptance.
A real partner, and at the same time, a real self.
Most people I know are convinced you can’t have both at the same time.
Most came from families — alcoholic, abusive or otherwise dysfunctional — unable to teach them to balance connection with freedom.
What they learned instead was that having one meant losing the other. That winning love and approval from parents, for example, meant sacrificing important parts of themselves, like the freedom to express feelings or take care of their own needs.
The family that raised us is where each of us learned our own personal answer to the two questions. And the answer we learned grew into a crucial (though mostly unconscious) part of our basic view of life and relationships, what I call our Plan A.
Some of us decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have me, and to hell with you.” Shrinks call this the narcissistic answer.
Others decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have you, and to hell with me.” This is the infamous codependent answer.
So the narcissistic partner says “Me first,” and the codependent replies, “Yes, dear.”
And the two personality types end up together with stunning regularity. (Remember Archie and Edith Bunker?)
Watching such couples interact, one is struck by their predictability. In every situation the narcissist finds some way to say “Me first,” and the codependent to reply “Yes, dear.” It’s as if long ago they sat down and signed a contract.
Which in a way they did.
Their complementary answers to the two questions probably account, in large part, for why they felt attracted to each other.
In any case, the vast majority of couples I see for couples counseling follow this pattern — so many that I felt the need to give them their own name.
I call them split-level relationships.
Split-level relationships work for a while, but almost always break down. Eventually one or both partners realize they’re not getting what they need.
Codependents usually notice first. When that partner is female this can lead to the syndrome called the Walk-Away Wife.
But narcissists tend to be unhappy too. They often complain of loneliness, lack of connection to their codependent partner, or an absence of respect or affection. They may feel impatient, frustrated, irritated, resentful. Sometimes they drink, drug, overeat, rage or cheat, and then feel bad about that.
All this happens because split-level relationship is inherently unhealthy.
Familiar, sure. Comfortable, even, in the way the predictable may come to feel.
But not healthy. The unbalanced answers on which a split-level relationship is based simply cannot fill the emotional needs of two adults. So both partners end up feeling deprived, often without understanding why.
What does recovery for such a couple look like?
Put simply, a sort of role reversal.
Codependent partners must develop courage and practice standing up, asserting themselves. Narcissistic partners must develop empathy and practice stepping down, giving instead of grabbing.
Easy? No. Not easy for either of them.
Just necessary to life on the same level.
* * *
“What are you feeling?”
“I feel upset”
“Upset? What does upset mean?”
“Upset! It means that I feel upset!”
“Upset isn’t a feeling. Are you sad? Or scared? Or angry? Or feeling loss? Or something else?”
“I’m not sure.”
Yes, I was so afraid of my emotions that I couldn’t even begin to identify my “negative” emotions.
That would have meant getting close enough to them to start to really feel them, which felt utterly overwhelming.
And I’m not only talking about feelings related to the abuse, I’m talking about the feelings related to every day life.
Thus began my education about emotions.
~ From I have to feel what? by catsmeow at Living While Healing.