How Do I Deal With An Acoa?

I don't know how this can be brief....

I'm struggling with how I should behave with my boyfriend.  He is 48 (I am 35) and is an Adult Child of a brutally abusive and neglectful Alcoholic father.  His father was a high powered lawyer in a big city, who was an extreme alcoholic.  He was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive and left his mother for a flurry of girlfriends - he left his family destitute and ruined.  My boyfriend's sister is a drug addict and has two children that are in and out of jail....she goes through periods of leaving threatening and/or manipulative voice mails looking for money or support.  My bf has completely cut off all communication and will not have a relationship with his sister.  His mother was wrecked as a result, she suffered deep depression and expected my bf to fill all of her emotional intimacy needs.  Both of his parents have passed away....he walked away from his father while he was on his deathbed and basically told him to die in shame.

My bf and I have been together for over three years, the beginning of our relationship was incredible....we made time for each other, talked about really deep things and over the course of time have become best friends.  I know this man loves me, I can feel it.  That has been what keeps me hanging in there - even though the past year has been spent with no physical intimacy (beyond kissing, hand holding and cuddling).  I find him getting his emotional needs met by his 8 year old son.  Which is disturbing and beyond frustrating for me - and it's causing developmental issues with his son....he's 8 and cannot take a shower by himself, tie his shoes, make a sandwich, pick his clothes or perform any other seemingly normal activities.  Up until about 9 months ago, he wasn't even wiping his own bottom after going to the bathroom.  He also has a hard time making his own decisions or answering easy questions in school because he is so very insecure without his Dad.  I try not to be critical, but I have to admit calling him on it on more than one occasion.   This typically results in denial, misplaced blame and anger.  So, I pick my battles.

My bf will go through horrific mood minute he's happy and laughing and enjoying himself.....the next minute he's having violent tantrums where he acts more like a 5 year old than he does a 48 year old.  I tell him that I don't understand this and it seems to come out of the blue - but he tells me that when he reacts this way, it's usually because something has been brewing for some time, but he's chosen not to talk about it.....because of his trust issues.  We lived together for over 2 years - recently, I accepted a position in another state.  We discussed the decision for me to move at length and came to the decision for me to move together....with the understanding that in no more than two years, I would come home. We thought this made sense because we are definitely at different stages in our lives - I am still building my career and growth, while he is more focus on sustaining for the kids and retirement.  WE made this decision together because we thought it would be the best thing for both of us in the long run.   I left everything behind at our house and for the first 6 months, we were dedicated to seeing each other every 2-4 weeks and talking on the phone every night.  Now, I can barely get him to answer an email without him telling me that he's lost and doesn't know what he's feeling anymore.

His self esteem has never been great, but recently it's in the toilet.  He feels terrible about is inability to be intimate, but keeps telling me it's because he feels inadequate and doesn't know why I love him.  I don't ever get turned off by his need for reassurance, and will reiterate ad nauseum all of the wonderful qualities he possesses that I love.  It's never enough.

For a while, this arrangement has been ok - even in the times I have gotten extremely homesick and missed him, he's been able to bring me back to the reasons why WE made this decision....and points to the fact that 2 years is nothing in the grand scheme of a forever life together.  But now, with the combination of feeling terrible about himself and my physical separation - he's gone dark.

We are both currently in therapy - him to deal with his issues and me to deal with the fall out.  It's been healthy for both of us, but I'm hearing him say things like "I need to figure out who I am and what I want out of life"....or....."i'm not sure I can deal with or meet your expectations".  I assure you that I am not needy and have a healthy view of what I need and expect (or so my therapist tells me).  So, to hear him say this is crushing.  My therapist tells me that I have to stay vigilant in my efforts to communicate, no matter how he tries to cut me off.  She tells me that I need to be honest and try to keep the line of connection to him open - any holes in consistency will be like a coffin nail to him.  

