A healthy heart can enter into healthy relationships. Healthy relationships are central to recovery for romance, relationship, and sex addicts. Recovery without healthy relationships only perpetuates the sinful self-obsession that led to addiction in the first place. In recovery we must learn to shift our focus, thus becoming free to share intimacy with others.
A healthy heart involved in healthy relationships is the precise opposite of addiction. Addiction maintains a secret life marked by fear and control. Genuine love, on the other hand, is marked by openness, trust, and the freedom to give oneself to another. Addictive behavior is a deceptive substitute whose effects last but a moment.
There are many contrasts between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Taken together they chart a continuum between the secular model and the biblical model. Understanding these contrasts can help us understand how healthy relationships work – and how we can grow toward them as part of the recovery process.
- Reality vs. Fantasy.Healthy relationships are based in reality. Each person is aware of his own strengths and weaknesses. There is no need to hide or to try to fool the other. Each person is also aware of the other’s strengths and weaknesses. There is no need to pretend that problems don’t exist or to tiptoe around “unmentionable” areas. If the partner is weak in some area, he or she accepts it and helps accommodate or strengthen it.
Unhealthy relationships, by contrast, are based on fantasy. What could be or should be replaces what is. The elements of unreality become the focus. The relationship is built on a foundation that isn’t really there.
- Completing vs. Finding Completion.In a healthy relationship, each person finds joy in sharing in the other person’s growth, in playing a role in “completing” the other.
In an unhealthy relationship the focus is on completing oneself. This selfish dynamic is at the heart of codependency. Too many people fling half a person into a relationship, expecting that it will be completed by the other. It never works. No one can ever meet such expectations. It is only a matter of time until substitutes are sought – either in the form of other relationships or in the form of dysfunctional and addictive behaviors.
- Friendship vs. Victimization.A healthy relationship can be described as two good friends becoming better friends. The strongest and most successful relationships – even the most passionate and romantic marriages – have this kind of true friendship at the base. Where this base of true friendship is absent, the relationship is shallow and susceptible to being marked by victimization.
- Sacrifice vs. Demand for Sacrifice.Few of the magazines that clutter the checkout counters of grocery stores publish articles extolling the joys of sacrifice. But no relationship can grow without it. Unfortunately, most of us are more accustomed to demanding sacrifice from our partner than to sacrificing ourselves.
It’s one thing to love another when the going is easy. But character and depth are wrought in a relationship when love requires the surrender of preference and privilege. Nothing strengthens a relationship like sacrifice. Indeed, it often seems that the greater the sacrifice, the more thorough the death to self, the greater the potential for the relationship.
Our relationship with God requires sacrifice. His relationship with us required nothing less than the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. Building a relationship – or restoring one that has been ravaged by the effects of addiction – depends on the willingness of both parties to sacrifice for each other, without demanding anything in return.
- Forgiveness vs. Resentment.Forgiveness is a miraculous gift between two people. A relationship flourishes when we are willing to forgive past hurts and disappointments. Refusing to forgive is like carrying around a garbage bag full of hurts of the past. Every time someone makes a mistake, we toss it into the bag and carry it with us forever.
There are no garbage bags in healthy relationships. Out of love, the partners take the hurt and disappointment of the past and burn it up in the flames of forgiveness. What greater gift can we give someone than to set them free from the weight of their mistakes? When we unlock others from a past they cannot correct, we free them to become all they can become, and we free our relationships to become all they can becomes as well.
- Security vs. Fear.Security is a rare commodity in our world. Often people come from such insecure childhoods they can only hope that their adult life will include a relationship that allows them to rest in the arms of someone who really cares. So much of life is lived on the edge of risk, we feel an overwhelming need for at least one relationship to make us feel safe.
The Bible says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). When we shift from trying to use others to satisfy our security needs to trying to meet the security needs of others, we find ourselves in a new dimension. We are focusing on their needs, not ours. We are filling their doubts and fears with the reassurance of our consistent behavior. We calm their fears by being reliable. We become, in a word, loving: other-focused and totally selfless. That is the kind of love that drives out fear and provides genuine security.
- Vulnerability vs. Defensiveness.In a secure environment, a person is free to open up and be vulnerable. It is wonderful to be vulnerable, to do an emotional free fall and have someone there to catch you. That delightful taste of vulnerability enables you to open up even more, discover more about who you are, and appreciate all the good that God has created in you.
In a relationship characterized by fear, just the opposite happens. There is a need to build up a wall of defensiveness. If you do not protect yourself, after all, you will be violated, robbed of your identity, controlled, or smothered. The dynamics of defensiveness lead to death rather than to life and growth.
- Honesty vs. Deception.There is no way to build a lasting, healthy relationship on a foundation of dishonesty. Honesty must be at the core of a relationship; there is no substitute for it. It is fashionable in our day to paper over unpleasant truth. We deceive those we love, rationalizing that keeping secrets is really for their good.
Virtually all addictions are maintained under the cover of some sort of deception, which eventually is woven into a vast tapestry of lies and cover-ups. Dishonesty is a very hard habit to break. One of the main functions of a recovery support group is the accountability it provides, holding the recovering addict to rigorous truthfulness. Without accountability, trust and the restoration of intimacy in relationships is impossible.