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Vol No. 1, Issue No. 1, 006 - 013

Reliving the Past: Experiences of Adult Children of

Alcoholics in Love Relationship
K N Jayakumar*
Ph.D. Research Scholar, Department of Psychology,
Periyar University, Salem -636 011
EB Tamil Nadu, India

e-mail id:


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Vol No. 1, Issue No. 1, 006 - 013

Reliving the Past: Experiences of Adult Children of

Alcoholics in Love Relationship

Introduction: The capacity for love is a central component of all human societies. Love in all its
manifestations, whether for children, parents, friends, or romantic partners, gives depth to human relationships.
Although there is an assumption in much of the research that an individual‘s adult attachment style develops
from the relationship that individual has with his or her own parent, the association between early relationships
with parents and subsequent behaviour in love relationships has rarely been studied. Background: Studies have

found that having at least one alcoholic parent disturbs the children and family relationships. Early attachment
relationship with a primary care giver is a prototype for later love relationships. Rationale: To know the kind
of experience they go through when they develop a love relationship later as adolescents or adults.
Methodology: The experiences in love-relationship of adults‘ of alcoholic parents and non-alcoholic parents
were studied by comparison. The purposive sample consisted of 200 (N) college student participants who were
involved in intimate relationship (heterosexual in nature). They were administered Children of Alcoholics
Screening Test (CAST) and Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised (ECR-R) questionnaire. Based on the
CAST cut off scores (six and above) the sample was grouped into two i.e. a) adult children of alcoholic parent/s
(n1=86) and b) adult children having non-alcoholic parent/s (n2=114). Conclusion: When compared, the adults
of alcoholic parents had experienced significantly higher levels of anxiety and avoidance in their intimate love
relationships, than the adult children of non-alcoholic parents.

Key words: love, attachment, adult children, alcoholic parent, CAST, ECR-R

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INTRODUCTION alcohol problems on their families [11, 12, 13].

Parents‘ with alcohol problems have been reported
Love is a deep and tender feeling of affection for or as having a detrimental effect on their families and
attachment to one or more persons. Love particularly on children. Higher levels of negative
relationships include characteristics such as events and lower levels of positive events (as
fascination, sexual desire, and exclusiveness, such measured by the Children of Alcoholic Life-Events
that lovers tend to be preoccupied with their Schedule, COALES) have been reported by high-
partners in an exclusive sexual relationship [1]. school students who self-reported having an
The capacity for love is a central component of all alcoholic parent [14]. Children of alcoholics
human societies. Love in all its manifestations, receiving treatment have also been reported to have
whether for children, parents, friends, or romantic greater emotional disturbance, particularly anxiety
partners, gives depth to human relationships. Love and depression, compared to children of recovered
makes people think expansively about themselves alcoholics and children of non-alcoholic matched

and the world. Making love relationships is not only controls [15].
more rewarding, but also more frustrating too. Love
is a special form of reciprocal relationship or Rationale
attachment. The term attachment normally implies
strong liking or love for a person, but in the study of Early experiences of parental rearing, lead to the
psychology, the term refers to the special reciprocal development of internal working models of self and
relationship [2, 3, 4]. People‘s romantic others in relationship. Such internal models are
relationships and beliefs about love are similar with
the kind of attachment they formed with their
parents during childhood [5]. The way people
successively incorporated into the individual‘s
psychological organization [16, 17] and
significantly influence the quality, style, and course
approach close relationships as well as their view of of later relationships [18, 19, 20, 17]. Although
love can be a reflection of their personal there is an assumption in much of the research that
development. The characteristic style of attachment an individual‘s adult attachment style develops
to their parents also influences their attachment from the relationship that individual has with his or
style, which is the typical style of becoming her own parent, the association between early
involved with others. Securely attached people relationships with alcoholic parents and subsequent
believe it is easy to get close to others, and they behaviour in love relationships has rarely been
report happy and trusting love relationships, people studied. The quality of love relationship these adult
with avoidant attachment style feel uneasy when children of alcoholic parents develop later in
people get too close to them and anxious- adolescence or adulthood and what they experience
ambivalent style people desire a high level of in this relationship is a question, which requires
closeness, which they may not get [5]. People tend research attention. Must attachment behaviour
to attach to their romantic partners as they did with always transfer to an adult love partner is the

their parents. One of the major tenets of Bowlby‘s question that this study tries to explore.
attachment theory [6] is that the experience of poor
relating to the parents during upbringing sets the METHOD
stage for difficulties in later relationships, and
ultimately represent a factor contributing to an Objective and hypotheses
individual‘s vulnerability for psychopathological
disorders [7, 8, 9, 10]. The kind of attachment style Attachment theory would predict that parents with a
a person develops depends largely on the nature of secure attachment pattern, in contrast to their
parents. Parents problem do affect the attachment insecure counterparts, would have the necessary
style. One of the many ills that affect parents is emotional resources to engage in positive child-
alcohol. A large amount of research has been rearing behaviors consistent with an authoritative
carried out investigating the effect of parent‘s parenting style. These behaviors should promote

