Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Relationships – Part 2

Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Relationships Part 2

In this third and final article in the series, we cover how children who have survived growing up with unhealthy parenting relationships can change their learned behaviors to better cope with life.

The initial article in this series [LINK] explained how their difficulties in coping and personality result from growing up with their unhealthy family dynamics. It is how they survived. The previous article [LINK] and this article cover the positive changes that can happen with practice over time for each of the learned negative behaviors.

The acronym “ACA” stands for “Adult Children of Alcoholics” and will also refer to a multitude of other unhealthy parenting dynamics and home situations for the sake of brevity and clarity. One example of an unhealthy dynamic is living with a parent with emotional problems such as serious depression, anxiety or narcissism.


Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Relationships – Part 2

8. ACAs overreact to changes over which they have no control: Often this looks to others like you want things your own way or not at all. Actually, an event involving change (ie: plans falling through) brings back your memories of past experiences of broken promises, plans that were never carried out, etc. These memories spur the reaction. You feel out of control and fear you may have to deal with further disappointment or fear of something not turning out as well as you hoped. You must first recognize when you overreact. Is your reaction inappropriate to your circumstance? Is someone whom you respect telling you that you are overreacting? Have you become irrational? Is the situation worth reacting to as strongly as you are reacting? What is your response when someone says “Why is it such a big deal?” If you feel defensive about this question, you are likely overreacting. Look at what exactly makes it feel like a big deal to you. When did something like this happen in the past? What did this mean to you? It can be triggering times in the past when you felt your needs were not important to the other person.

Important: Raise your awareness as to why you overreacted and what about that experience reminded you of your past, to help separate out the current moment from your past. You can also test your aversion to change by deliberately altering the routine of your normal day. Can you shift things around without causing yourself turmoil? Learn that being disappointed in everyday life circumstances does not mean you have to always like what happens. Nor does it mean that you must always be devastated by change.

9. Always seeking approval and affirmation: This issue involves one’s self confidence. If you already have supportive people around you, you must decide to actually accept the encouragement and support they offer. This is an issue of trust. Begin by identifying a few people you know and trust. Think about how much you accept what they say about you in terms of encouragement and support.

In terms of self confidence, ask yourself what you did that was good today. Give yourself credit for those things, no matter how small a task. Do less self-judging. If you are doing a difficult task, ie: a job interview, practice. If it does not go well, learn from it rather than be devastated by it. Take one step at a time, one day at a time, and build upon your successes and things you do well.

10. Feeling different from other people: Feelings of isolation you felt as a child make connection with other people extremely difficult. Even though you longed for connection, you could not make it happen. These feelings remain today. Learn more about children of alcoholics to lessen the feeling of being different and alone. Risk and let people know who you are and allow them to get to know you better. The best way to get what you want to is to give it away. If you want to be loved, give love to someone. If you want to feel understood, offer understanding. Not taking the risk to do this leaves you feeling isolated. Make a promise to yourself to reach out to someone every day, either by letting them get to know you a bit better, or by you getting to know them a bit better. Try to accept what is offered to you.

11. Being highly responsible or highly irresponsible: The usual cause is the need for perfection, and fear of rejection if you fall short. Oftentimes, rather than risk the consequences of imperfection, you hang on to this pressure, even to the point of getting sick. Begin to overcome this by taking a realistic assessment of what you can do, whether regarding time or task. Ask yourself “do I really have to do this?” Can you say “no” even if it is uncomfortable? Realize you have the option to say “no” and learn how to exercise that decision. If you tend to be super responsible, ask yourself not “can I do it”, but “do I want to do it?”.

If you are more inclined toward irresponsibility, look at the possible consequences of saying “no” and prepare to handle them. Examine your motives for your irresponsibility. If you are unsure as to what to do, take time to think about it, so you can make a responsible decision.

Irresponsibility can stem from burn out. If so, take time to heal and care for yourself. Set realistic boundaries. However, it can also stem from not ever getting started. You can have a fear of failure or a fear of success or not know what you want to do. Explore what you want to do with a vocational guidance professional. Explore your fears with the help of a psychotherapist. You are not sick, but may need skill building and support to get past the hurdle in the beginning. Break tasks down into smaller steps to feel less overwhelmed.

12. Being extremely loyal, even when that loyalty is undeserved. Loyalty is an admirable quality, but you tend to apply this indiscriminately. Your fear of abandonment makes it difficult to let go of others. If you are being treated inappropriately by someone, rethink your loyalty for them. Loyalty is earned, not owed. Be realistic about your relationships. Assess them in the moment, and not in the past. You are not in the current moment if you use the word “but”. Be realistic about what the relationship offers. Make sure your assessment relates to the present and not the future or the past.

If your decision involves a child going through a difficult time, or an adult who is ill and cannot behave in the way they do normally, make a conscious decision about your loyalty, considering these factors, but think about what you need to do to also take care of yourself. If this is not the case, and you need to decide what to do with your loyalty, ask yourself what you gain. Why maintain this relationship? Who is this person to you? Do they remind you of someone else, such as a parent? People who over criticize us do not deserve our loyalty. Are their comments accurate, or do they stem from a projection of their own issues? If you feel guilty, you feel you owe the person something. Loyalty is earned. Friendship is a gift. Do you feel good about yourself when you are with this person? Or do you feel this relationship delivers your last chance to get something you very much want? Alternatively, do you feel superior to this person? This may be a payoff to falsely increase your sense of self worth — if you feel they need you, it avoids your fear of abandonment.

If you find you do not want to end the relationship, but make some changes, you can express your thoughts and feelings to this person. If they are open and supportive of this idea, great. If not, you need to decide whether it is healthy for you to continue this relationship without the changes. If you have difficulty letting go of the relationship, begin to make new relationships and it will become easier to end this one.

13. ACAs tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsiveness often results in feelings of self-loathing, confusion and loss of control in their environment. As a result, they spend a great deal of time cleaning up their messes. It is important to get in the way of your impulsiveness and slow things down until you can thoroughly think through your situation at hand, including all possible consequences. What is your true motive? Are you avoiding dealing with something rather than working it through? What do you hope to accomplish or gain by this decision? Who else does this decision affect? How will they be affected by this decision? For example, by saying “I want a divorce” you may actually mean “I don’t want to live like this anymore”. In another situation ask yourself, “if I were to get caught, would it change my decision if it involves rationalization or immediate gratification versus delayed gratification?” ie: skipping a class or eating something off of your diet. Then ask yourself, is it worth it? Choice is freedom. If you limit your thinking or awareness, you limit your freedom of choices.

Action Items:

  1. What characteristics listed above can you recognize in yourself?
  2. Do you believe that you really can change these negative patterns in yourself?
  3. Or do you see yourself as “broken”? If so, why?
  4. Identify those people around you who will support you in your growth.
  5. Seek professional assistance if you feel this will be helpful for you, or the task of change seems overwhelming.


Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Jane Geringer Woilitz, Ed.D

Most of the information in this article came from this source.

About Susan Saint-Welch

Susan Saint-Welch LMFT has counseled couples and individuals for many years on issues such as dating, marriage, family drama, coping with difficult times, improving self-image and living the life you love. She provides psychotherapy for clients in California and Dating, Couples and Life Coaching for clients outside California through secure video conferencing. She has published numerous articles regarding these issues on her website, on and on

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