There is almost no bigger challenge in recovery than being married or in a committed relationship. I say this having worked in the field of mental health and addiction recovery for many years. During that time I have come across hundreds of recovering addicts and non-alcoholics who have struggled to maintain a loving relationship.
From the moment we fall in love, we feel confused about how to juggle being in a relationship with that person and staying free of enabling, co-dependent old behaviors.
I don’t particularly like the term “co-dependent,” although being able to put a name to some of the bizarre, dysfunctional and twisted behaviors and patterns I learned growing up helped me understand what was happening in my relationships and why I kept getting tripped up. But in general, labels tend to focus on human limitations, problems and obstacles rather than illuminating what is possible, what we are capable of. Labels also limiting because they can stop us from connecting with our innate unlimited true potential as human beings.
When I met my wife (back then she was my girlfriend), I struggled to keep my eyes and mind off her and onto myself, while striving to build a strong connection. This was something I had never really been good at. But I was 20 years sober, a Marriage Therapist and I had some relational skills and tools in my tool-bag from all the years of training, internships and, most importantly, five failed past relationships. Yes, a lot of lessons in humility.
The principles and practices of Stage II Recovery are built on learning how to love and becoming who you are in relationships. I was in love and I wanted to get married. I also knew that it would be no small task. However, one of the most important principles and practices I learned about relationships both personally and professionally is: Conflict is inevitable. As an Imago Therapist, we define conflict in relationships as an invitation to heal and grow, and not necessarily a signal to give up. The practices and principles that I use and live by are based on beliefs about human interaction, and are quite different from the ones you or I were raised with. So building new skills in recovery feels awkward and you may feel bad or less than because you lack the skills to create a healthy functioning relationship. But here’s the deal. We learned what we saw and what we learned we practiced. As we grew older, we brought to our relationships the same old bad habits, perceptions and dysfunction we saw practiced in our lives.
The Downward Spiral of Relationships in Sobriety
I had achieved a measure of success in recovery, in that, I had broken through Stage I Recovery where the cycle of active addiction was broken. I was almost two years clean and in a relationship that was causing me pain. In those days, it really didn’t matter who my partner was, the same stuff kept just happening; a different face—same pain. Every new relationship kept looking and feeling like the previous one. I felt so helpless about being able to change. But the worst was that it felt like I was stalling, even though I had worked all 12 steps, had a home group, went on commitments, went to conventions all over New England, was active in service and had a Higher Power and a sponsor. Still, if you were in a relationship with me at that time, I made you feel like a POW in captivity and definitely not a happy, joyous and free agent to come home to.
I felt uneasy, lost and at times very, very alone with my struggles.
Many folks, without a lot of training, just know how to be happy and successful in relationships because they possess an inner sensitivity and their partner knows that they care. What I found in my program circle was that countless others who knew just about everything there was to know about relationships—except how to enjoy them in their own lives. A lot of folks were as miserable I was, but hid that pain in meetings, under the pretense of gratitude and “working the program.” But when I was alone in my apartment I cried away from the meetings, I hurt and I didn’t understand why.
I was blocked. My relationships were crashing all around me. Everywhere I turned I was having conflict. I had resentments with program friends—people who didn’t call me back. I couldn’t allow people to be who they were and I was stark raving mad and acting out old patterns in sobriety. So, I was not interested in talking “about” relationships; I wanted to know how to be successful, sane, and enjoy relationships in my life.
Human Interaction Group(s) Saved My Recovery Life After Addiction
Fortunately I had met a man named Reggie and eventually his wife Judith. I told Reggie all about what I was going through. He didn’t quote program literature; he didn’t tell me what to do, or what not to do. He didn’t ask how many meetings I was going to … he didn’t tell me anything. He just listened! With profound presence and sensitivity he looked me in the eyes, gave me his full attention and, in his gentle and Reggie way, he asked me, “What do you want to do with your life?”
His question awakened something deep inside me. It was as if I could hear chains breaking, but I didn’t know what was locked up inside me.
Reggie was an addictions counselor who knew that human beings and human relationships are not built on objective rules; they are about the subjective experiences of love and loving. The objective data (my disease in recovery) is important and even crucial, especially if one doesn’t know why the same things keep happening over and over, but objective data is only insight and insight or awareness alone doesn’t even scratch the surface of who we are as human beings and how we interact with each other in relationships and in life.
Although I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life, his question, “What do you want to do with you life” was life-giving. In fact it was freeing, because it implied that I wasn’t necessarily doing something wrong in my sobriety, but perhaps it was all happening because I was being called to grow into—the next stage of recovery (Stage II Recovery) which was ALL about learning how to love and how to deal with something as important as interpersonal relationships in recovery.
