Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Intimacy, Loneliness, and Openness to Feelings in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Intimacy, Loneliness, and Openness to Feelings in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Article excerpt

Reports indicate that about 22 million Americans over the age of 18 are adult children of alcoholics (ACAs) (Children of Alcoholics Foundation, 1984). Although social workers frequently work with ACAs in their clinical practices, the problems of this population have received very limited empirical attention.

The study discussed in this article explored some important problems reportedly experienced by ACAs in an attempt to provide social workers with a better understanding of the treatment needs of this population. A survey was conducted to examine the variables of intimacy, loneliness, and openness to feelings in ACAs and adult children of nonalcoholics (ACNAs). Standardized instruments with previously reported reliability and validity were used to measure the major variables.


The problems of ACAs began to be discussed in the clinical literature in 1981 (Wegscheider, 1981). Since then there has been increasing interest in this population. Writers have based their conclusions on clinical observation (Woititz, 1985) and personal experience (Wegscheider, 1985). Many clinical reports addressed the interpersonal problems of ACAs, and these problems have been considered the most critical for this population (Seixas & Youcha, 1985).

Clinical reports show that ACAs have characteristic intimacy problems such as getting into early marriages, displaying clinging dependency, or engaging in sexual promiscuity. They may also remain in relationships long after they have soured (Seixas & Youcha, 1985). Difficulty trusting other people, fear of abandonment, and fear of being vulnerable have also been associated with ACAs (Woititz, 1985).

ACAs are also reported to have difficulties in identifying and expressing their feelings (Woititz, 1985). They have been described as being emotionally distant (Seixas & Youcha, 1985). One author has commented that ACAs learn to conceal their true selves to meet their parents' Deeds (Wood, 1987). Wegscheider (1981) saw ACAs as being locked into certain roles they had learned as children, precluding the expression of their true feelings and needs. He described roles such as "hero," "scapegoat," and "lost child."

Although ACAs may desire love and intimacy, they are likely to be afraid that attachments in adult life will be as hurtful as their early family relationships were. They may be especially fearful that new involvements will result in exploitation, abuse, or betrayal (Wood, 1987).


Empirical studies of the interpersonal problems of ACAs began to appear in 1984. Some of these studies found interpersonal difficulties apparently related to intimacy. Female ACAs were found to have a stronger need to control relationships than female ACNAs, and they tended to feel guilty about and responsible for the behavior of others (Jackson, 1984). Female ACAs also appeared to have more difficulty than female ACNAs in establishing relationships and in establishing careers (Allen, 1986). ACAs of both genders were found to exhibit greater differences than ACNAs between the amount of affection wanted from others and the amount of affection expressed to others (Carey, 1986).

Two studies that looked at intimacy more directly suffer from weaknesses in instrumentation or sample selection. Harkins-Craven (1987), using a clinical sample of 62 women ages 25 to 45, found significant differences between ACAs and ACNAs regarding intimacy and fusion with mates; Harkins-Craven defined fusion as the extent to which a person operates in a nonindividualized way with a spouse or partner. The ACAs scored significantly lower than the ACNAs on intimacy and satisfaction with a mate or significant other. They also scored significantly higher than the ACNAs on fusion with their mate. Although these findings are of interest, the small clinical sample makes for limited generalizability, and reliability of the measurement instrument was barely adequate. …

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