Anytime I enter into a new relationship, there is always a learning curve. Whether that’s a new job, a new neighborhood or even a new piece of furniture. The discovery of what works and what doesn’t is a necessary first step.
When my husband and I moved in together, we learned about things like the other’s daily routine, what was okay (or not okay) to say about family members and how to allocate a combined income. Pretty normal stuff for most couples. What wasn’t so normal was that we needed space for that pink elephant in the middle of the room.
Eyes closed to the obvious was typical for me. From early childhood and into adulthood, I didn’t think twice about rationalizing things were okay when they were not. Reality caught up with me when that avoidance began to whittle away at my marriage and other important relationships in my life.
Until then, anyone who spent sufficient time around me knew exactly the lines I drew in the sand. That’s what untreated addicted people do. I set non-negotiable, unhealthy boundaries which were not to be crossed. For example, people stopped their inquiry about what I ate or if I drank because they grew tired of my intense, defensive responses. My attitude taught them that their comments were better kept to themselves.
What I really taught them was that I cared more about my addictions than I did about them. The one who suffered most by my self-centered mindset was my husband. I had no idea the impact my behavior and lies would have on our relationship. I taught him I could not be trusted which is critical for a healthy connection between committed partners.
When I took the suggested action steps in the early years of my recovery, there was one in particular that would be of critical importance. I needed to act in ways that would help those around me unlearn what I’d long taught them.
At first, the idea of “unlearning” seemed odd. However, those who knew more about recovery reminded me that I had lived a full-time lie. All of my mannerisms, the adamant refusal to acknowledge my addictive behaviors and my unwillingness to change, had flat-out affected people.
I set the stage for a powerful reset with my husband because of my reluctance to let him know what really went on behind his back. Worse, I controlled what was okay or not okay to say or do around me. Eventually these directives became our “normal.”
Having an addiction along for the ride in any relationship is destructive. The disease doesn’t discriminate. The secrets, lies, and irrational behaviors not only destroy marriages, they also tear down relationships at work, with extended family members, with neighbors, and with others.
I put my addictions first. Everything I did or said served my addictions before I engaged with the people right in front of me. That included my husband.
For years I taught him to feel that he was my second choice or second best. I have since stood in that space and when I did that sense of unimportance is not a good feeling. The experience messes with self-esteem and self-confidence and ultimately causes me to second-guess everything.
Recovery taught, and continues teaching me, that actions must match words. When I do that, I give others an opportunity to let go of what they learned from my previous behavior.
How do I do that? The answer is simple. Every day that I remain sober and healthy, I teach others that I respect myself, and in turn they learn to respect me. This is yet another lovely benefit of recovery for me and for those who love me.
My actions, not my words, illustrate changes I make to better my life. I don’t have to say, “See how I’m acting now?” or “Hey look, I’m not doing what I used to.” I don’t need to call attention to those points. How I treat myself and how I respectfully interact with others gives them an opportunity to relearn how to interact with me.
A Moment to Breathe
What are you teaching people about you? Are you subtly or not so subtly providing direction about why you act or react a certain way? Do you shut people out to serve the needs of your addiction? Are you causing other problems because of that? Take a deep breath. The next right step isn’t just a realization that you do this. The challenge is how you undo this. What are some ways you might help people unlearn what you taught them? What can you do today that sends a message of change through action, not words? Sometimes that action is something as small as looking someone in the eye when he or she is talking. That slight gesture teaches people you care even if what’s being said is not of particular interest to you. Offering undivided attention may be a brand-new experience for both of you.
Alison Smela is a writer, speaker, and an addiction recovery and health advocate. Through her blog Alison’s Insights www.alisonsmela.com, Alison shares her experience overcoming alcoholism and life-threatening eating disorder in midlife and how she now faces everyday challenges using recovery-based solutions. Feel free to connect with her via Facebook, Twitter, (@alisonsmela), or Instagram (alison.smela).