By Toshia Humphries, M.Ed., M.A.
Adult children of addicts face unique challenges. They struggle with learned behaviors which prove to be self-destructive in nature. Additionally, they generally feel empty and alone, face abandonment or attachment issues and 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. Not all adult children of addicts experience the exact same symptoms. For instance, some become active addicts themselves, while others abstain from substances altogether.
Additionally, there are those who develop process addictions or codependency either in childhood or adulthood or throughout developmental stages. Moreover, some become greatly successful with regard to professional careers and overall life choices. However, regardless of the unique aspects, learned negative behaviors or heroic overcompensations of each individual adult child, all seem to share the inability to provide or easily accept emotional intimacy.
The Come Here, Go Away Dynamic
For most helping professionals, the observation of this fear of intimacy playing out in the relationships of these individuals is not merely expected. In fact, it is so common, the fear and resulting relationship pattern has received a catchy descriptor—come here, go away. Additionally, a few books and several articles have been written addressing the come here, go away dynamic.
This dynamic is self-explanatory. The adult child of an addict 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 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 begins to again feel abandoned and alone. The chase then resumes and the cycle repeats, typically to the detriment and ultimate demise of their relationships.
Why do Adult Children of Addicts Fear Intimacy?
Adult children of addicts are essentially raised in dysfunction. As such, healthy functioning—including but not limited to emotional intimacy—is not 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 the active addict. This process of learning these negative behaviors is referred to as mal-adaptation.
Mal-adaptation is a survival tool for a child of an addict. The process and ultimate product—learned dysfunction—allows them the ability to survive their situation. However, once they interact with those who are not dysfunctional, these behaviors sabotage their 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—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—including a self-sabotaging fear of intimacy—resulting 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.
First published on www.soberrecovery.com.