As a spiritual life coach and counselor, I have worked with many clients who are romantically involved with or identify as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA). For the most part, they all have the same experience, feeling unloved or “not loved in an ideal way.”
The latter statement is typically a cover story for the real one; a way to stay in denial about the overwhelming sense of loss and grief over the familial or romantic relationship that either died or never existed. It downplays the fact that, regardless of whether or not they were told they were loved or given basic necessities, they did not feel a genuine connection, emotional intimacy, or closeness of any kind. In other words, they did not ever experience love in action.
Here are the real reasons people with substance use disorder have a difficult time reciprocating.
1. People who struggle with alcohol are often codependent.
Codependency is not love. In fact, it is based on dysfunctional needs and a lack of love or respect for self in the same way active alcoholism is. In a codependent relationship, the significant other or family member is treated as a means to an end (a hostage or a drug), rather than a feeling, thinking human being. Even if the word love may be thrown around a lot, it is typically used as a tool for manipulation or victimization, and therefore feels more like a weapon than a term of endearment.
As this dynamic continues, it is likely that active alcoholics will never leave the relationship, but they’ll also never truly be there. Moreover, if given the choice, they’ll never let you go. Hence, the saying, “Alcoholics don’t have relationships; they take hostages.”
2. Problems with substance use block self-love
It has been said that active addiction is an act of turning against oneself, and it is in recovery that an individual learns how to love. In essence, recovery is a movement away from ego and toward a love of self and others.
Given the fact that the relationship an active alcoholic has with themselves is the one in which they are most abusive and negligent – physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually – it is very clear there is a complete lack of self-love. Additionally, that abuse and neglect inflicted upon self is projected onto and reflected in other relationships. As such, they are abusive and negligent in all relationships; romantic, platonic, professional, and familial.
3. People who struggle with addiction are emotionally unavailable.
Because addicted people use substances to numb, escape, or avoid pain, they are typically void of any emotional cues. More to the point, they avoid situations or conversations (intimate ones) that might trigger unwanted emotional responses.
Additionally, because active addiction is a disconnection from self and therefore they are not in touch with their own emotional or spiritual needs, they cannot connect to those needs in others.
In other words, where love is an easy enough word to say, it requires a movement away from ego and fear to truly offer and fully accept. People who are actively addicted are in a constant state of ego and fear; the bricks and mortar make a very substantial wall that impedes emotional availability.
4. People with substance use disorder seem to love the bottle more.
The keyword here (of course) is: seem.
We all know, alcoholics don’t truly love the bottle. Again, it’s more like a codependent relationship with the bottle in which they cannot leave but it kills them to stay.
Still, the bottle does become like a mistress in a marriage and a priority over family, friends, and other responsibilities, as well as self. Even with regard to functioning alcoholics who manage to maintain a successful career, alcohol is the first to receive their attention any moment they are free to give it. It is their most prized and protected relationship. And, for the record, the latter explains the level of defensiveness encountered when anyone speaks against or threatens it.
5. People who Struggle with Addiction have "King Baby Syndrome.”
Active alcoholics are self-centered to the point of being easily labeled narcissistic. Even though there is no real love for themselves, they often demand all the attention via victimization, manipulation, and dramatic antics. Thus, the world must revolve around them.
Additionally, they are impulsive and want instant gratification. As such, they don't play the tape the whole way through, which is another way of saying that they don't think about the consequences of their actions and how they will impact others or the future.
Learning how to love again or for the first time takes work, and it takes more than merely getting sober. Personal growth, healing, and spiritual reconnection are all necessary parts of the process. They are expressions of love in action toward self, and the journey forward is about learning to love you.