Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Step Four: The Relationship Game

Continuing with my Fourth Step, I can see I've been harboring some pretty nutty ideas about love.

I thought love began as an infatuation (passion, belly flips, obsessing about the other person) that (if we were right for each other) would evolve into something deeper. If it did, this true love would conquer all. Passion would remain; fidelity would come so naturally it wouldn’t even have to be imposed; a mature love relationship was a joining of two adults who were able to communicate, and the desire to make it work was enough. Love would find a way.

Silly me.

It’s not that the above is a lie. It’s just awfully misleading. It’s also childish in its na├»ve expectations. But because I ascribed to that crap, I look back on my own relationships and realize I sabotaged them a number of times. Here are some things I'm coming to see.

MYTH #1: All love relationships begin with an infatuation. Actually they don’t, but because I thought this, I was in a couple of relationships during which, deep down inside, I thought we were missing something. The most recent example is Chelle, who is my legal wife. That did not start out as an infatuation for me. When we first got together, I had just broken up after a six-month relationship with a woman with whom I was deeply infatuated. Points to me for telling Chelle this at the outset—I was at least trying to be honest and fair. When we moved in together, I took care to remind her that our romantic relationship might very well transition into just a friendship; it was a risk she was willing to take. Ultimately it has all worked out for us, but not without some major bumps.

When I look at it now, I can see that I’ve been confused because we bypassed that crazy, infatuated period. I have always had this nagging worry that because I never felt for her that passionate, wild, abandoned "love stuff" that we were mismatched. So I’ve acted out in the form of one affair or, less impulsively, in the form of getting tiny attachments or obsessions/crushes on other women. I have to laugh at myself—because, over the years, it's as if I’ve been tossing out little feelers just in case I really am with the wrong woman. There is no motivation for that other than fear.

Yet, almost seven years with the same partner brings me up short: I wonder, how on earth have we stayed together? Especially when I have subjected us to so much of my bullshit?

Well, she’s clearly patient. Every now and then when my step work gets me to see that I’ve done or been doing something that’s really pretty awful, I’ll ask her why she hasn’t thrown me to the curb. She deflects such questions with things like, “I married you for better or for worse.” She is a woman of her word, and her word is free of these mental asterisks so many of us unconsciously stick there. Because of that, I absolutely trust her. We may occasionally spat over little stuff like what time to leave the Pleasanton Fair, but I already know that she does nothing to hurt me, has no secret agenda to manipulate me to get her way about something, and that she’s perfectly frank. I always know where I stand with her. I always know how something I say or do is likely to result in some given feeling in her. But by far the biggest thing is that I already know that no matter what I do, I am already forgiven. Nothing I can do is an automatic deal-breaker.

So we have this openness between us: there is nothing I can’t tell her. Not having anything to fear (anymore—and all of it used to be fears of my own creation), I do tell her everything. And then you find that the trust and the openness go both ways. Despite all the crap I've done to her, in the almost two years I've been sober and finally wrestling with all my garbage, she's developed absolute trust in me.

The rest is just gravy. We’re flatly compatible. Both of us are introverts, so we’re happy being in bed at 9pm with books and laptops or the tv on. We share many of the same interests or beliefs—horse racing, baseball, political convictions—enough that we enjoy each other’s company and don’t disagree on basic values. But we’re not clones of each other, either. She’s an atheist, for one. In recovery, I’m anything but. But she respects that and I respect her. We “get” each other.

And maybe that alone is the big thing. I have never met anybody I understand so thoroughly and still feel a tremendous amount of affection for. She has her quirks and stubbornness and foibles, and I love her anyway. They make her who she is. I accept her 100% exactly the way she is, and I love that person.

She is the only person I have ever felt this way about.

The fact that I missed the “infatuation period” with her doesn’t mean jack shit. The point is what we have now.

MYTH #2: Infatuation is love. It sure feels like love, doesn’t it? That’s because every single romantic novel or movie we’ve ever seen shoves infatuation down our throats as being love. I have done all kinds of crazy things as a result of confusing the two. A big one: “Oh my god, I adore so-and-so so very much. Oh my god, this must mean I don’t love Chelle.”

What a crock. Why does infatuation burn off? It’s because, with a little time, you get to genuinely know the other person. At the beginning, you’re projecting all kinds of things onto them (and they’re doing the same to do), many of which turn out to not be even remotely true. You obsess about them; you want to be around them constantly; you need their approval; you need their promise of faithfulness (in other words, you’re insecure, possessive, and jealous right out of the box—because you don’t really know how truthful this person is, or what their boundaries are, or whether or not they’ve got their head screwed on right). The sex is always awesome because you’re expressing your infatuation. Your brain is cascaded with all kinds of “feel good” chemicals—“love is intoxicating.” That’s no lie. The same chemical pathways are firing on all cylinders—under scrutiny, the infatuated person’s brain looks like an addict’s brain. It’s a fabulous, wonderful rush.

And you are fabulously, wonderfully not really in your right mind, but that’s okay. Enjoy the ride!

The important thing is to see it for what it is: a huge crush. Do NOT make enormous, life-altering decisions on the basis of a crush. You might get lucky and it will all work out for the best, but don’t count on it. Problem is, with the intensity of an infatuation, it’s really easy to fool yourself because you want to fool yourself.

Here’s where I went wrong: I guess I had the expectation that, with true love, elements of infatuation would always remain.


I sabotaged a very significant relationship in my life because I had that expectation. I genuinely loved her, as did she me, but I didn’t hang in there to work things out. Honestly, there were enough differences between us that perhaps it wouldn’t have worked out. The real point is that I’ll never know. I smashed up a fragile, porcelain vase because I thought it should be blue when it was yellow.

MYTH #3: You are different; you are special; they will treat you differently because of this. Yes, every situation is different and everybody is going to rationalize each situation differently. Pay no attention to any of that. (I always got caught up in the “reasons” people did things, and I expected any new lover to accept and excuse my “reasons” for doing things because I believed that she would be different and that I would be different.) Instead, pay attention to what people actually do. Red flags:

--if the breakup of any relationship is all the other person’s fault, beware.
--if they’d cheat with you, they will cheat on you. Period.
--if they’ve been in a string of failed relationships, there’s a reason, and it’s probably not the one they’re admitting to.
--if you see them telling lies to other people, you can count on the fact that they will lie to you.

All of these things I got off the hook for because a new lover was willing to give me a pass. She thought she'd be different. I ended up hurting all of them, and I regret it. It wasn’t on purpose: I was also clinging to the idea that they would be different and I would be different. The thing I didn’t understand was that I wouldn’t magically become different, overnight, as if some fairy godmother merely had to wave a wand over my head. What I needed to be different was to take some time off (I once read that most therapists, as a rule of thumb, say you need about a month to a month-and-a-half of “recovery” time for every year you’re in relationship before you’ve really processed it all and are over it.) Jumping from relationship to relationship, I never gave myself enough time, and as a self-absorbed using alcoholic, I never grew up or learned much of anything except for new ways to rationalize bad behavior. Thank God Chelle has granted me the patience and the time to do some serious growing up within our relationship.

The most dangerous people in the world are the ones who are unaware of their own personal agenda, who have no clue how many of their actions are driven by unacknowledged fear or hurt or irrational expectations. Their hearts may be in the best place and they may be doing what they think is the best they can, but a hard truth is that they tend to leave debris floating around in their wake. And they usually don’t go back to clean up the oil slick.

I should know. I’ve been one of them. I continue praying for change and growth, and I'm seeing The Promises beginning to operate in my life.

And may I just say that my wife is a saint?

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