I love him entirely and am positive that I have the strength to work through all of this with him.  His messages are wrought with pushing and pulling - if he feels me falling away, he cries and begs me not to go - if he feels me pushing, he tells me I'm backing him in a corner and he needs space - and I am at a loss as to what I need to do, how I need to behave and where to start to help our healing.  I am doing my best to give him the space he says he needs to work through his issues, but this is contradictory to what my therapist is telling me to do.  

I've examined the possibilities of him having a personality disorder like narcissism...but the more I read and research, the more my gut tells me that isn't accurate. When I found this group and read some of the other entries - it screams to me that this wonderful person is suffering greatly from ACOA.

I'd like the preamble here to state that I am NOT sitting at home constantly pining or worrying.  I've established a nice group of friends in this new state, I take good care of myself - am confident and successful, and feel like the decision was a good one for my professional and personal growth.  But, I do have to say that had I known the extreme challenge he faced with finally seeking help from a professional, I would not have left. 

Can anyone out there help me with what I should / should not be doing?
b429steph b429steph 31-35 10 Responses Sep 17, 2011

Your Response


Thank you everyone for your comments, help and suggestions. I've learned so much during the time that has passed since my first post.

My boyfriend and I parted ways last Winter. His therapist told him that he had a personality disorder (I'm assuming either Narcissistic or Borderline) and needed to work to give himself the lifestyle he needed to figure out who he was and what he really wanted out of life. There was a lot of pull and push and finally I got to the point where I had to accept some harsh realities about being a part of his life:
1. My life would never be my own; my energy would entirely be dedicated to this other person. As long as we were together, I would not realize my own personal life goals.
2. I would never be able to show any signs of weakness or vulnerability because he would not be able to provide me with any emotional support. My needs would never matter or exist and would only be seen as a threat to getting his never ending needs met.
3. I would not experience the level of intimacy that I wanted and I would need to play a role of perfect supporter with endless patience in order to even receive the level of intimacy that I had been accustomed to towards the end of our relationship.
4. His violent outbursts were a reality and were not going to stop. This was abuse - no excuses - plain and simple. I was being abused. I was abused. God, that's hard to face.

I had to face the fact that this relationship would not be what I needed, no matter what I gave, sacrificed or invested - it would never be enough. Even if I wanted to hold on to hope that he could pull through this with a great deal of therapy - it still meant me putting my goals and needs on hold. The thought and practice was exhausting - I had to let go.

In the past year, without the weight of this relationship, I've been able to accomplish some pretty remarkable things. I've traveled North America following Yoga Teachers (Yogi's) that I've always wanted to study with, became a Yoga Teacher, met all the goals that I set for myself professionally, ran two 1/2 marathons, made new friends, spent a lot of time reconnecting with family, moved across the country and last but certainly not least - am pregnant...which I thought was an experience I wouldn't have in this lifetime. I wished for true love hoping it would bring my boyfriend back to me - instead, I got this incredible life growing in my belly...and every time I feel her move, I smile and fill with joy knowing that I'm getting I wished for. I would not have this if I stayed with him - I would never have known this if I stayed with him. Why did I ever think it was ok to compromise to that level?

I will always love what I saw in this person and will forever appreciate the good times we had together. The love I experienced was real and nothing can take that away - so I choose to pull out the positive and stay focused on the fact that my experience taught me that I am capable of giving completely to another person - it's also taught me that in order for the love to be true, giving freely has to be a two way person cannot carry that responsibility.

Don't get me wrong - I still have moments of weakness and feel the loss of what I wanted that relationship to be. I often play history back in my head like a nostalgic old movie and struggle with him making appearances (bad and good) in my dreams. It is hard, still, to accept and mostly to move on - but time makes this easier. He surfaces once in a while and tells me that he misses me and all the love he received while we were together - only recently has he acknowledged that he knows this isn't enough and he needs to be able to give of himself and be able to meet my needs as well. I tuck this away, send him light and love and go back to giving my energy to myself .

