The Road to Reconciliation: Lighten your load, let go of the problem

The last time I went on a long hike, I brought along a book I had started and loved. I was going to read it during breaks. When the book began to get heavy, I wondered why I loved it so much. I couldn’t bear throwing out the whole thing. I ripped off the cover and threw that away; but it didn’t make my pack light enough. A couple miles later, the title page, the table of contents, the forward, and the index had to go, too. I finished reading the book later and loved it so much I happily carried the rest of it home, so that I could read it another time.

That’s what I would suggest doing with the person who hurt you. Before you throw her away, rip off the cover. By that I mean: try to tell the difference between the person and what she did to you. If it helps, remind yourself of the person you knew before she did whatever she did to you. Remember what you saw in her. Honor whatever affinity you had. You don’t have to whitewash, just acknowledge the good with the bad.

Of course, this only works if you have shared a history with the offender before he committed his offense. If someone mugs you in dark ally, it does you no good to say he’s loving and kind to his mother. Adolf Hitler was kind to dogs, they say; a fact that does not diminish the horror of the Holocaust. Returning to my metaphor, I was torn about whether to keep the book or throw it out only because I knew I loved the book. If I had no feelings about it, I never wouldn’t have kept any of it.

In your case, having been hurt by someone close, you may find that distinguishing the sin from the sinner, so to speak, is enough for you. You might be able to chalk up the painful incident as an anomaly, a flash in the pan, an exception to the rule. You’re confident it never will happen again. If that’s the case, then you’ve had a short road to reconciliation. Hopefully, you won’t have to travel it again.

However, if the stink of thing she did still adheres and can’t be washed off by ordinary soap and water, then a second step will be necessary. You will have to further divide the person into the parts you might want to keep and the parts that have to go. I call this second step discerning the person from the problem.

Let me explain what I mean.

His drinking has hurt you. He stayed out late at the bar when you were expecting him home. He drove drunk, smashing up your car. He had quite a few too many at your sister’s wedding and caused a scene. He said he had stopped drinking when he hadn’t. There’s more, but you get the point. You read where I say to tell the difference between the person and what he did to you. Fine, you say. You do that; but, here’s the thing. He’s still doing it. He’s still drinking. Or, even if he isn’t now, you can never be sure if he’ll start up again. The stain of his actions is still on him. Scrub all you want and it’s not coming off.

Problems take over a person. In this case, alcoholism took over your husband. You think it’s him staying late at the bar, but it wasn’t him. It was his problem: alcoholism. When he thought he could drive, his problem was doing the thinking. The problem showed up at your sister’s wedding, uninvited. It’s the alcoholism talking when he says he hasn’t had a drink when you can smell it on him. In advanced cases, the original person is gone and all that’s left is this imposter.

The problem-ridden person believes the problem is all powerful, its demands insatiable, that he has to obey. This obeyance gives it power. Problems are fed by the accommodations we make. The sick person who doesn’t eat because she’s not hungry, gets weak. The paraplegic who doesn’t push himself in his physical therapy, withers away. The anxious person who lets her fears control her, puts her fears in control. The depressed person who doesn’t open the blinds, does not receive the healing properties of light. The alcoholic who makes everyone else responsible for his recovery will drink again because others cannot stop him.

The person you loved has mostly fled and left this shell behind. Now the problem is coming for you.

When I say the problem is coming for you, I don’t mean you will have the same problem he has, alcoholism, in this case. Maybe, but not necessarily. The problem changes shape on its way to you. When it takes you over, it looks like something else. Bitterness, maybe; paranoia, possibly; angst, apprehension, and despair, definitely. When a problem takes you over, its needs are so great that it pushes aside all other needs. Caring for the problem is so absorbing, nothing else you do matters.

If you don’t already find satisfaction in self-sacrifice and helping, you find that’s all you do, anyway. The needs of the problem push aside all other needs. You stop listening to your own desires. It makes little sense for you to acknowledge, for instance, that you need to get out and see friends when you’re not going to be able to do it anyway. You have to stay home with the problem. You become more attentive to the problem than to yourself, until, at last, you’re possessed and have no self left.

The best hope you have in defending yourself and defeating this monster is to be able to discern the difference between your darling and the demon. It’s tricky at first, but even twins can be distinguished by those who know them.

Go through each and every one of his behaviors. Is this the man you know and love, with all his foibles, or is this the problem? Does the behavior serve health or sickness? Decency or despair? Be sure that you can keep them straight.

If you’re angry with your partner for succumbing to the problem, your anger is justified, but misdirected. Your partner is not the problem; the problem is the problem. It’s the problem you should be angry with.

Now look at yourself and the things you’re doing. Do they support your partner or the problem? Be honest. If you’re going to lick this thing, you’re going to need to know what you are doing to promote it.

Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t start the problem, you just reacted to it. It was only later on that those needs became all consuming. It tricked you, until now. You’ve caught on.
Finally, get connected with the portions of your partner that remain problem-free. Look into his eyes and find his soul if you have to. Listen for that still small voice of vitality. Feel around for his strength. Once you’ve got a hold, don’t let go.

If you find the person you love, distinct from the problem; take action against the problem and support the person. This is why you need to be able to tell the difference. Everything else you do is going to be based on knowing friend from foe.

If you can’t find the person you loved, maybe the problem has taken him over completely and there’s nothing left. If you have torn off the cover, the title page, the table of contents, the forward, and the index of the heavy book and there is nothing left you want to read, then you’ve got to think about throwing it out. You didn’t connect with him because you wanted a problem. Who needs problems?