Sheldon and Leonard play bows and arrows on a Nintendo Wii. Sheldon comments that his father taught him archery when he was a boy, and that doing so brings back the smell of cheap bourbon. In another episode Sheldon explains to Leonard that his parents took very different paths when their marriage began to disintegrate: his mom Mary took to religion while his dad George chased a ‘bottle-blonde bartender.’
George Cooper Sr., Sheldon’s father, dies before TTBT begins, but one thing we know about him is he drank a lot. He had “driving whiskey” in his truck that Sheldon’s brother nipped periodically. He offered Sheldon beer at his high school grad but Sheldon was just eleven and his mother intervened. George’s temper showed up against Mary by skeet shooting her vintage Franklin Mint collectible plates, and rifling the TV when his Dallas Cowboys lost to the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving Day 1993. As to his parenting, Sheldon concluded that after his sister Missy gave their father a "World's Greatest Dad" mug George “coasted until the day he died.”
While we might explain Sheldon’s anti-social behavior and fear of intimacy as a personality disorder, an equally valid perspective is understanding him as an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA). And while good science tells us that such kids don’t exhibit a neat little check-list of symptoms, the ones that do crop up look a bit like Sheldon Cooper.
In families where spirits play a central coping role, the relational webs that result resemble spider webs in outer space—stable yet disorderly. They are stable in that partners and children develop rules to maintain balance even if the resulting equilibrium enables the drinker to drink or helps the family hide the problem from outsiders.
Children who arrive home to a parent passed out on the couch, or one suddenly violent over spilled milk learn to watch themselves, to tread lightly, to get away and isolate. They experience conflicting affections because the very person they want to run to for comfort is the same who inflicted the discomfort.
We are not surprised therefore that adult children of alcoholic families tend to report greater conflict, less family cohesion, and less parental care than non-alcoholic families. These kids also rely more on escape and avoidance to cope, and they take this flight reaction into their adult lives.
For example, when Sheldon gets fired at Cal Tech his mother swoops in from Texas (anything for her “little Shelly”) to find him now three weeks stowed up in the apartment weaving a sarape. Leonard has tried in vain to get Sheldon to apologize to Dr. Gablehauser for doing what got him fired. Mrs. Cooper tries to reason with Sheldon.
Mrs Cooper: Sweetheart, your little friend is concerned about you.
Sheldon: Yes, well I’m not a child, I’m a grown man capable of living my life as I see fit. And I certainly don’t need someone telling on me to my mother. [He begins to leave.]
Leonard: Where are you going?
Sheldon: To my room, and no one’s allowed in.
Mary may have made George’s drinking worse for Sheldon through triangulation—by relying on Sheldon, rather than her husband, for emotional support. This pattern forces children to grow up quickly and become in tune to the uncertain behavior of their inebriated parent, and to the emotional needs of their sober one. The sober parent might work extra hard to shore up the slack only to find efforts fruitless which can lead to learned helplessness and depression. Thus kids lose both parents to the dance of the bottle and get doubly ignored.
This wound of neglect—by one or both parents—shows up later in ACOAs adult relationships. Why invest in friendship and romance if they only lead to pain?
Not surprisingly adult children of alcoholics have difficulty developing relational intimacy, trusting and opening up to others, and functioning sexually. They remain hyper-vigilant expecting the shoe to drop in close relationships. And male ACOAs turn independent and autonomous. Gosh. Sounds like Sheldon.
The good news for Dr. Cooper is that he lacks other issues common to ACOAs. He drinks very little and then only under special circumstances. His girlfriend Amy is not a problem drinker even though about half of ACOAs wind up with alcoholic mates. Sheldon is not depressed regularly, or aggressive, or a high-risk taker—all common among ACOAs generally, but not in every case.
If we had to account for how well Sheldon functions despite his father’s addiction, it may be due to his mom. True, she wished to put ground up glass in her husband’s meatloaf, and successfully put hamster poop in his tobacco when he was stoned. And she referred to George as Sheldon’s “dumb-ass daddy” in front of Sheldon and the gang, and over-fed George to an obesity-related death. But Mary Cooper relied on her God to get her through it, and even if deemed a crutch, it was a good one. Respected clinical psychologists promote the idea that personalizing a faith, and engaging its community of followers, provides a lens to interpret afresh dire situations, and find hope with like-hearted people.
We also know that kids in alcoholic families can develop emotionally as long as family and friends provide support, empathy, and meaningful relationships amidst the challenges. Perhaps that explains why Sheldon continues to mature in emotional and relational aptitude: he’s got relatively healthy friends and a doting mom.
Sheldon’s Take: Adult children of alcoholic parents exhibit psychological tendencies toward anti-social behavior, uncontrolled behavior, depression, anxiety disorders, interpersonal anxiety, distress and maladjustment. ACOAs display psychosocial difficulty in various forms but not uniformly in areas such as low esteem, interpersonal distancing and boundary-keeping, marital conflict, problematic parenting, and dyadic adjustment. Results however are not categorical as ACOA status is mediated by degrees of family conflict, cohesion, care, and escape/avoidance coping in predicting adjustment.