The advice I would give to anyone else is this - if you have doubts, if you have seen the "red flags", if you are losing yourself, if there is lack of balance and you're beginning to sacrifice what you want in life....STOP! Start making YOU your priority. True love would not ask you to give up your life - it would, in fact, support and propel you to be the person you were meant to be. Don't wait, don't set milestones or if/then scenarios - you must move on NOW...this is your life, your one shot....if not now, when? Tell your story truthfully, surround yourself with people that will support you emotionally, figure out what you want, meditate, exercise, read, travel, cry hard, laugh loud, take a class, find religion, get a dog...whatever you need to do to bring your focus back to the amazing person you are.

I am so grateful for this website and your responses - if there is anything I can ever do for any of you, please reach out.

With joy, grace and gratitude,


I'm so proud of you. :) It's amazing what one trip around the sun can do. It's a crazy world. :)

Amazing story that gives me hope for the future. I'm also struggling with whether or not I want to leave my acoa husband :-/

Also, I realize I am late to this thread, but I would love to chat with you online if you're available.

I still stay in touch with this site and would be happy to chat on line. My email is Namaste fellow yogi.

1 More Response

Hi b429steph
Not sure where you're at now with things, but I would suggest you give yourself 'checkpoints', to assess how things are going.
My first reaction was to tell you to run while you're still young and have a life ahead of you.
I've been with an ACOA for 32 years now and he's only now decided to work on the issue (has joined Al-anon).
He's told me he just wants to be friends - that's the best he (and I) can hope for.
I could share my story if you want to hear about one outcome of being with an ACOA, but I'm hoping yours will be different if you do choose to stay with him. Just don't hang in there until there's nothing left of *you*.
Keep your well filled as you will be doing lots of giving...
Best of luck in what ever path you choose.

I am a woman who is an Adult Child that has been in therapy and recovery for over 20 years. I have personally dated and married men with a background that closely matches your boyfriend. It is heartbreaking. However, everyone has a personal responsibility to heal and move on to a better place. For whatever reason, he is unavailable to you and your needs. By not responding to you, he is pulling away and signaling that he does not want to be in the relationship and he is done. Unfortunately, there are people who cannnot tell the truth - however, they will communicate through their actions and behavior. My best recommendation, as someone who has been where you are, is to cut your losses and find a man who is ready to be a full partner. You can't fix him - he must fix himself.

Best wishes to you to find the best solution for your life.

I would say do the best you can and leave the rest in God's hands. I know someone suffering from this. I think we as friends/spouses, etc., find ourselves caring for the wonderful adult they at some point showed to us and also wanting to care for the child within them. We also are unsure about their ability to deal appropriately and heal from their dysfuntional second nature responses. And as with any dysfuntion, the person suffering has to want to help themselves and take initiative in that healing. I was hoping to find some sort of direction as to what the acoa needs from supporters in order to guide them along that path, since their natural tendencies will take them away from healing. I'm saddened that I'm not finding that.

emc526, I just wanted to say thank you for sharing! I found your thoughts to be warming and hopeful. Clearly you have walked this path and have come out in a better place.

I too believe that every path we take and every experience we have along the way, shapes us. Climb a small hill everyday... you will become stronger. Climb a summit in one try … it may destroy you.

Along any path can be found struggles, challenges, obstacles to overcome and for some, many opportunities to reach deep inside of themselves hopping to find the driving force of survival.

I have come to believe that even though someone can be walking beside you, their path can be a different one. A root on their side, a puddle on yours. Another turn, unexpected obstacles, another complex set of challenges and technical climbs. Hopefully offering and receiving a helping hand when needed and if lucky, arriving at the grand views together... but somehow remembering the journey completely different from one another.

My personal path started with a lovable and gentle bear cub. It walked beside me every day. As it grew, this curiosity became a valued companion and a tremendous source of pride. Daily, I reveled in the opportunity to show my growing bear to the world! I easily overlooked and scratched my head at her ....twist.... An inseparable team!.... A man and his growing bear! Then on an especially tiring and difficult day, I looked over with unglazed eyes and my bear had become a Grizzly! I screamed “IT’S A GRIZZLY!”….Startled and scared, the bear killed me that day. Tore me to pieces... scattered the parts and continued the journey...... After all it was a bear...... nothing more...nothing less.

