The Adult Child Tolerance of Unacceptable Behavior

Treatment that most people would consider “unacceptable,” adult children, who grew up with alcoholism, para-alcoholism, and dysfunction, not only tolerate, but expect.

“Adult children are dependent personalities, who view abuse and inappropriate behavior as normal,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 18). “Or, if they complain about the abuse, they feel powerless to do anything about it.”

Both captive and powerless, such children are forced to field adversity and, in its extreme, abuse, that can take verbal, nonverbal, emotional, physical, psychological, religious, sexual, and manipulative forms from parents or primary caregivers they look to and in whom they place their trust. That they would treat them in inappropriate ways that they do not deserve is an unconsidered concept to them. The treatment, they reason, is justified either because of their infractions or simply because they are unworthy, inadequate, or not loveable.

Instead of being built up with confidence, self-belief, and self-esteem, they are undermined and progressively whittled down in what can be both overtly and subtly demoralizing ways.

“We believe that hitting, threats, projection, belittlement, and indifference are the delivery mechanisms that deeply insert the disease of family dysfunction within us,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook continues (Ibid, p. 27).

Although verbal abuse leaves no physical scars, it can be just as damaging as its physical counterpart, because it leaves a scar on the psyche and the soul. Unable, at times, to achieve his parent’s approval, acceptance, and validation, an adult child is unable to gain a significant or consistent sense of self-worth, deluding him into believing that he is lesser-than and not equal or up-to-par with his peer group.

It equally generates toxic shame-that is, he feels shame for what he misbelieves he is at his core–a flawed being.

While adversity and unacceptable behavior can be temporary with others later in life, children have no recourse and no ability, in their still-developing state, to walk away from what becomes the cumulative effects of some two decades of exposure. The “scars” only become detectable through behavioral manifestations, such as isolation, fear of authority figures, unhealthy or meaningless relationships, fears, insecurities, phobias, codependence, hypervigilance, dissociation, compulsions, and addictions.

Mildly unpleasant at one end of the spectrum to function-interruptingly intolerable on the other, these manifestations are what Freud labeled “repetition compulsions,” or the brain’s need to repeat and even re-enact what it could not fully process the first time and will continue to cycle through it until it clears it. Because of its severity, the person will most likely not be able to do so on his own, without some degree of therapy or twelve-step intervention.

They certainly erode a person’s quality of life, if not altogether limit his partaking of parts of it, as he keeps one foot in the present and the other in the past he has not resolved, resulting in the dichotomous “adult” and “child” nature of the adult child syndrome.

“We are adults suffering from the effects of alcoholism and dysfunctional families,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook advises (ibid, p. 71). “The childhood abuse and our adult lives created unbearable living conditions in body, mind, and spirit for us as adults. Adult children have been described as the ‘walking wounded,’ strutting about in a state of emotional and spiritual bankruptcy while claiming to be ‘fine.’”

Primed and prepared, thick-skinned, and possessing high degrees of tolerance for unacceptable behavior, they cross the threshold into adulthood, taking the experiences of their homes-of-origin into the outside world and fully expecting repeats of them from others.

Logic would dictate that they would repel similar circumstances as adults with significant others or spouses, but the opposite, both ironically and paradoxically, proves true, as they attract those who display similar personality traits because they are familiar with them. Like a garment that is uncomfortable and does not “fit,” this relationship matches the parental ones they experienced and, over time, its discomfort morphs and stretches into something that becomes adjustably tolerable, thus setting them up for a “second round” of enduring detrimental behavior.

“We keep choosing insecure relationships because they match our childhood relationship with alcoholic or dysfunctional parents,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook points out (ibid, p. 589).

Regressed, they may once again assume the submissive role, subconsciously substituting their partners for their parents and trying “to get it right this time” by pleasing and placating them. Countless adult children have realized, after significant recovery, that they ended up marring substitute mothers and fathers, thus repeating the childhood cycle in adulthood. The late John Bradshaw often expressed this dynamic by stating, “When you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

Behavioral modeling, chronic exposure to such treatment, and the belief that they deserved it during their childhoods were many of the factors that led to the tolerance.

“I strongly believe these difficulties have a lot to do with my growing up with alcoholism,” according to one member in recovery, who wrote in Al-Amon’s “Hope for Today” (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 69). “Because I seldom experienced acceptable behavior, I thought unacceptable behavior was normal.”

Although these factors explain how this tolerant foundation was laid, they fail to identify why some refuse to discontinue what may be an abusive or even dangerous relationship. That element is fear of abandonment, of being left alone.

“We stay in abusive relationships because they resemble how we were raised,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook continues (op. cit., p. 197). “We are terrified of abandonment, so we tolerate high levels of abuse or neglect as an adult. The abuse seems normal.”

It takes a significant amount of understanding and restorative work to even begin to dismantle the flawed foundation upon which an adult child rests his life. But an effective method of minimizing such treatment once this has begun is to establish boundaries-invisible walls, built brick by brick, of the accepted and unaccepted behaviors a person will tolerate.

“When I think of boundaries, it helps if I think of a castle in a lake,” according to another recovering member, who wrote in “Hope for Today” (op. cit., p. 286). “Boundaries are the drawbridge connecting the castle with the world. Usually the drawbridge is down and people can walk freely back and forth. However, when danger is sensed, the drawbridge rises to protect the castle.”

“One of the first things I heard in Al-Anon was that we didn’t have to accept unacceptable behavior” according to its “Courage to Change” text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992, p. 51). “This idea helped me see that I need not tolerate violence or abuse, and that I had choices I hadn’t even recognized before. I set some limits, not to control others, but to offer myself guidelines… ”

Reducing or minimizing unacceptable interactions requires several steps. The first, of course, is understanding the origin of the tolerance. The second is determining the degree, if any, of the other person’s rationality, stability, woundedness, and addicted state at the time, due either to alcohol or substance misuse. The third is understanding that the negative treatment may have little to do with the other’s worthiness or deserving of it and everything to do with the deficiency of the one who gives it. The fourth is understanding that the one who accepts this treatment may him- or herself trigger and escalate it through rebuttal and anger, sparking volatility. Finally, the only solution may be detachment and disengagement to avoid what is most likely a repeat of countless previous episodes, none of which bore any remedial fruit.

Walk it out in a park or work it out with a trusted friend or sponsor, and ultimately conclude-all frustration to the contrary-that the other person cannot see or understand the consequences and effects he causes.

“Looking back, I can accept that plenty of unacceptable behavior was directed at me,” according to a member in “Courage to Change” (op. cit., p. 36), “but I was the one who sat and took it and often came back for more. I was a willing participant in a dance that required two partners. I felt like a victim, but in many ways, I was a volunteer.”

The right to other-respect begins with self-respect. A person teaches others how to treat him through boundaries, and either acceptance or rejection of their actions, behaviors, and interactions. And the more a person understands his childhood origins and regains his sense of self-esteem, the less likely will be his tolerance of the negative ones.

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