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The Four Rules of the Alcoholic Family




Excerpted from
Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome: A Step By Step Guide To Discovery And Recovery
By Wayne Kritsberg

The Rule of Rigidity

The alcoholic family is inflexible. It cannot adapt to change easily, nor does it willingly allow family members to change. This rigid behavior manifests itself in all aspects of family life and has its roots in the way the family attempts to deal with having an alcoholic as a member. One of the effects of alcoholism on an individual is unpredictable behavior. As the alcoholism progresses, the behavior of the alcoholic becomes increasingly unpredictable, and the family continually adjusts to this unpredictable behavior. In order to bring some stability to the family, more and more rigid rules of behavior are imposed on the nonalcoholic members of the family. As the family adapts to the alcoholic's increasingly unpredictable behavior, it becomes increasingly rigid.

The rigidity of the alcoholic family system is easily observed in the way the family influences its children. In order for children to grow, mature, and to develop healthy social interactions, they need a place where there is room for them to experiment with life. They need a safe place where they can try different ways of behaving, and where they can change and grow. The alcoholic family does not provide the kind of flexible environment that children need in order to experiment with life.

The alcoholic family, in fact, provides just the opposite. Because of its rigid structure, the children in the system are not allowed to grow emotionally. The parents try to keep the children children. This does not mean that children get no responsibility-they very often do. They get the responsibility to take care of parents, brothers, sisters, and to do household duties, but they never get the opportunity to develop emotionally into adults. The system is rigid and fixes the children as children. When these children become adults, they are in most cases still children emotionally. This is particularly obvious when ACoAs are relating to their parents. They almost always have "little kid" feelings when they are interacting with their parents.

Manny, a thirty-five-year-old ACoA, summed up this feeling when he said, "I'm a grown man, and when I am with my parents, I feel like I am five years old. I am afraid to speak up for myself, and I walk around like I'm on pins and needles."

Paradoxically, although Manny responded like a child emotionally when he was with his parents, he felt that he did not have a childhood. He often stated that he "always felt like an adult." He, like many ACoAs, felt that he had lost his childhood-that he had never really been able to experience the freedom and joy of being a child.

Growing up with the rule of rigidity translates, as an adult, into a need to control. The ACoA need to control is directly related to childhood experiences. ACoAs learned that rigid rules of behavior are the way to control unpredictable situations. This often translates into: Life and people are unpredictable; therefore, there is a need to control all aspects of life, including other people. This control means no spontaneity, and without spontaneity, there can be no playfulness or any real happiness. ACoAs are generally very serious people.

The Rule Of Silence

Members of alcoholic families are bound by a rule of silence: They cannot talk about what is happening in the family. This rule of silence extends not only to talking to people outside of the family, but also includes talking to the members of the family itself. The rule of silence not only bans talking about the behavior and actions of the family, it also bans talking about feelings. This no-talk rule is so strong that children who grow up in this family system have difficulty in expressing themselves for the rest of their lives. The rule of nonexpression follows them, and they in turn teach it to their children.

In examining this rule of silence, it is important to remember that the alcoholic family system has a vested interest in keeping its members quiet about what goes on inside of the system. Keeping silent is not just expedient but necessary for the system to function. If there were open and free communication in the system, individual members of the system would be forced to change. Change is the last thing that the alcoholic system is equipped to handle, i.e., the Rule of Rigidity.

Children growing up in this silent system learn at a very early age that it is not okay to talk about certain things. Any discussion on the child's part about drinking, behavior that is related to drinking, or other nonsocially accepted behaviors such as physical abuse or incest, is quickly squelched. The child is unable to talk about what he or she sees or hears. This inability to talk about what is seen or heard has a direct effect on how the child will relate to the world. Without being able to do any reality checking, the child is forced to interpret the events in his or her life without the input from caring adults. As adults, these children often have difficulty asking questions. They feel that they should know the answers. And, of course, they don't, so they guess.

This silence extends not to just what the child sees, but also to what the child feels. Along with not having permission to talk about what is seen, the child is not permitted to talk about any feelings that he or she may have as a result of alcoholic behavior.

The fear, anger, and hurt-core issues for adult children of alcoholics-have their roots in the inability of the family system to cope with these powerful feelings. As children experience the terror, rage, and grief that are directly related to the alcoholic behavior of the family, they cope by attempting to repress their feelings. They cannot talk to anyone about how they feel, so they cope the best way they can. The child living in an alcoholic family is like a pressure cooker on a stove. As the temperature goes up, the pressure inside the cooker increases. Instead of bleeding the pressure off slowly, by talking, the child responds by adding thicker walls. Occasionally the pressure gets too high, and the child acts out and blows off some steam, but most of the pressure is kept inside and remains there for the rest of his or her life, unless he or she gets treatment.

Mary, an ACoA, had a father who liked to drink and drive. When he would go to bars and get drunk, he would often take Mary with him. Although Mary liked being with her father, she would be terrified when he was drunk and driving. Often her father would have accidents, and drive the car into ditches or hit poles and trees. None of the accidents were major, but still Mary became terrified whenever her father would drive. At eleven years of age Mary learned to drive by pushing her father out from behind the wheel of the car, after he had passed out, and then driving the car home herself. She did this for a number of years.

Until Mary entered treatment, she had never told anyone about the fear that she had of driving with her father, and she had never told anyone about having to drive her father home. One of the results of Mary's having to keep her fear to herself, and never talking about having to drive her father home was that she became extremely frightened when she was not driving. As an adult Mary felt that she had to drive or something terrible would happen. After processing her fear and talking about her feelings of having to drive her father home when he was drunk, Mary lost some of this fear. Today, although Mary still prefers to drive, she will let another person drive.

The only way ACoAs can get free of the rule of silence is by talking about what happened to them and expressing their repressed feelings. Mary's case was not an extreme. All ACoAs have the rule of silence, which operates at the expense of both the ACoA's emotional well-being and ability to function honestly and openly in the world.



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