Relationships are where we take our recovery show on the road. In this section, we'll explore some ideas for improving relationships. Much of the focus will be on special love relationships, but the ideas apply to all our relationships. Many of them can grow into special love relationships too.
Actually, the entire book explores ideas for improving relationships. All our recovery work-dealing with shame, doing our historical work, believing we deserve the best, breaking the rules, learning to affirm and empower ourselves, learning to believe we're lovable-affects our relationships.
There's more to recovery than learning to terminate or avoid relationships. Although some of us may call time-out from certain relationships for a while, recovery isn't done apart from relationships. And relationships aren't done apart from recovery. Recovery is learning to function in relationships. And we learn to function in relationships by participating in relationships.
At a workshop I facilitated, I asked participants how many had failed relationships. Everyone raised both hands. "I didn't know you were going to do jokes," responded one woman.
Many of us have had failed relationships. Many of us are struggling with relationships now. "Kate and I have been married six years," Del says. "We're both from moderately dysfunctional families, and we were both working on recovery years before we married. Sometimes we've worked hard on the relationship. Sometimes we've backed off and worked on ourselves. Sometimes we've been too busy to work on anything. Sometimes we know we really love each other; sometimes it's a real struggle. I never knew relationships were so difficult."
In spite of our struggles, many of us still believe in marriage, family, and love. In spite of our failures, many of us want a loving, committed, fulfilling relationship. We may be afraid and cautious, but, whatever our circumstances, most of us want our relationships to be the best possible. The subject of this chapter, this section, this book, and recovery is improving our relationships. The purpose of this chapter is to tell us we can.
Since the beginning of time, people have been struggling to live with, or without, someone they love. Some elements of relationships have changed over the years. We've progressed from a time when people had few choices about choosing a mate, getting a divorce, or living a certain lifestyle, to an age when it's possible to become paralyzed by options. Women have traveled the road from culturally mandated dependency to feminism and a liberation that includes the choice of traditional values. For some people, relationship roles have changed dramatically.
"I don't know what women want or expect anymore," said one man.
"Don't feel bad," I responded. "We're not always sure either."
People are hungry for information about relationships. We want to learn more about how we can make them work, make them work better, and avoid past mistakes. We want to understand and gain insight. In recent years, we've been bombarded with books about relationships. We have relationship enrichment courses, counseling, seminars, and intimacy training. Working on relationships has become one of our many choices about relationships.
"I used to think people just met someone, fell in love, and got married," Hank says. "After recovery, I got into 'a relationship' and discovered I was expected to 'work' on it. I didn't even know what the term meant! Even the word 'relationship' was new to me. We used to call it 'finding a girlfriend,' or 'getting married."'
We've discovered certain behaviors and attitudes nurture relationships and help them grow. Healthy detachment, honesty, self-love, love for each other, tackling problems, negotiating differences, and being flexible help nurture relationships. We can enhance relationships with acceptance, forgiveness, a sense of humor, an empowering but realistic attitude, open communication, respect, tolerance, patience, and faith in a Higher Power.
Caring about our own and each other's feelings helps.
Asking instead of ordering helps.
Not caring, when caring too much hurts, helps too.
Being there when we need each other helps.
Being there for ourselves, and doing our own recovery work helps.
Having and setting boundaries and respecting other people's boundaries improves relationships.
Taking care of ourselves-taking responsibility for ourselves-benefits relationships.
Being interested in others and ourselves helps.
Believing in ourselves and the other person is beneficial.
Being vulnerable, and allowing ourselves to get close helps.
Giving relationships energy, attention, and time helps them grow.
Initiating relationships with people who are capable of participating in relationships helps.
On the other hand, certain behaviors and attitudes harm relationships. Low self-esteem, taking responsibility for others, neglecting ourselves, unfinished business, and trying to control other people or the relationship can cause damage. Harm can also be caused by being overly dependent, not discussing feelings and problems, lying, abuse, and unresolved addictions. Certain attitudes such as hopelessness, resentment, perpetual criticism, naiveté, unreliability, hard-heartedness, negativity, or cynicism can ruin relationships.
Being too selfish, or not selfish enough, can hurt relationships.
Too little or too much tolerance can harm relationships.
Having expectations too high or too low can hurt relationships.
Looking for all our good feelings, excitement, or stimulation from our relationships can damage them.
Not learning from our mistakes can cause us to repeat the same mistakes.
Being too hard on ourselves for our mistakes can hurt relationships.
Expecting other people, ourselves, or our relationships to be perfect can damage relationships.
Not examining a relationship enough can damage it; so can holding it under a microscope.
Relationships and love have a life of their own. Like other living things, they have a birth, death, and some activity between-a beginning, middle, and end. Some run the course in twelve hours; some span a lifetime. Like other living things, relationships are cyclical, not static. We have cycles of passion and boredom, ease and struggle, closeness and distance, joy and pain, growth and repose.
Sometimes as the cycles or seasons of relationships change, the boundaries and dimensions of relationships change. We can learn to be flexible enough to go through and accept these changing seasons.
We've identified many types of relationships. We label some "healthy" and some "unhealthy." The energy between two people can be positive or negative. Relationships can be formed out of our deficiencies, our strengths, or out of loneliness. Some are based on chemistry': Most combine these characteristics and are formed for many reasons-many of which are unknown to people at the time and become clear only in retrospect. Usually, two people simply believe they love each other and the relationship seems to fit. The relationship meets both people's needs at the time.
In his lectures and writing, Earnie Larsen had identified three relationship states: "in," "out," or "wait." And there can be no relationship if one person calls "out," says Larsen.
No particular state of being "in or out of a relationship" indicates recovery. Recovery is indicated by each of us making our own choices about what we want and need to do, and what's important to us. Perhaps no area of our lives expresses our uniqueness as much as our relationships-our relationship history, present circumstances, and goals.
When Sheryl began recovering from codependency, she divorced her husband, who she calls "a practicing sex addict and alcoholic." Now, two and one-half years later, she dates only occasionally.
"It wouldn't be fair to me or a man to get into a relationship yet. I'm not ready. Besides, I don't know anyone I want to be involved with. I want a good relationship someday," Sheryl says. "In the meantime. I'm working on myself."
Many years ago, Sam's wife, Beth, went through treatment for chemical addiction, and he began attending Al-Anon. They've been married for twenty-five years, and plan to stay married the rest of their lives.
"The crazy behavior stopped. Things got better. We don't have a fantastic relationship, but we want to hold the family structure together. Our children have thanked us for doing that. I'm glad we've done that," Sam says. "It isn't a perfect relationship, but it's workable. And it's what we both want. If we had our lives to live over, we probably would choose someone else. But we chose each other, and we're going to honor our commitment."
After three years in Al-Anon, Marianne divorced her husband Jake, a practicing alcoholic.