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My Top 12 Relationship Tips from 12-Step Recovery

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, here are the top 12 relationships tips I learned from 12-step recovery. Seeing as I’m now in the first (and only) healthy relationship of my life after about 40 years of dating, you might want to take heed of these.

Don’t date for the first year you’re in a personal development program. The reason for this is that you’re going to be a completely different person after a year of any personal development program. If it’s going well, you’ll be a much healthier version of yourself in a year. That means you'll be attracted to healthier people, and healthier people are going to be attracted to you.

Be real. Don’t fake who you are, and act like you like things that you don't like. Being fake is dishonest, unsustainable and likely to fill you with resentment when you continually do things you don’t like.

When somebody tells you who they are believe them! For example, if somebody starts out by deceiving you, then believe that they're a deceiver. If you meet someone online who looks absolutely nothing like their online picture, they're telling you, “I’m not what I appear to be.” Stop giving the benefit of the doubt to strangers!

Take the relationship one day at a time. That is, take things slowly, bit by bit. There’s no rush. If you or your dating partner have a sense of urgency in dating and want things to move faster, that's probably not healthy. Set some boundaries for yourself around your initial interactions with them (e.g., maybe start with a 20 minute phone call, then maybe a 45 minute coffee date). 

That being said, one thing I think is wise to rush is meeting someone you’ve met online in person as soon as you’ve realized you might like to date them. It's wise to meet them sooner rather than later so you don’t build up unrealistic expectations of who you think they're going to be. And - chemistry can only be experienced in person.

Use the principle of “first things first.” That means what you value most should come first. If you’re in 12-step recovery, that needs to come first. If you’re a parent, your children should come first. Your dating and relationships should fit around your life. Living your life by what’s most important to you is what leads to a satisfying life. It also ensures that you’ll attract people who fit into your life. There are some values you don’t need to have in common, and some you do. Having children is a big one. If someone says they don’t want kids and you do, don’t date them.

Acceptance. That means accepting people the way they are. No matter how compatible two people are, there will always be some kind of irreconcilable differences in your relationships. These could be things like being an early riser vs. a later sleeper, or being messy vs. neat, being on time vs. being late. If you cannot accept that quality in the person, don’t date them thinking “I’ll get them to change.” In committed relationships, you’ll find a way to make things work if it’s really important to you, and you don’t make their qualities mean “they don’t love me” or “if they were committed they’d change that quality.”

H.A.L.T. – Don’t get to Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. Don’t allow yourself to get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired, or you won’t be very pleasant to be around, and you may very well blame your mood on your partner. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re angry, express it in an appropriate way and deal with the cause. If you’re lonely, reach out to connect to someone. If you’re tired, rest. Don’t expect someone else to meet those needs for you.

Keep coming back, it works if you work it. This popular saying from recovery can be applied to our relationships as well. “Keep coming back” means you're committed to the relationship - the small stuff and the big stuff, the easy stuff and the hard stuff. 

“It works if you work it” means that if you put work into the relationship, it will work. You don’t just find your soulmate and have it easy from then on because you’re “meant for each other.” It's definitely easier to be in relationship with someone you're compatible with, but it doesn't mean there's no work. Having open, clear, and direct communication is hard. In fact, teaching that is at the core of what I do as a boundaries coach. We just don’t get taught how to do that well, so learning how to do that well with your partner takes work.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you’ve had the same argument or the same conversation repeatedly in your relationship, something's not working right. If you’re not doing anything to shift things so the conversation changes, that's the definition of insanity. What do you need to do differently? Most of us know it only takes one person to change a relationship. Unfortunately, what most of us believe is that one person is our partner, not us. Maybe you need outside help or some other shift in perspective, but something has to change. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

Progress not perfection. We can't expect perfection out of ourselves or anyone else, but we should expect progress. This is especially so in a committed relationship. If you’re not seeing progress in your dating relationship, then you probably shouldn't marry them. But you also shouldn't expect people to conform to your way of doing things. There are going to be certain things in your relationship that are deal breakers. It’s helpful to get clear on what those are before you date.

H.O.W. – Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness. I was told early in recovery, “This is H.O.W. it works.” You must have all three of these if recovery is going to work and if your relationships are going to work. If you’re not honest with your partner, then you're not really in the relationship with them. Be open-minded to the fact that there's something you don't know or something that you haven't tried, or there's you’re assuming about your partner that’s incorrect. So be open-minded that you don't know everything and you don't have all the answers. Willingness is imperative for a happy, healthy relationship. If you're willing to be in the relationship, and willing to do whatever it takes to make the relationship work - that’s called commitment. When you’re committed to someone, you’re willing to run through the muck with them and do whatever it takes to get to the other side of the muck. You’re committed whether things are easy for hard.

Understanding your part in things? This was my greatest gift of recovery - coming to understand my part in things. I learned this in Step 4 where I looked back at what I’d been doing that was creating chaos or exacerbating the chaos around me (especially in my relationships). If other people really are the problem in all your relationships, you’re screwed! So don’t assume things are always someone else’s fault. Look for what you could be doing differently. And remember, this is “info, not ammo.” It’s information to learn and grow from, not ammunition to beat yourself up. 

When you’re in a relationship, and there’s a recurring pattern, it behooves you to look for your part in things rather than automatically assuming it’s your partner.

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