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.
Six years ago this May I picked up the phone. It was my brother.
“If you want to see dad before he passes, you better come now; he’s losing ground fast.”
It wasn’t unexpected news but the kind that makes you drop everything. My wife offered to book my flight and the next morning I found myself on the shuttle to Sea-Tac Airport to catch a plane to Minneapolis. I rented a car for the three-hour drive to the southwestern corner of the state.
Neale E. Strom was accustomed to running the family business, teaching at church, serving on boards, cheering on high school athletes, and doting on us kids and our children. However in the previous year congestive heart failure and Parkinson’s gradually limited his strength and mobility. After taking a few falls he begrudgingly took to a wheel chair and eventually remained mostly in a hospital bed brought in to a main-floor bedroom.
My mom, Jean, remained at his side as his primary caregiver sorting medications, helping him dress, and getting him to and from the washroom.
My sister from Colorado arrived three days before me to support mom and help with dad. Dad had become incoherent and awake a lot at night requiring around-the-clock care. Just that week they finally got a live-in nurse.
I arrived at 6:30 p.m. to a house full of people. They cleared the way for me to spend time at dad’s bedside. I was thankful he rallied to welcome me warmly with clarity of mind.
“Are Shelaine and the boys here too?” he asked.
“No dad, just me.”
His eye-sight had become particularly poor the last few months so I moved in close and put his hand to my face. We talked a bit about my school-end push with marking exams and submitting grades, of our sons and their summer plans, of his tough go the last while and how he was feeling just now.
“Not too good,” he said. “I’m very tired.”
Around the corner mom and Jane prepared a meal for the gathering crowd, and at 7:15 we convened leaving dad to rest a while. We were not long when we heard him cry out, “Jeanie, Jeanie.” Mom rushed to his side and in a few minutes he was gone, his eyes closed and body relaxed. The clock read 7:30.
We gathered around his bed and mom wept out a prayer of thanks for Neale as husband, dad, grandfather, and follower of Jesus.
* * * *
The day before dad died he had one of his rougher days drifting in and out of sleep and mumbling. Jane was sitting by his side giving mom a break when dad suddenly sat up in bed, lifted his arms upward, and looked expectantly at the ceiling. He remained there a second, then turned his wrist downward, looked at his watch, and said to someone, “Not today? Tomorrow. 7:30.”
My faith journey is a relatively rational one as I prefer logical arguments for God’s existence, wrestle with theological issues, and prefer the life of the mind over experience to figure out how God moves among us. But when I heard my dad’s story the veil between earth and heaven thinned to a vapor.
Thank you, Dad.
And thank you God.
So you took the Work Addiction Risk Test from the last post, and discovered you’re borderline or full-on workaholic. This blog’s for you.
If you didn’t, but can answer positively to any of these prompts, read on. Do you:
If you answered “yes” to a few, consider this primer on creating career-home balance.
We can better harmonize career and relationships when we gain purpose and practice presence.
We gain purpose when we can see the reason for our work, and for our relationships, rather than feel they are meaningless going-through-the-motions. My conviction is that life is about loving God and serving others. This conviction drives my writing, teaching, serving and worship—not to every iota, but largely in the main.
What is your purpose in life? If it’s material gain or prestige, then perhaps that’s driving your career and muting your relationships. Or maybe you work to forget past hurts or to ignore current hassles. If so, then your workaholic tendencies may be driven by wounds.
Presence is the state of being fully aware of another person, their thinking and feeling, plans and fears, and responding relevantly and supportively face-to-face in real time. We give ourselves a chance at presence when we create margin—that wonderful gap between what is required of us and the resources we hold. When life’s demands overwhelm our resources, margin vanishes and we fail miserably at exercising presence.
So how do we gain purpose and presence?
1. If you’re concerned about career interfering with family, seek help. The key is that you’ve identified the pattern, and can point to feelings and behaviors you think indicate a problem. I recommend you find a friend, coach, mentor, or counselor if you identify with the indicators above. Getting it in the open will prompt change.
2. Realize that career hours encroach on relationship hours. In Choosing to Cheat: Who Wins when Family and Work Collide, Andy Stanley observes that all cheating is about trading one thing we value for something we don’t, and this normally entails trading an intangible virtue for some tangible reward. We are prone to trade off the less tangible virtue of “a quality relationship” for more tangible toys and promotions. I recall a busy medical doctor saying, “So my wife complains about my busyness, but hey, she complains in comfort” (referring to their lovely home). Ouch.
3. Recognize that relationships require work. Men in particular are prone to ignore or spurn this fact. We’re prone to think good relationships just happen. True, compatible partners experience less conflict than incompatible ones, but even a car that isn’t broken still requires gas, water, and regular maintenance.
4. Realize that workaholism hurts your loved ones. We’d like to think otherwise—that our spouse is strong, our kids resilient. Or we might think the benefits of our hard work outweigh its detriments. But facts say otherwise. Being emotionally “checked out” makes loved ones feel:
5. Negotiate your priorities with your partner and family. We show presence when we sit down and discuss life, together. We show it in partnering about decisions small and large. For example, what plans might you agree on for tonight? This weekend? Your next vacation? Or, how do you hope to spend that nest egg? Will it be to visit your folks, the in-laws, or time for yourselves? If we put similar effort into relating as to career or housework or busyness, we’re bound to build hope.