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healthy expectations of close relationships. is 0.96). Six is the cut-off score and any
According to Bowlby [6], during childhood participant‘s score of six or above is more likely to
individuals form an ‗internal working model‘ a have an alcoholic parent. Item number 1, 2, 3, 4, 8,
mental representation of the relationship between 9, 10, 12, 16, 19, 20, 22, 23, and 28 measures the
the self and others, in the process of interacting with parents drinking problem. Item number 5, 6, 7, 11,
its attachment figures. These models serve as blue 14, 15, 18, 24, 27 and 29 measures the personal
print to guide the individual‘s behaviour in distress. Item number 13, 17, 21 and 30 measures
attachment relationships. Poor parental care due to the responsibility for parental drinking. In addition,
alcohol use/abuse in the family during childhood item number 25 and 26 measures the alcoholic
constitutes a major risk factor in psychosocial mother.
development, affecting both the ability to relate and
psychological well-being in adulthood. Grown up ECR-R (The Experiences in Close Relationships-
children or adults are likely to express these secure Revised Questionnaire) developed by Fraley,

or insecure relationship patterns in any relationship, Waller, and Brennan (2000) to assess the
and romantic relationships they formed may not be attachment style of the samples. It identifies two
an exception. Based on these collective dimensions of attachment, one dimension dealing
assumptions, the objective of the present study is to with anxiety about the relationship, and the other
compare and study the quality of love relationship dimension dealing with avoidance in the
of adult children of alcoholic parents with that of relationship. The inventory is a self-administered
the children of non-alcoholic parents. This led to scale and has 36 items. ECR-R is designed to assess
the following hypotheses.
1. Adult children of alcoholic parent/s will
individual differences with respect to attachment-
related anxiety (i.e., the extent to which people are
insecure vs. secure about the extent to which their
experience significantly higher attachment partner's availability and responsiveness) and
anxiety in their love relationships. attachment-related avoidance (i.e., the extent to
2. Adult children of alcoholic parent/s will which people are uncomfortable being close to
experience significantly higher attachment others vs. secure depending on others). Attachment
avoidance in their love relationships. anxiety and avoidance subscales have 18 items
each, with a 7-point rating. The ECR instrument
Sample and Procedure shows high reliability and validity. The test-retest
had Cronbach‘s alpha rating of .93 for the Anxiety
200 College students from Bangalore who fulfilled scale and the .95 for the Avoidance scale.
the following inclusive criteria i.e, 1) Currently are
involved in love relationship with opposite sex and RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
2) They have the awareness that their parent/s take Table 1 Sample Size, Age, Gender distribution and CAST Mean and
alcohol. Standard Deviation scores and t-value

Sampl CAST Cut-off

e Group Score Score t-value
Measures and Mean SD
Age in
CAST (The Children of Alcoholics Screening Test): N= 200 Adult children of Non-alcoholic 1.98 1.60 6 and -18.62
Jones and Pilat to identify the Children of M
(n1=114, Males = 52, Females = 34)
below p<0.001

alcoholics who are either living with or lived with =19.82

SD Adult children of Alcoholic Parents 10.65 4.08 Above 6
the alcoholic parent/s developed the test. It =1.67 (n2=86, Males = 76, Females = 38)

discriminates between the offspring of alcoholic The sample consisted of 200 (N) participants aged
parent and the offspring of non-alcoholic parent. between 17 and 24 years with an average age of
CAST is a 30 item-screening test with a yes / no 19.82 years (SD = 1.67). Among the sample 72
response option. It has high reliability and validity were females and 128 were males. This shows that
(Crobhach‘s alpha is 0.92 and test re-test coefficient

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the sample consisted of adults. All the participants Table 2 gives an overview difference between both
were college students pursuing studies in different the groups on ECR-R subscale attachment anxiety.
disciplines of Arts, Science, Commerce and There now appears to be a consensus that adult
Management. Participants who fulfilled the attachment consists of these two dimensions:
inclusive criteria were administered the CAST and Anxiety and Avoidance [21]. Attachment anxiety is
the ECR-R questionnaire. CAST differentiates defined as involving a fear of interpersonal
those children/adolescents/adults of alcoholic rejection or abandonment, an excessive need for
parents with those of non-alcoholic parents. Based approval from others, and distress when one‘s
on the CAST cut-off scores, the sample was partner is unavailable or unresponsive. Adult
grouped into two. Participants having an alcoholic children of alcoholic parents have high scores
parent/s were grouped as Adult Children of (Mean = 4.25, SD = 0.06) compared to their
Alcoholic Parents (n1=86, males=52 and counterparts and the difference is significant
females=34) and Participants having non-alcoholic (p<0.001). Lovers are mostly preoccupied with the

