Thursday, August 2, 2007

Step One, Part Three---Powerlessness & Unmanageability

When we finally "get it" and realize that we are alcoholic and/or addicted and that we need to be in a program of recovery, many of us initially experience the euphoria known as "being on a pink cloud." We are so happy we finally understand what has been happening to us and anticipate our lives will now begin to be a whole lot better than they were while we were drinking and using. But eventually we fall off that pink cloud as we realize that we still have to deal with life's difficulties, but this time without the alcohol or other mind-altering drugs to relieve the uncomfortable feelings that go along with living life on life's terms.

Relationships are a lot like that. Two people fall in love and experience the euphoria of finding someone who "fits," someone who sees things the same way, wants the same things, shares the same beliefs and values, and feels the same excitement about being together. There is even a hormonal basis for the pink cloud aspect of falling in love; when we form an intimate attachment with someone, our bodies release oxytocsin into the bloodstream giving us that warm, delightful feeling of connectedness with our partner. This is the honeymoon phase of close relationships.

But the honeymoon invariably ends, usually after some major change in the couple's relationship such as moving in together, getting married, or the birth of a child. Oxytocsin levels usually fall back to normal levels after about 18-24 months, which is about the time it took for our early ancestors to conceive, give birth, and wean a child. When the honeymoon ends, we begin to see our partners in a much different light and notice a lot of things we don't like. Indeed some of the traits that most attracted us to our partner now begin to annoy the hell out of us.

When this happen, partners enter the power-struggle phase of their relationship. Angry outbursts, tearful episodes, threatening demands, manipulative behaviors are all part of the repetoire partners use in their effort to get each other to be different. A common phrase used in this stage of a relationship is "You've changed; I want you to go back to the way you were." Rarely has the partner actually changed; it's just that behaviors that didn't seem all that important during the honeymoon phase have become unbearable in the power-struggle stage.

Those of us who are relationship therapists usually see couples when they have been in this stage for awhile. Often we get a call after one of the partners has declared they are ready to leave the marriage because the other partner "isn't listening" or because there are "communication problems" (i.e., he/she won't see things my way.) Or we see couples when both partners are simply exhausted by the unending battle about whose behavior is responsible for all the difficulties.

Couples in recovery often go through these two stages of the relationship all over again. At first, there is lots of excitement and positive energy because the alcoholic/addict has surrendered, gone to treatment and/or a 12-Step program, and is committed to abstinence and recovery. But this honeymoon is even more short-lived than usual because all the devastation caused by the drinking and drugging and all the unhappy feelings associated with that devastation cannot be ignored for very long. So it is fairly normal for a recovering couple to re-enter the power struggle stage of their relationship within a few months of beginning recovery.

Here is where the first step is so essential for such couples. Although anger, tears, threats, and manipulation can often get a partner to change temporarily, they almost never lead to any fundamental, lasting change. The truth is that we are powerless to make our partners truly be the way we want them to be. And the more energy we put into trying to make our partners be different than they are, the more unmanageable our own lives and the life of our relationship become.

The key to ending the power-struggle is acceptance of our partner as he or she is, not as we want him or her to be, if we choose to remain in the relationship. There may be behaviors that are simply unacceptable---physical and/or emotional abuse or repeated infidelity or criminal behavior---but if a partner is unwilling to end those behaviors, then a dissolution of the relationship is the most likely and, usually, the best solution to the problem.

In 12-Step terms, acceptance of our partner in recovery means "not taking each other's inventory," "letting go and letting God," and "working the program." It means being patient during the early months of recovery and recognizing that a lot of individual work in recovery has to happen before a couple is ready to tackle problems in the relationship effectively. It means making an effort to look for and listen to the relationship "winners" in the program, the people who have found their way to loving, happy relationships in sobriety. It means being willing to try Recovering Couples Anonymous, couples counseling, and any other tools developed to help couples find the "Road of Happy Destiny." It means being able to realize that powerlessness and unmanageability are essential guideposts for creating a healthier relationship in recovery.


Anonymous said...

This 12-step b.s. is bunk. Most addicts get sober on their own, without having to sit in a church basement every night for the rest of their lives.

If AA and the other 12 step groups dont work for you, you are NOT alone. You don't need a higher power to stay sober. You just need to not drink or use again. Try non-religious programs like Rational Recovery or SMART.

Anonymous said...

12 step programs like AA or NA are NON-Religious.....people meet in church basements because those are the only facilities that are easy to reserve for meetings; addicts and alcoholics are not exactly welcome everywhere.
12 step program is here to guide us through our Recovery, after we arrest the urge and desire of using drugs and alcohol...because recovery is the most important part of staying clean and sober....if you think that there is no higher power, your recovery will be much harder, weather you get clean on your own, in a basement of the church or rehab. No man/woman can control situations and circumstances of life as well as behaviors of others....recovery helps us become better people, thats why AA and NA.

There is no religion here.

Anonymous said...

To the commet that AA/NA is BS is stupid, The 12 steps saved my life as well as the fellowship. Quit on your own and stop using your still the same asshole you were just not using. the difference in the steps are where the healing is. To change your perception and attitude and go help another suffering addict. Get over bad yourself..Yes the healing is there in the rooms.

JM711 said...

First of all, I have yet to meet in the basement of churches.... Churches, yes. Basements, no. and I've been in 12 step programs for 8 years. Most addicts do not do it own their own. We are non-profit organizations who are not affiliated with any sect, denomination or group. So, please, next time before knocking a program, do your research!!! The HOW of our programs our Honesty, Openmindedness and Willingness. Maybe if you tried that you'd be able to find that with a Higher Power of your own understanding (it can be anything as far as the fellowship is concerned; it's more for yourself) you find the hope you need to take it a day at a time. Because that is all we are promised around here. Good LUCK!

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