Joe wondered if he could ever be a good husband. He didn’t have much of a model in his own family. His father drank every night and fell asleep on the couch. His mother withdrew in angry desperation from her husband, and ultimately from the kids. It was hard for Joe to identify his feelings and he often felt guilty for having any.
Anna was angry with her partner, but she didn’t know how to handle that anger. Her mother always told her to “Let things go, don’t make things worse”. Anna’s father was addicted to pain pills and would fly into rages. Her mother did her best to protect her kids from his anger. Anna would slip into silent mode and deny it when she was angry and withdraw.
Leo’s mother and father were addicted to alcohol. Family dinners would always start off well but would inevitably end up with the parents picking on each other and the kids. Leo was often critical, a pattern he promised himself he would never fall into. He noticed that his own family often seemed to avoid being around, especially avoiding dinner.
Healthy Verse "Normal"
Joe, Anna, and Leo struggle not knowing what “normal is” in their couple and family relationships. Since beginning recovery with their partners each of the couples have been working on establishing new ways of being together and have begun to make progress.
Dr. John Gottman’s research on relationships is a helpful blue print, not for the question of what is normal, but rather, what works in relationships. We know that couples that stay together and are happy are more positive with each other, manage conflict in a gentle way, and basically treat their partner like a good friend. What does it take to do that when you have a difficult family history as your only model of relationship?
Filters and Shedding
My research with recovering couples who have learned to make changes in their relationships have incorporated two important steps in their relationships:
A Work In Progress
All of this takes time, and takes a willingness to look at and talk about family history, and a to try new behaviors with your partner. Healthy couple recovery is an ongoing process, there is no final stage or destination per say, it’s more like continuing to work on the things that bring you closer and help you manage differences. That is what we learned from Gottman’s research – good relationships are a work in progress.
Partners who talk about their family history and what they learned are better able to receive support to make desired changes by shedding the past and creating new ways of being together through support, compassion, and encouragement.
I would love to have you share any thoughts about this article in the comments section below. What issues do you see for couples in long-term or early recovery?