I was blinded by idealistic and naive pride...By my heart and my perception from this side of the path. To me irreplaceable lifetime companion... To the bear, compared to the daily challenges of her survival in the woods, I was nothing more than fly, a threat to be dealt with and dismissed.

As an ACOA you are a survivor! But what was left behind on your path? On your travels to this better place? I hope you will remember them and maybe reach out Today and help them understand as well.

It is my sincerest hope that you have read this as it was intended, a perspective from my side of the path, a digital, healing be shared.

Best of wishes

I'm not making excuses for the actions of an ACOA. The ones who don't get help really don't know what they're dealing with. The ones who do get help often realize that the life they've lived all these years was a lie. We go through traumatic childhoods - example: my father would try to force himself on my mother when he was drunk. I watched my brother break part of my drunk father's foot when I was 14 and I had nightmares of that noise for a long time. My brother and father would threaten to kill each other while my brother held a knife up to my dad - because he wanted to protect my mom, sister, and me. My mom and sister tried to break it up, but they were both injured in doing so. I stood and watched. Things got too intense and I shut down. I couldn't even cry for the longest time. I recently learned that all the nights my mom "worked late", she was having an affair and leaving us with our drunk father...who invaded our boundaries consistently. She stayed in that situation and then acted selfishly, doing what she thought was best for her - not for her children, because she wanted to appear as the perfect wife to the outside world. Many ACOAs will not admit to you the extent of how traumatic their childhood was because they try to forget it. In not dealing with it, they still react negatively when emotions get too intense or when things appear to be going too well. When things went to well or too quietly, that's when we were most on guard.

They are not aloof or cold because they mean to be; they just do not know how to handle emotional situations. A lot of times, they set themselves up for abandonment because they fear it will happen anyway. It's old triggers and conditioned responses - Pavlov's dog, minus the food. The ACOA can recover. It is initially emotionally exhausting and we are unsteady creatures. Many times when we seek help, we get severe backlash from our family, even to the point of shunning. To outsiders, it appears intuitive that this will happen. To us, we are not only reliving traumatic experiences, but realizing just how toxic it is as well as (sometimes) seeing other close family members self-destruct.

I can understand how an ACOA who does not get help could leave you devastated. In honesty, most of what they do is fear-based. If they are getting help, it might actually be better *for the both of you* if you are not together, because there is a sense of codependency (yes, even without alcohol). However, I REASSURE YOU, it is a mindset that can be changed and MANY of us grow to live calm, happy lives with significant others.


I really appreciate your honesty! You make me hear what my gut has been telling me but I just don't want to accept it. I love her and feel like I'm abandoning her, which I know is one of a ACOA's greatest fears, but I've just got to love myself more. My tank has been running on "E" for a while... Thank you.


I will be thinking of you and your journey.

When you make your decision know this.... It wont “wake her up” or “help her see.” If you go, go with confidence and with the knowledge that it is forever.

I left when our problems started affecting the kids. My only hope was that she would realize what was important and make an effort. That effort never came.

Many times I have clumsily attempted “restarts” and tried to find a way back home, only to be pushed away each time.

I am lost in all this freedom.

If you have kids try to imagine no more bedtimes, not being there for life events, not knowing where they are....becoming an afterthought of rushed good nights, I love you, miss you, bye.

Choose carefully friend......

"I still love him am choosing to act from a place of love and compassion."

Of course you will. As a human it is one of our greatest qualities, some would say it is what makes us human, to love, a desire to help, bonding with another, sharing. I might even argue further that these should be the bare minimum standards for inclusion into the human race! Pillars that should never be torn down. I truly hope your “pillars” are strong enough for two and that your path is different from so many that have come before you.

