Adult children of addicts face many unique challenges. They struggle with learned behaviors that are self-destructive in nature, generally feel empty and alone, face abandonment or attachment issues and have an inability to acquire or maintain healthy connections with friends and significant others. The latter is typically attributed to a fear of intimacy.
Of course, every individual is distinct and not all adult children of addicts experience the same symptoms. Some become active addicts themselves, while others abstain from substances. Some develop process addictions or codependency either in childhood or adulthood or throughout developmental stages. Still others become greatly successful in regards to their professional careers and life choices. However, despite the unique attributes in each person, adult children all seem to share the same inability to provide or easily accept emotional intimacy.
The Come Here, Go Away Dynamic
For most helping professionals, observing a fear of intimacy in adult children is so common that there’s even a catchy phrase for the unpleasant emotion and resulting relationship pattern has received a catchy descriptor: “come here, go away.”
For instance, the adult child of an addict usually desires closeness and connectedness and pulls someone in, possibly even chasing to acquire acceptance and love. However, once emotional intimacy is offered and the closeness becomes real, the adult child will start to feel uncomfortable and desperately want to withdraw.
At that point, the individual will push their romantic partner or close friend away to prevent further emotional intimacy. Once the other party pulls away, the adult child will begin to feel abandoned and alone again. The chase then resumes and the cycle repeats, typically to the detriment and ultimate demise of his or her relationships.
Why Does It Happen?
Since adult children of addicts have essentially been raised in dysfunction, healthy functioning relationships—including, but not limited to, emotional intimacy—has never been properly modeled for them. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms, unavailability and other self-sabotaging behaviors become the only accepted and known normal way to safely co-exist with an active addict. This process of learning these negative behaviors is referred to as maladaptation.
Maladaptation is a survival tool for a child of an addict and the process and ultimate product—learned dysfunction—allows them the ability to survive their situation. However, once an adult child interacts with those who are not dysfunctional, these behaviors sabotage his or her abilities to fit in, feel accepted or connect in the ways others seem to experience.
Typically desired aspects of relationships—including, but not limited to, emotional intimacy—may feel foreign, frightening and even cause anxiety for the individual. This fear not only impedes the individual’s ability to acquire and maintain close, personal relationships, it perpetuates the pursuit of superficial ones and the potential to be drawn to unhealthy, unavailable people.
The Good News—Recovery is Possible
Of course, just as with active addiction, active dysfunction from being an adult child of an addict is treatable. Therapy, self-help books and support groups are just a few options available. Additionally, a great deal of empowering and healing information is easily accessible online.
Also like active addiction, there is not merely one right path to successful recovery. The important part is simply to recover, regardless of methodology. And, as with an active addict, the process of entering into recovery is not contingent on anyone else. Whether the parent stays active in addiction or not is irrelevant because adult children of addicts are just that—adults. As such, there is the power of personal choice and more reason than ever to get the help needed to achieve maximum potential in every aspect of life.