I'm 28 years old and the child of an alcoholic father. I know my father's alcoholism affected me when I was growing up, but I've had several (5+) years of psychotherapy, and I feel like I understand the issues that this legacy left me with. I've had a chance to heal from much of the pain I had inside too. I'm definitely not the same person I was 5 years ago. I am lucky and blessed in many ways. I have friends who are wonderful, people I love dearly and can really count on. I have a good relationship with my mother, my father, and my stepmother today - something that I worked very hard for and am proud of. I have a very good job and make a good deal of money - not an excessive amount, but plenty to support myself happily. I live a balanced life, getting exercise, working, having fun with friends...etc.
Generally, I am happy with myself and my existence. There's just one problem. I've had so many failed romantic relationships (I just got out of another one that failed) that I feel completely defeated in this one area of my life. There are a bunch of things I think are relevant:
- I spend so much time messed up due to my father's alcoholism that I had bad relationships at first because of that.
- Then, after I got more healthy and sane and didn't want to be with crazy people any more, they still wanted to be with me!
- I also think I've generally had bad luck - I don't think it's all "predetermined" by my problems.
- A number of things happening in my life right now are setting this off - I'm 28 and my biological clock is ticking. I've always wanted to have a family and children, pretty much more than anything else in my life and that's no joke. My friends have always referred to me as "June Clever of the 90s" and they're only half-kidding. But now it is my friends, and not me, who are getting pregnant, or married, or both. I am happy for them, but I feel hopeless about my own prospects, even though I am a decently pretty (not model gorgeous, but not ugly either) girl.
- My mother and grandmother are both divorced (my mother 3 times). My mother is a good, kind person - very giving - who has tried with people who had nothing to give. She didn't deserve the rotten treatment she received. Now she is 51 and has given up on men. My grandmother gave up on men a long time ago. My father confided to me once that he didn't think he knew how to love anyone, and that if something happened to my stepmother he wouldn't be devastated. That made me feel sad for my stepmother, because I know how much she loves my father, and she deserves that kind of love in return. Even my Aunt, who was the only person in my family with a successful, loving marriage finally gave up on my Uncle after 19 years.
I feel doomed. I feel hopeless, like there will never be any hope for me to have a happy relationship. I see children in the supermarket aisles and I want to cry. I think about my friends having babies, and think of how lucky they are. I sit and think of how I'll always be alone and I try as hard as I can to accept it, but a family is the only goal I've ever had that I really wanted to achieve and no matter what I do to try to straighten myself out or find the right man, it seems that I can't do it.
I don't think I expect anything outrageous from the men I date. I want a friend who will be there for me, that is what I give and it's what I want in return. It seems impossible. The last man I was with was very funny and fun to be with, but he couldn't even do the most basic things to make me happy. I have seen this pattern with other men I have been in relationships with, and men I've seen in relationships with my family members and friends. Many of my friends have been so badly hurt by men in their lives, whether boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, or even grandfathers that they just don't care anymore. I have tried VERY VERY hard not to hate men or think they are all alike...but it isn't working. I have found myself growing more and more cynical as I get closer and closer to 30 -- the classic "old maid" syndrome.
I'm afraid. I don't know what to do now. Should I give up entirely? I'm trying...right now, as hard as I can. If not, what should I do? How can I ever heal the past? I can forgive, but I can't forget.
Andrea (28 year-old woman)
I can empathize with you when you speak about your alcoholic father and what you feel to be your "legacy." But I disagree that your present OR future is predetermined.
When we grow up in a dysfunctional family, where alcoholism is a factor, we have a tendency to slip into a role of playing the victim. And, while you were a child, this certainly was a fact....you were a victim of your parental addictions and their subsequent behavior patterns. Most probably, you carried the feeling around in you of not knowing what to expect next...or how you will be treated in the evening by the same father who might have been very caring and loving that morning. Individuals growing up in such family environments are thereafter always feeling as though they are "walking on eggshells" when in the company of an Important Other (friends, boyfriends, employers, etc.).
Let me ask you a few questions, Andrea. Do you feel at a loss to control your future? When in the company of a past boyfriend, did you feel the need to prove yourself? to constantly please him.....no matter how you were treated in return....and no matter if you knew in your heart that you deserved better than the quality of lifestyle the boyfriend lived out? Did you panic at the thought of losing even someone whom you lacked respect for? If you can answer "yes" to these questions, realize straight away that it is perfectly normal for you to having these feelings, given the family environment in which you grew up. But, you ARE NOT fated in any way to keep repeating this self-defeating pattern. Why not? And, how can you keep yourself from repeating this destructive cycle?
By beginning to believe in your ability to care and nurture yourself, by giving yourself credit for past accomplishments in spite of your "baggage." By believing that you can take responsibility for how much you allow others and outside events to affect you in a detrimental manner. By accepting the fact that you DESERVE everything good that life has to offer. By accepting the fact that you have the strength within you to nurture the quality of relationships you desire.
Andrea, there is no magic spell which can make you feel capable of all this right at this moment. You may be hurting inside right now and not feel that what I say in the above paragraph is possible. It is, though. But, it takes work and time on your part. It translates into months of therapy. But, the bottom line is, you are not destined to live out life as you have previously experienced it in your intimate relationships.
What would it mean, in terms of therapy? Slowly building your self-esteem by cultivating a stronger sense of adult self....the part of your personality which is responsible for caring for yourself, for filling your physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs, for realizing the goals you set for yourself, for cultivating a healthy mature loving relationship.
Right now, Andrea, you are living daily life from the perspective of your Inner Child, which again is normal for your past circumstances. In many ways, you are still reacting to life's daily circumstances as that child who WAS a victim of her parental home environment. When we reach adulthood, all of us carry within us our Inner Child, the vital source of all our enthusiasm and creativity, and an aspect of our self which as mature adults, we want always to nurture and with which we always want to stay in touch. But, your Inner Child can NOT be made to feel responsible for maintaining your Adult lifestyle. Your Adult Ego must do this....that part of your self which, under early healthy, loving circumstances matures and evolves out of your childhood.
You CAN develop this responsible Adult Ego aspect of your self who will make you feel secure, giving you the self-love you so desire and deserve, who will take responsibility for meeting life's daily circumstances as they arise. You will no longer feel the desperate need to please in order to maintain an intimate relationship. You will simply just BE YOURSELF and feel comfortable with yourself...and then that Important Other will be drawn to this and you can begin to have a healthy intimate mature loving relationship.
I hope this information helps you feel more optimistic about your future. You ARE in control of it, Andrea.
Diana DeLaney-Finch, PhD