As a side note since everything I have written so far is so negative and fatalistic.... I loved my wife. I loved my family. She gave me 3 amazing kids and I have a lifetime of good memories.

Best wishes

This was my first time posting so I was surprised to see the full post appear (sorry so long) I didn't know what to expect.

I don’t mean to be the voice of doom , but if someone would’ve told me 25 years ago.....well hell, I guess I would’ve still loved her.....I still do.

It has been a long and devastating year. I will forever be a damaged and forgotten man.... Thanks for letting me vent.

Thanks for the post 1GR81! I'm just now discovering this ACOA "syndrome", so I'll take all the feedback/advice/experience I can get. I can't imagine how painful it's been for you living with your situation for 25 years and, even though my experience has been shorter - you most definitely have my full sympathy.

My hope lies in the fact that he is seeking help in therapy. He's been in and out of therapy his entire life, but I believe that this time he's seeing a person that really understands the issues and is pushing him to change. I could be totally naive and holding on to false hope - but, my decision (for now) is to try and work through this. I still love him am choosing to act from a place of love and compassion. If it bites me, then so be it. at this point, the thought of leaving him is worse than the idea of him leaving me or his therapy.

That could all change, and in the near future I could be kicking myself for not taking your advice. But at this point, my gut tells me I'm not ready to walk away just yet.

Thanks again for your post and advice - I really hope that you're able to find grace and love. Let's keep each other in our prayers :o)

I left my ACOA wife 61 days ago. We had been together for 9 years and married for almost 4. I was a strong, "alpha-male" sort, and I believe that's what attracted her to me. The day I left, my mother and sister carried me from my house. I was a sobbing mess. They took me to a hotel where I just cried and cried. The next day, all of my friends and family pitched in to move me out. At that point, I was completely incapable of making a simple decision for myself. She had taken away all of my confidence, all of my emotional stability and most of my will to succeed.

As I said, I've been out for two months. I'm n therapy twice a week and am doing everything I can (blogging, reading these posts, exercising, staying busy, etc) to get over this hole that I am in.

For the time being, I feel safe, and that's enough. I no longer have the anxiety of worrying when she is going to hurt me with the textbook ACOA stuff (silent treatment, blowouts, neglect, telling me it's all my fault, etc.) However, the further I get away from her, the more I realize how much damage that marriage really did to me. I experience debilitating anxiety out of nowhere sometimes. I am often depressed. Both of these are moods that I simply did not experience before her.

She took so much from me and would have continued until I was beyond repair. And she would have never known that she was doing any harm. I realized I loved only who I hoped she would one day become, not who she really was. Once I started taking a look inside her, I realized how truly miserable, hurt and broken she was. As much as I would have liked to help her, you gotta put our own life jacket on before you help someone else put on theirs.

Long story short, get out as soon as you can. You will doubt your choice. You will be very afraid. You will have extreme fear and anxiety. It's going to suck really badly. HOWEVER, you will be alive and strong after you go through all of it. Right now, you're dying.

Good luck.

i hear you.

Hey Steph, It’s good to see a new post. I haven’t seen much activity here, but I come back often to reread the post. They help me feel not so alone and clear my head during the difficult days. I intend on writing my story to add to the list, in the hope that it will help someone understand the ACOA journey. Until then the brief version of my story (if an ACOA story can be brief) is that my 25 year marriage (3 kids) with an ACOA ended last year. After years of emotional isolation and lies, I’d had enough. My only hope was that she would come to realize what was important and make an effort to change. She didn’t and she won’t. When confronted with facing her disease, she opted for the tried and true ACOA technique of “shutting down” and “shutting out.” It’s a hell of a thing to be ignored out of existence.....More on that later...

