Why Children of Addicts Marry Other Addicts

When Lottie was a child, her family struggled financially because of her father’s alcoholism. Often, her mother would have to scramble to pay bills because her father had "drunk away" the money set aside for expenses. During her adolescence, Lottie vowed that she would not marry an alcoholic and make the same mistake her mother had. Despite these vows, Lottie ended up married to a man who stopped at the bar every day after work, and often created chaos in their home due to his alcohol abuse. Lottie is now asking herself how this happened.

According to a study in the Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, children of alcoholics tend to marry alcoholics with greater frequency than the general public chooses alcoholics as partners. There may be several factors contributing to this pattern.

People tend to gravitate towards ways of relating to others that are familiar to them. If your family tended to talk through problems when you were a child, you are likely to surround yourself with people who use communication to solve disagreements. If your family tended to ignore problems during your childhood, you likely do not feel comfortable discussing issues that may come up in relationships. Thus, even though you may recognize that it is better to discuss problems rather than ignore them, you still are likely to approach problems by ignoring them because it is so much more comfortable to you. This creates a situation where you attract people who feed off of the unhealthy ways that you relate with people, and you repel healthier individuals.

People tend to choose to be around those who affirm their identity. For instance, if you feel that you are worthy of respect, you will tend to be in relationships where people respect you. On the other hand, if you see yourself as damaged, you will choose to be around people who reinforce the idea that you are broken. One would think that everyone would want to be around people who compliment them or make them feel better, but studies show that, instead, people most often seek feedback that is identity-reinforcing. Children of alcoholics often have a poor self-image, and, therefore, may choose an alcoholic mate who affirms their negative identity.

People continue to use the same coping strategies they learned as a child once they are adults. Third, people develop both healthy and unhealthy coping strategies to deal with stress over their lifetime. In particular, children of alcoholics develop coping strategies that help them survive the chaos of their early home life. However, people retain these same coping strategies when they are adults, and in turn, these coping strategies make them relate well with alcoholics. As a child, you have may survived the dysfunction in your home by being passive. You tended to go with the flow and stay out of the way when your mother began to get angry while drinking. This served you well as a child—you survived. However, as an adult you continue to use this same pattern of coping, but now it makes you attractive to those who need you to be passive in order to continue their alcohol use.

People tend to choose relationships that make them feel needed. For the child of the alcoholic, they were often needed to be the helper or the rescuer and were given praise when they took on that role. Thus, they may feel that this is the primary way in which they can make a deep connection with others, and may fall into patterns of helping others without even realizing it. In the context of a romantic relationship, this can create powerful feelings of intimacy, thus setting up the adult child of an alcoholic to feel a strong bond with someone who needs them like an alcoholic does. These principles are also often true if you grew up in a home where people were abusing substances other than alcohol. If you are in a relationship with someone who struggles with alcoholism, there are many resources for you to get help so that you can change your patterns of relating to others. Al-Anon, a support group for those who have loved ones struggling with addiction, is an excellent resource. Additionally, your local therapist can help you sort through many of these issues stemming from childhood that created the environment for the choice of spouse that you made.

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