Getting sober can be a life’s work—it may seem like a monumental effort, sometimes overwhelming. Right when you think you’ve got a foothold, something always goes wrong—something outside of you, beyond your control, that sucks you in and demands that you face and deal with situations and people that push you to your absolute limit. And who can always be counted on to provide the most challenging stressors of all? Family. Our greatest supporters and our biggest thorns in our side, family issues can be a real threat to our recovery. Our spouses, parents and/or children all know how to push our buttons with exquisite precision. How can we move past these irritating patterns of interaction and get to a really positive, mutually supportive way of relating?
- Take the long view. Difficult patterns and bad habits didn’t pop up overnight and they won’t disappear all that quickly either. Change can happen but the best, deepest, most lasting changes in relationships often take some time to establish. Practice patience, hope and faith.
- Recognize the pattern. This sounds obvious, but training yourself to stop knee-jerk reactions and recognizing that what’s happening is the playing out of an old pattern can be really hard. Once you get good at recognizing the pattern as it’s happening, you’ll get better and better at recognizing it earlier—before things get unpleasant or tense.
- Respond, don’t react. Responding means you’re taking in the content of what’s being said and considering it before offering your thoughts on the matter. Reacting means you’re allowing your emotions to dictate what comes out of your mouth. Listen to your family members—even when you believe that you already know what they will say. Listen and then take your time to form a response. Don’t just react to the tone in their voice or their facial expression.
- Stay in the moment as much as possible. Leave the past in the past. If you’re annoyed or angry about something because it is the 5,000th time it has happened (socks on the floor, dishes in the sink, out after curfew, etc.), this is going to be really tricky for you, because it feels like the past is totally relevant. But trust me on this one—the big picture here (that long view I suggested earlier) is that you want overall better relationships, less conflict and more harmony. Bringing up the past isn’t going to move you in that direction.
- Develop healthy ways to blow off steam when you do get frustrated. Have an outlet—working out, running, woodworking, cross stitch—something that you can go do easily when you’re feeling stressed and frustrated that will take your mind off how annoying your family can be.
Some situations are worth a special mention. A few types of families demand extra effort: blended families in which there are stepchildren, families affected by a disability (mental or physical) and families in which a senior adult is living in the household all add an additional level of challenge and potential stress. In these cases, the amount of work—both emotional and literal—is greatly increased. In the case of stepchildren, you may well be dealing with issues that stem from situations that occur in the other parent’s home. Resentments, disappointments and frustrations are all a normal part of living with disability or infirmity, but feeling like you’re on someone else’s firing line should not be part of the package. Learning to take the long view, respond instead of reacting and stay in the moment when you have an angry teenager screaming “you’re not my father; I can do whatever I want!” is obviously really difficult, but so worth it in the end. Managing family relationships might be the single most difficult part of living sober, but with support, faith, hope and patience, you can do it.