Let us say that, when we drank, we had a character defect which triggered a particular response in someone we were in a close, long-term relationship with—our spouse, for instance. Let us say we were inattentive, not good listeners. Our spouse would often complain about this, especially when differences came up between us. “You never listen,” she would say, despairing of her ability to get through to us.
Being drunk and clueless, we of course didn’t see it that way. We would feel attacked and become defensive. Our spouse was just being critical, too demanding. We would psychoanalyze. We would end up getting into big arguments which would overshadow whatever the original issue was.
Then we get sober. We make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Going over our relationship with our spouse, we remember her complaints about our failure to listen and pay attention when she spoke. A little clear-eyed now and equipped with some honesty, we find that she was right after all. We really didn’t listen. We weren’t mentally present half the time. Maybe we were too self-involved and our minds were someplace else. We might have tended to obsess, and the internal chatter prevented us from hearing her. At times we might have been too busy thinking about the point we wanted to make to defend or justify ourselves. Or maybe we just didn’t know how to listen, had never developed the skill.
Whatever the exact nature of our wrong, we admit it. We want to change, to be attentive, to listen, to be present. We share about our problem at meetings and maybe talk about it with our sponsor. We work the Steps and practice paying attention and concentrating on what others are saying—especially our spouse. By the grace of God, eventually we become reasonably good listeners. It may take us years, and we may not be totally perfect, but we do pretty well—as well as the next person.
We may then make an interesting discovery. Though we no longer have the defect, the other person may continue to act as if we did. She may continue to be sensitive to our defect long after it’s gone. Any sign that we may not be listening may be construed as evidence of the fact. Of course, she may occasionally be right, since most people at times fail to listen and be attentive. But “at times” doesn’t rise to the level of a defect of character. Yet our spouse has become so used to our shortcoming that she still expects it to be there. After many years of experience, she has developed a habitual way of looking at us in this area. Her response is a habit, though now probably with a higher threshold, not as easily triggered over our perceived lapses.
What are we to do? Accept it. The effects of our shortcomings on another person can be long lasting, sometimes permanent, depending on the extent of the harm we have caused. We cannot change this. Not even after we have made amends. Nor can we convince the other person that we really have changed. Any verbal attempt to do so will put us back into our old defensive posture and will usually backfire. All we can do is persevere in right action now. In the case of a shortcoming like inattentiveness, being considerate and listening, caring, being there. The rest is out of our hands. The other person may eventually take note, and if so we can be grateful. In any case, we will be helping to build a healthier relationship, and that’s what really matters.
[Posted 02/18/13. Image: City Hospital, Akron OH, where Bill D., “Alcoholics Anonymous Number Three,” (aka “The Man in the Bed”) received the message of recovery from Bill W. and Dr. Bob. For audio of his story and Q&A about it, please click on links.]