In your post you sound young, articulate and caring. It is wonderful that you have the presence of mind to research ACOA behavior and reach out for help. Unfortunately I did not, but now with the luxury of hindsight (and way too much self analyzing), I have only one thing to say...RUN! What you are dealing with is not what you think. This is not someone who wants help or even understands their own problem. You can’t “love them better.” You can’t constantly be their savior and never be saved yourself! Their brain is wired differently and nothing you can do will ever change that. The only outcome will be that you modify your life to accommodate (enable) their behavior and in the end when you are broken, you will find yourself thrown away like a piece of trash and their life will go on because crises is their norm and shutting out their emotions is their specialty. Trust me when I say- You can’t compete!! -and even if you could you won’t win.

My analogy for years (without the more recent language of ACOA) has been that The spouse of an ACOA is like an old and reliable car. A car that would never let you down. A car that you (the ACOA) never think about because no matter how hard you drive it, no matter how much it’s neglected it still cranks everyday...Then one day the ACOA is ridding down the road and a part falls off old faithful.. “Never mind” says the ACOA “I don’t need to stop and fix that. This old car has never let me down!”...The next trip.. another part...don’t stop....and each trip, another and another....Never stopping, for to stop would be to acknowledge the neglect and face the entire repair bill all at once!... and like many people, in the end when the ACOA walks out and that old car can’t crank anymore...It’s just an empty hull...It is left behind and forgotten. Time for a new car....Another chance at denial.

Just in case you think I say these things out of sadness and bitterness (Partially true) the following are quotes from the previous post....

make me feel like a bad person for wanting to live with someone capable of emotional intimacy, empathy, and just normal manners.

Because in the end - you will be alone in the same room with your spouse because he/she is there only in body.

Do I ride it out for him to divorce me because he now is married to a very damaged person ? the spouse is left behind because the ACOA now wants a healthy relationship AND it is the ACOA who caused all of the anger and frustration

I say run. I have been married to an adult child of an alcholic for 17years

He isolates himself from me, won't talk, won't see my, doesn't seem to care that I am hurting,

There have been problems with lies and what I call "benign" lies. They're stupid lies where the truth is insignificant

I've always tried to read between the lines trying to figure out the truth out of the lies. It's mentally exhausting.

the person I fell in love with doesn't exist.

I realize that there is nothing left to salvage.

.....She knows I will always be here for her now, but I haven't heard from her in a long time.....

I pray she comes back to me but its very possible she wont...

the same old problems still come up from time to time

I could totally see how relationships can suffer from these unresolved issues.

Think I would have taken off a long time ago if it where not for the kids.

She is a pathological liar,

if you stick it out. You will need therapy,

he cannot see anything outside of his own inner turmoil.

It makes it harder to leave when all you can say is that your emotional needs are not being met

I hate to tell you this, but I would strike out on my own if I were you.

Counseling helps me cope, but it doesn't change the situation. Don't wait 22 years.

the amount of effort I have to put out to make this work has exhausted me.

. I am finally done giving to someone who only takes.

Over the years we have had the same arguments over and over

I've realized that isolating yourself from others when things are going badly is a common characteristic.

IF I could choose again a spouse it definitely would not be what I ended up with

I can only say that you change after dealing with an ACOA. You lose yourself in the insanity.

for all of my efforts I got slapped in the face with an affair.

Spending it, losing it, wasting it is what has happened to most of us on the receiving end of living with the ACOA. They spent us.

I married my mess and wasted 7 years with him.

. If I could go back, I would NOT marry him.

but I would not waste so many years for all the pain I went through.

Just changing yourself will lead to resentment eventually and will not help him make the changes that he needs to make.

i was in that hurtful relationship 3 years too long!

guess I thought he would change but that never happened.

Funny thing is that if I threaten to leave, he says that is fine, he doesn't care and he will have no problem with it.

After 17 years of this, I think I am calling it quits.

If I were you, honey, I would run the other way unless you are willing to put yourself and your future children through this. If I could turn back the clock, I would have run, knowing what I know now.

I have a question. IF the ACOA gets help, possibly goes through a 12 step program and gets a little better (?) do they then leave the broken and damaged person that they were married to behind?

and on & on & on........