When I consider deep sources for purpose and presence, I consider Jesus who said, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28-30)
Jesus isn’t promising a bed of roses when we give our burdens to him, but he says his way gives rest, yields life, for it means not chasing achievement and accumulation or ignoring hurts and wounds. His purposes provide meaning as we go about loving work and people too.
About this time of year students at the university where I teach pull all-nighters. Some boast of 36-hour sprees writing papers, finishing projects, and cramming for exams. Thankfully this dash to the end is soon over.
In more routine life about seventeen percent of adults, or nearly 25 million people in North America, work between fifty and seventy hours per week. I know administrators who work 12-hour days before heading home.
Fortunately sheer number of hours does not define a workaholic, but workaholics do work longer than most. What sets them apart is feeling out of control and valuing busyness over relationships. Bryan Robinson, Ph.D, a leading researcher on work and relationships, defines workaholism as “a compulsive and progressive, potentially fatal disorder characterized by self-imposed demands, compulsive overworking, inability to regulate work habits, and overindulgence in work to the exclusion and detriment of intimate relationships and major life activities.”
What about you? Do you tend to:
But some may be wondering if hard work hurts relationships. The answer depends on what you’re working hard at. If you’re grinding away at career, but sloughing off in your relationships, then yes, you’re headed for trouble, because relating requires effort too. What does it look like to be engrossed with your job, but coasting relationally? Here are some signs I garnered from Robinson’s WART--Work Addiction Risk Test.
The cancer at the root of these symptoms may be that we think careers require effort, but marriage and family come easily. The other day I encountered a post by a writer who held this belief:
Relationships shouldn't involve work. Well not good, happy relationships anyway. So I think it's bogus when someone offers up the advice of needing to "work on" a relationship or "work on" a marriage. If you need to work on it then it's most likely not the right relationship and you're just trying to force it.
Of course this begs the question, “How does one come to have a ‘good, happy relationship’”? Does it just spring to life due to compatibility? Or does it get knit together one stitch at a time through effort?
I’ll consider Part 2 of this topic next post.
I teach public speaking. When one gives a speech, you put words in a particular order so they make sense. If you don’t, your logic gets all messed up, and listeners or readers get confused. “What does he mean?” they might ask.
The other day I was trying to explain this concept to my speaking students, and, right there in front of the class, it dawned on me: When we try to make a point in a speech, we need master and servant sentences. I put an example on the board:
I suggest the same applies regarding God and relationships, that there is a big statement we can take as probably true and that certain facts support it. For example:
In every corner of society we accept authority as important and necessary. We respect the roles of bosses, coaches, teachers, police officers, judges, and parents. So why is it that when it comes to God and relating we often ignore, run from, challenge, or outright disobey the guidelines of Him who cares deeply for our well-being?
Do we think God’s ways spoil our fun?
Do we think God’s ways constrain our freedoms?
Do we believe we can figure out best practices on our own?
Do we think science alone can give us ethics for how we ought to treat each other?
I have seen learned people struggle in their relationships and people who walk away from God end up in challenging relationships. And yes, I have seen committed Christians limp along too.
But I ask: whose authoritative wisdom will we follow in attempting to thrive in our closest relationships?
Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 come to mind: “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters.”
May we be like the master teacher.
Someone once observed that fishing is for brain-dead people—folks who are content to cast their bait upon the water endlessly with little on their minds. I understand their point. When I fish I am happy to clear my head of workplace issues, unfinished projects, and problems with people.
But while my thoughts may idle in neutral, my spirit brims with hope.
So I cast.
Every cast pregnant with hope.
In a six-hour day, casting once every forty-five seconds, avid fishers will throw their lure over 400 times and then reel, reel, reel. Steelhead trout are so elusive we call them “the fish of a thousand casts.”
That’s a lot of hope.
I find the same principle in relating with friends. Success in building strong bonds and enjoying peak moments often come only after much hum-drum casting. Making meals side by side, taking walks, helping with housework, and watching hockey lay the foundation for more significant conversations about fears, dreams, hurts and faith.
We figured this out in the 80s and 90s when dual-income parents allowed kids to come home after school to hollow halls. The myth was that busyness didn’t compromise quality time with your kids as long as you booked appointments with them and spent it nose-to-nose discussing important issues. But we learned that adolescents don’t open up on school issues and growing pains unless trust has been developed through mundane quantity time.
In short, we can’t blow in, busy about, and hope for significant relating. Redemptive relationships begin with time together enjoying the everyday.
Maybe it’s time to do something average with the people you love. And as you do, look for a nibble here and a tug there. One thing is for sure: We need to keep casting.
When Shelaine and I were first married earning entry-level wages, we sat down and made up a budget for spending, saving, and giving. One general rule we agreed on was to consult each other regarding purchases over fifty dollars! Today that limit is higher, but the principle is the same—we ought not purchase big ticket items without the other in the know.
Finances are but one area we negotiate with people close to us. To learn of more I asked thirty-three students to write down everyday decisions they had come to with family, friends, and roommates. Interestingly, several said “We don’t really agree—we just let things happen.” Perhaps this is a millennial thing, but wisdom says it’s better to put expectations on the table to avoid trouble.
The little study ended up producing scores of agreements which fell into six categories:
These covenantal themes remind us that we travel together, knitting our quality of life through little choices along the way.
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.