When your skin doesn’t feel like home, oh
And I don’t wanna break down and feel alone, oh oh oh
This body only knows, oh
How to hold back more than it shows, oh oh oh

Ms. Mr., “Wrong Victory”

“When I was growing up, my mom always used to say ‘water seeks its own level’ — like some kind of warning or a philosophical thing.  Well, looking back on all the stuff I’ve done to Stephanie, I don’t believe it anymore.”

Will was talking about the shame and guilt he felt for the harm he had caused to his marriage after years of drug use and infidelity. “But,” he concluded, “the loneliness I’ve caused myself is even worse.” 

“Being unwell might look like something happening to one of the people in a couple. In irrelationship, however, being unwell is a two-person process.”Mark

Along the way, Stephanie had just given up asking Will to go back into rehab or to Narcotics Anonymous. So she was in a state of actual shock when, after a long, drug-fueled disappearance from their home, he asked her if she would be willing to “work together” not just on his getting clean, but on fixing what they both felt was “missing from their relationship.”

Neither knew it at the time, but Will’s asking Stephanie for help was the first step in breaking open a shared delusion about their relationship — a delusion that included self-imposed conditions that guaranteed they’d never have to do the work required for getting well. As long as they stayed away from doing that work, learning to listen, communicate and connect with each other to figure out what’s wrong, they could go on failing indefinitely. Their delusion also included the belief that they were in an intimate relationship, while actually colluding to avoid the kind of intimate sharing with one another that results in a real connection.

What do these “self-imposed conditions” look like in real life? We make an agreement to change if the pain we live with in ourselves and others will just stop. We’ll get help if we’re allowed to let bygones be bygones without facing and fixing the damage our actions have caused. We especially prize pretending everything is fine if the obvious issues have temporarily stopped, even if the underlying problems persist.

But it doesn’t work that way. Eventually, the underlying problems keep coming back in the form of unacceptable outcomes, for example episodes of binge drinking and drugging and absence or infidelity, making it impossible to pretend it’s OK because eventually reality refuses to be denied. 

“The experience of disappointment and betrayal trumps the gains from tolerating the familiar symptoms of dysfunction, as the relentless pain of the status quo becomes worse than the dulled pain we avoid by maintaining the shared delusion, and the balance tips in favor of awareness and ultimately, action.”Grant

Successfully mending what’s broken in a relationship works only by interactively repairing the past — in the present. Pretending “it’s all better now” without addressing the fundamental issues underlying the relationship, before things go off the rails, is a set-up for repetition and rejection, spoken or silent. It’s also a unanimous decision not to get well. The interactive repair has to take place always now, between us — not intellectually removed, not in theory — and intensely present in the crucible of the shared moment.

Will and Stephanie’s issues ran deeper than simply Stephanie’s acceptance of Will’s behavior: Stephanie was drawn into performing the role of long-suffering martyr to Will’s addiction and the chaos it created, and Will’s role as Audience to Stephanie’s selflessness was his standard routine. Because each one’s role in the song-and-dance routine was a joint acting out of anxiety, each one’s part in the performance did not feel like a choice at all— more like a compulsion. This state of affairs was compounded every time Will made a new, short-lived effort to change: Stephanie let him off the hook by going along with his unrealistic wishful promises of sudden transformation, avoiding discussion of and accountability for the pain his addiction was causing her. Equally pernicious, this avoidance permitted her to enjoy pride and self-approval as the long-suffering but uncomplaining wife.

Will exploded their under-the-radar agreement when he suggested that they work together to fix what was wrong. It was the biggest ever growth challenge their marriage had faced: could they make a decision to put aside their familiar roles and commit to a process of actually recognizing their contributions, and the true nature of their prior arrangement? Was their commitment to one another sufficient to enable them to stick with the process of sorting everything out and moving toward mutuality?

“The cost of getting well can seem to outweigh the benefits.”Daniel
Not getting well can be easier than getting well. When getting well means ripping apart everything that’s familiar, including our self-image, the process is very threatening no matter how bad what is familiar has been.  That’s the point at which many of us decide that it is worth staying “unwell”.

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