What Reggie was talking about was getting off the merry-go-round of black and white overly simplistic thinking, which is characteristic of co-dependence and addiction. And instead becoming familiar with reality as perceived by the “gray matter” of a balanced and sane mind; as you’ve surely noticed that you and your partner are complex human people. The wheel that makes both people in relationship has many spokes and it takes time to get to know and a lifetime to fully understand.
No matter what my upbringing is or was, no matter who my family of origin is, no matter what self-destructive patterns I learned in the past—I am responsible and you are too. Whenever I am disturbed the problem is with me, no matter the cause.
So I went into counseling with Reggie and eventually began participating in “Human Interaction” groups, that he and his wife facilitated in addition to my weekly meetings. These groups were filled with interesting characters—some folks sober and in various programs and some earthlings (earthlings also have relationship problems) who were also there to improve their lives and relationships. Bottom line, I saw these groups as a was a safe relational laboratory, where we could say and do things that we could or would never say or do in our daily lives, including in meetings out of fear of being judged—and so we did! It was a safe place to learn how to interact with another human beings and beyond the classic question: “How are you?” Answer: I’m fine or things are good.” and the conversation ends because no one really knows what say next. In these groups I learned about boundaries. So, I could mess up in these groups, get feedback and try something new and I wasn’t hurting anyone. I was learning how to live in the “gray areas of life.”
I learned what I needed to feel loved as well as how to express love to others. I learned how to b vulnerability … to express myself without fear of “not being enough.” Oh yeah, feelings was something new for all of us in group. Our inability to deal with our feelings was the reason many of used substances. And check this out … no one ran away when I express a feeling. As a matter of fact, it was quite the opposite. Talking openly about what I saw and what I felt gave others permission to do the same. I had entered “heaven right here on earth” in this group.
I learned that I didn’t have to talk about everything rolling around my mind; that I could hold out for other thoughts to come through.This led me to see the tremendous impact we ALL have on each other. I can no longer just say or do something and expect that it will not have an impact. I am responsible for what I say and do as well as how my behaviors, attitudes, words and actions impact others. I was also able to challenge my negative, delusional, self-hating beliefs I carried about myself, and to discover a lot of that shit just ain’t true! Just because I think something doesn’t make it true. Just because someone else thinks something about me also doesn’t make it true. Relationships are subjective realities. Once I had the courage to check out what I felt and thought, it made it much easier to get closer and intimate with others because I wasn’t haunted by my negative “monkey mind” (Reg calls it “roof-brain chatter); I wasn’t haunted by the fear of what anyone thought of me, and I afraid of myself. I learned to trust my OWN experience!
This may seem impossible if you are in recovery or a non-recovery person. It is not! It only requires a Decision, a Commitment, a desire to Transform and a Plan. There is something about being in a therapy group with people who are also being honest about their feelings, attitudes, beliefs and want to learn how to be in healthy relationships. It’s empowering! I grew-up in these groups and I learned that recovering and non-recovering people can and do change!! People who are in recovery can learn new relational skills. Relationships that are on the ledge can be turned around, and can be made gloriously beautiful if we are committed and willing to work at it—consistently. I learned that I was worth learning the skills necessary to be happy, joyous and free in recovery an in my ALL my relationships.
What is it Like Now?
I went on to participate in these Human Interaction Groups for the next 15 years of my recovery process with Reggie & Judith. They inspired me to become a therapist. Reggie said, “my [becoming a therapist] is who I am.”
Today as I approach 30 years of recovery, I continue to use these relational skills in my therapy practice and marriage of 10 years. My life beyond addiction is beyond my wildest dreams, and by no means perfect. Perfection isn’t something I strive for today, I strive to be connected inside, with others and connected to the Divine Power/Energy that is greater than me. Today, I am happily married (one day at a time) to my best friend and sweetie. I know what I need and I ask for it clearly, and in a way that my partner can respond. We may at times miss each others cues and signals for connection and fall into conflict. However, we can share our feelings without blaming or criticizing. The gift I bring to my marriage is the practice creating a safe and loving atmosphere and emotional climate where she knows that she is loved and care about; that I care about her story, that I listen without psychologizing, analyzing, judging and interpreting her words to make them fit my beliefs. I’ve learned to be be curious, sensitive, accessible, accountable, vulnerable and empathetic. Yeah … I have also learned that I am love and how to love in relationships–Stage II recovery.
Recovery from addictions means being sober. What else could it mean for you?
Love in Recovery,
Paula M. Smith, M.Div., MFT
Certified Imago Therapist & Marriage Scholar