The Penny Drops: Growing up in an alcoholic family may result in a host of personal and social issues that make relating in close relationships a challenge, but it doesn’t have to. Understanding yourself and getting along with others is possible if you got care and connection with family or friends amidst the chaos. And if you didn’t, a trained counselor can help you on your journey to healing today.
Dayton, Tian. Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief on Relationships. Deerfield Beach, Fla: HCI, 1997. Dayton, Tian. The ACoA Trauma Syndrome: The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships. Deerfield Beach, Fla: HCI, 2012. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2015). Dumont, Karin McPeak. "God's Shield: The Relationship between God Attachment, Relationship Satisfaction, and Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) Status in a Sample of Evangelical Graduate Counseling Students." Doctoral Dissertations and Projects (2009): 288. Stratton, Patricia David. "The factors that moderate and mediate outcome in children of alcoholics." Dissertation Abstracts International, 1998. PsycINFO, EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2015).
(Some summer posts will feature relational insights using The Big Bang Theory characters as a launching point. Enjoy.)
Leonard and Penny go out after Leonard’s break-up with Priya. Even though the two dated for years before the Priya interlude, they pretend to be on a first date for fun.
Penny shares that she’s from Nebraska, waits tables, dreams of being a movie star, and so far has acted in a hemorrhoid commercial and a production of Anne Frank (above a bowling alley).
Leonard reciprocates. He’s an experimental physicist who works in laser research, makes good money, and proudly claims to be king of nerds.
When Penny tells him he is funny he replies, “Good. Remember that when I take my shirt off.”
Sometimes Leonard suffers from the belief that he is not man enough for Penny. He thinks she deserves someone like her body-builder ex-boyfriend Kurt. Leonard is short, average-looking, nonathletic, asthmatic, and prone to low-esteem (thanks to his mother). His masculinity does not match Penny’s femininity.
In many regards Leonard and Penny’s relationship shouldn’t work because generally birds of a feather flock together. That is, we tend to end up with people who match us in degree of attractiveness (it's called the matching hypothesis). In romantic relationships we are especially drawn to people who are on the upper edge of our league but not beyond it. But in terms of looks, Penny is out of Leonard’s league.
We also tend to wind up with people who mirror us in demographics—something Leonard and Penny lack. They may both be Caucasian, but he’s upscale intelligentsia and she’s Midwest redneck; he earned his BSc, MSc & PhD while she finished high school and lied about attending community college; he enjoys upper middle-class income as a research scientist while she struggles with minimum-wage waitressing and nickels from acting. (Later this changes when she becomes a pharmaceutical rep.) Of course these differences make them interesting characters primed for humor.
But could this imbalance work in real life? Absolutely.
Leonard and Penny exhibit yin and yang. What he lacks in looks, she offers in spades. What Penny requires in brains, Leonard delivers in IQ. Compensating for each other's weaknesses goes a long way to bring unity to their relationship even if demographics don’t line up, and attraction is based on more than the physical—we like people for all the “social capital” they stand for.
The key to "opposite people" attracting is that their differences concern behaviors and resources, not attitudes and values. Leonard and Penny contrast sharply on careers, income, and hobbies (all considered what we do and have), but they deeply share the same value on friendship, community, sex, and fun. For example, when Penny’s car breaks down (a lack of resources), Leonard buys her a dependable used one (a show of resources, and a big sign of friendship).
Consider too that Penny complains that past boyfriends—mannish mega males—have been jerks. Dr. Dave Underhill posted online details of their sex life; Muscular Kurt derided Leonard and Sheldon when they picked up Penny’s TV. But Leonard treats Penny kindly, and this is refreshing and life-giving. In fact Penny could well judge Leonard better looking than he is objectively because his communication with her is warm and positive.
In a similar vein, when we really like someone, we tend to overlook differences and focus on similarities, even going so far as thinking we are more similar than we really are. This mild deception provides oil for smooth relating as we discuss and do things we both enjoy while side-stepping the barbs.
In short, Penny and Leonard enjoy equity—that sense of getting a fair deal because rewards and costs balance out or register as profit. Periodically they suffer from imbalance—such as the times Leonard insinuated that Penny would not be a good scavenger hunt partner and Penny got distracted by Dr. Underhill. But in the main they jive.
Sheldon’s Take: The matching hypothesis suggests we create long-term dyadic bonds with individuals who are similar in degree of attractiveness, yet compensating factors allow for mismatched attractiveness. Interactional positivity yields increased evaluations of physical appearance, and attending selectively to similar values and beliefs afford perceived homophily despite objective disparities.
The Penny Drops: While we aim to hang out with people we find highly attractive, we are realistic and usually partner with people similar to us. A lack of good looks can be shored up by other benefits such as money or kindness which usually leads to balance in the relationship. In these terms, opposites attract.
Resources: Berscheid, E., Dion, K, Walster, e., & Walster, G. W. (1971). Physical attractiveness and dating choice: A test of the matching hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 173-189. Strong, S. R., Hills, H. J., Kilmartin, C. T., Devries, H., Lanier, K., Nelson, B. et al. (1988). The dynamic relations among interpersonal behaviors: A test of the complementarity and anti-complementarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 798-810. Walster, E., Walster, G. W., & Berscheid, E. (1978). Equity: Theory and research. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.