Heal Fractured Relationships with These 7 Tools
If you live in the world of recovery, you’ve probably experienced and witnessed fractured relationships. They may be within families, between friends, at the workplace, or in the romantic arena. That which we blame for the fracture may be real or imagined, but the pain, sadness, frustration, anger, hopelessness, and loneliness that result from these fractures are very real.
The good news is there are tools to help heal our fractured relationships. It took time for the relationships to fracture, so it will probably take time for them to heal. People are sometimes attached to their brokenness and to high-drama within their relationships, and these tendencies must be surrendered for healing to occur. The healing also requires courage, curiosity, openness, and willingness to engage in new behaviors, not unlike what was needed to get sober.
Use these seven tools to heal your fractured relationships.
- Consistency of behavior: This tool is based on the truth that “how we do anything is how we do everything.” Therefore, there are no small or insignificant areas of our life where it’s okay to act poorly. If we cheat on our taxes, cheat on our timesheet at work, cheat on our golf score, then sooner or later it’s likely we will cheat on our spouse – because we’ve perfected the art of excusing and justifying the behavior of cheating.
If, when we’re behind the wheel, we drive with arrogance, a sense of entitlement, recklessness, and competitiveness, then it’s unlikely that we’ll leave these behaviors in our car when we get home. We’re far more likely to walk in the door and engage our spouse with both the attitudes and behaviors listed above.
So living – in all areas of life – in a manner that reflects how we would like to be treated in our relationships, is going to be a significant part of the healing process.
- Remember that you can’t take it back, and “sorry” doesn’t fix it: Here are two similar hands-on exercises to illustrate this point. First, take a small plate into the bathroom. Grab a tube of toothpaste and squeeze all the toothpaste out onto the plate. Now, put all the toothpaste back into the tube. Can’t do it? Exactly! Once you say or do something that wounds, hurts, or belittles another, there is no way to take it back.
Second, take a plate (preferably one with a pattern and that is not too valuable), and throw it on the ground. Did it break? Yes. Tell the plate you’re sorry. “I’m sorry.” Did it go back to the way it was? No!
Taking a moment to pause before leaping into action or speaking our mind is a great habit to cultivate. It’s not just those in recovery who are sensitive, but most people are, and it only takes a moment to say something insensitive to hurt another’s feelings. Personally, it’s often when I’m trying to be clever or cute that I end up hurting another’s feelings – and once I’ve said it, there’s no way to take it back.
- Engage in behavior that builds your own self-esteem: I can vividly remember going home and having Nancy look at me with love in her eyes, and I would start a fight so I could push her away. I couldn’t stand to see her love for me when I hated me.
When we engage in behavior that we despise, or that disappoints, or that causes us to lose respect for ourselves, then it is very difficult for us to accept the love of another.
Imagine if you took a clean, crisp one hundred dollar bill, crumpled it, stomped on it, spit on it, and it ends up filthy, wrinkled, and covered in bodily fluids. Most people would still take it if offered, because they understand that it’s still worth $100, regardless of its appearance. However, most of us don’t do that with people, including (or maybe even especially) ourselves. When we engage in behavior that we despise, or that disappoints, or that causes us to lose respect for ourselves, then it is very difficult for us to accept the love of another.
Therefore, one of the ways to strengthen our relationships – romantic, family, friends, or work – is for us to engage in behaviors that build, not destroy, our self-respect and self-esteem, to be self-supporting rather than self-sabotaging.
- Avoid black and white alcoholic absolutism: “Is the glass half full or half empty?” Whichever you choose, you’re wrong! The glass is completely full – half with water and half with air. And so it is with life and with our relationships. There is always a blend of good and bad, positive and negative, success and failure, joy and pain. It’s just that we lose sight of that, and tend to focus on only one or the other.
In relationships, it is not uncommon to score-keep. Typically, remembering every bad thing you’ve ever done and every good thing I’ve ever done, and losing sight of the fact that we’ve both done good and bad things. We need to make sure that we bring balance to our view of our self and others and our relationships.
- View everyone as though it’s the first or last time: This is a very powerful tool that actually comes out of my hospice work. When using it, our behavior changes quickly and easily. In viewing others as though seeing them for the first time, it’s almost as though we’re living the AA “Set-Aside Prayer.” We are able to release all the baggage we have with that person, and see them anew, without all of our historical hurt, anger, blame, guilt, and shame. This allows us to cultivate a new and positive relationship with them.
In viewing others as though seeing them for the last time – with a sense that we will never again see them – it becomes so much easier to see that whatever we’re holding on to – the hurt, anger, blame, guilt, and shame – is blocking this last chance for intimacy, connection, and closeness. We find ourselves moving too quickly; slow down and just be with this person in the moment. It’s a powerful tool.
- Ask, “how big of a deal is this, really?”: I have two questions for you.
The problems might change… solutions are more constant: courage, compassion, integrity, kindness, discipline…
1. What was the biggest problem you were dealing with on October 14, 2011? Can’t remember? Exactly! And yet I’m sure that on that day, the problem seemed huge. However, our problems – in and out of relationships – change over time, while our solutions remain constant. The problems might change between money, romance, sex, work, housing, or kids. The solutions are more constant: courage, compassion, integrity, kindness, discipline, humility, commitment, honesty, forgiveness, honor, hope, and faith.
2. What percentage of your difficult days and challenging situations have you survived? 100 percent? Exactly! And whatever you’re dealing with in your relationship right now, you will survive it, too. When you keep that in mind, it becomes easier to seek a solution.
- Lead with defense lowering statements: In conversation, starting sentences with words or phrases like “no,” “you should,” “you shouldn’t,” “you can’t,” “you always/never,” or “you know what,” tend to invite a defensiveness in the listener and their response. Then we see an escalation of the disagreement at hand.
Leading with defense lowering statements like, “I could be wrong, but my sense is …” or “you get to do whatever you want, although I do have a concern …” make it easier for the listener to hear you, rather than already composing their defense while you’re still making your point. I might be wrong, but I think you’ll be amazed at how well this works if you try it.
Bonus: Live the 12 Traditions : The 12 traditions are to relationships what the 12 steps are to sobriety. They really are the instruction manual for how to improve relationships. So, the next set of articles will each take several of the traditions and explain how to move them to a personal level, and how crucial they are to improving our relationships – romantic, family, 12-step program, work/school, and God. We will cover all 12 traditions in that set of articles.
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