parent/s were grouped as Adult children of non- thoughts of their partners in an exclusive
alcoholic parents (n2=114, males=76 and fascinating relationship [1]. Instead, here we
females=38). Non- alcoholic parent means they are discover these adult children of alcoholic parents
not problem drinkers, but they too take alcohol experiencing anxiety and distress. This anxiety
occasionally/very rarely yet cannot be labeled as could be because of the poor ability to make and
alcoholics. The mean and t-value suggests that maintain love relationships entangled with extreme
CAST score for Adult children of alcoholic parents attitudes of inter-personal avoidance or dependence,
was significantly higher than that of Adult children
of non-alcoholic parents. It could be drawn from
the above table that, children of the alcoholic
EB fear or anger having its roots in the flawed internal
working model created by them during their
childhood. This confirms the adverse childhood
parent/s are at a disadvantageous position compared experience due to inconsistent and insensitive
to their counterparts in terms of family support and parenting affected by parental alcohol abuse.
stability, parental guidance, happiness, trust, Hence, the hypothesis ― Adult children of alcoholic
cohesiveness and mental health. From Bowlby‘s parent/s will experience significantly higher
perspective, these people would have developed an attachment anxiety in their love relationships‖ is
inconsistent internal working model during their sustained. Briere [22] describes the typical
childhood. This does not augur well for a health upbringing of children in an alcoholic household,
psychosociodevelopment. An average score of writing that these children were ―deprivedof being
10.65 in CAST shows the magnitude of the problem parented—instead living with one or more people
they gone/going through. who could not be counted upon for safety, security
or nurturance‖ (p. 14). As a result, they experience
The scores of adult children of non-alcoholic emotional anxiety. Even the adult children of non-
parents are well below the cut-off score. This alcoholic parents have mild anxiety in love relations

shows that their parents are occasional drinkers and and this needs research attention. The postulate that
are similar to normal parents capable of maintaining entering into and maintaining love relations by
healthy relations in the family. Hence, the huge itself have a tinge of anxiety, which needs further
difference in CAST scores between the groups. research.
Table 2 Mean, SD and t-value scores on Attachment anxiety subscale
for both the groups Table 3 Mean, SD and t-value scores on the Attachment avoidance
ECR-R score for t-value subscale for both the groups
Group n Attachment anxiety ECR-R score for t-value
Group n Attachment
Mean SD Mean SD
Adult children of Non- 114 3.04 0.50 -10.69 Adult children of Non- 114 2.92 0.51 -8.38
alcoholic Parents p<0.001 alcoholic Parents p< 0.001
Adult children of Alcoholic 86 4.25 0.60 Adult children of Alcoholic 86 3.75 0.47
Parents Parents

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the development of internal working models of self

The second hypothesis predicted, ―A dult children of and others, because of a child‘s early transactions
alcoholic parent/s will experience significantly with his/her attachment figures. These internal
higher attachment avoidance in their love working models greatly influence later
relationships‖. Accordingly, adult Children of relationships. Presence of alcoholic parent
alcoholic parents showed greater score on influences the development of interpersonal aspects
attachment avoidance with a mean of 3.75 (SD = of Children and this in-turn influences their love
0.47) compared to their counterparts of non- relationships. Experiences in Close Relationships
alcoholic parents with mean score of 2.92 (SD = scale measures attachment anxiety and attachment
0.51) and the independent t-test value of -8.38 avoidance. People who score high on either or both
suggested a significant difference, at p<0.001. of these dimensions are assumed to have an
Attachment avoidance is defined as involving fear insecure adult attachment orientation. By contrast,
of dependence and interpersonal intimacy, an people with low levels of attachment anxiety and

excessive need for self-reliance, and reluctance to avoidance can be viewed as having a secure adult
self-disclose. The Adult children of alcoholic attachment orientation [26, 27, 28]. The study was
parents tend to feel insecure in their love conducted on non-clinical population. The results
relationship, hence the high scores. They are likely confirm that adult children of alcoholic parents
to adopt ‗insecure‘ interpersonal strategies, which have more anxiety and avoidance in their love
involves either deactivation of the attachment need, relationships compared to their counterparts. The
in order to be able to avoid the negative reason could be the development of flawed internal
consequences expected when proximity is sought,
or hyperactivation of the attachment need, in order
to (re)gain proximity to an attachment figure [23].
working model during their formative years of
psychosociodevelopment. This is in tune with the
finding of Deutsch, [29] that adult children of
More over adult children of alcoholic‘s are trapped alcoholics have difficulty with intimate
in the fears and reactions of a child and are forced relationships and are emotionally isolated.
to be an adult without going through the natural
stages that result in a health adult [24]. Rivers [25]
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