When I (Gabrielle) met Cheryl, I was not looking for the big "R." I was involved with a variety of women at the time and so was Cheryl. We were open about our non-monogamy and comfortable with it. On top of that, I lived in Los Angeles and Cheryl lived in San Jose (about four hundred miles apart). I had no expectations of anything serious coming out of our relationship. After hundreds of dollars in phone calls and plane fares, I started to feel a twinge in my heart, and I promptly ignored it by dating someone new.
At the time, I'd been in many 12-Step programs for thirteen years and knew how to protect myself from harm, real and perceived. Cheryl respected my boundary of no chemical use while we were together, and smoked her cigarettes outside. I had no idea she had any addiction problems other than the obvious (nicotine), until she called me from a hospital to tell me she had been injured and a week later admitted she had a drinking problem. My first reaction was, "Oh no, I'm involved with a newcomer!" Apparently all the sharing I had done about how the steps and the fellowships had specifically helped me, opened the door to Cheryl's acceptance of the 12-Step approach for herself.
During this time I had been battling against an abusive supervisor at work and all the employees decided to walk out on the job in protest. This meant Cheryl was on injury leave for three months and I was unemployed. We spent most of that time together. We were no longer just lovers, we were becoming friends. The thing I liked about us was our cooperative tendencies. We traveled well together, with each helping the other with the mundane tasks. It was a real pleasure not to be competitive.
We noticed we were losing interest in dating other women. We both admitted we felt monogamous and freaked out for two days. When we finally calmed down we started to feel more comfortable in what was for both of us a new experience. Our only explanation for this strange occurrence was a Higher Power; it certainly didn't come from us. I think this was our first inkling that there was a Higher Power involved in our relationship.
The time was getting close for Cheryl to have to go back to work, and I had to start looking for work. Something in me (or something Higher) decided that I would never know if this relationship could go anywhere if we stayed in separate cities. I decided to move to San Jose. Thank the Goddess for the 12-Steps. I knew I needed to develop my own support network. I found my own place to live, looked for work, discovered my own meetings, and began to make my own friends. I really liked my independence and it felt good to know myself and to know how I wanted my life to be. The thir- teen years in 12 Step programs had given me deep knowledge of myself and courage to go forward in my life. However, as soon as I moved to San Jose, Cheryl withdrew emotionally and sexually, and I panicked and raged. All my thirteen years of program went down the tubes. I had never worked the program to deal with being in and staying in a relationship before. I usually left when it hurt too much, believing it was them or a hopeless situation. This time a part of me said, "We are not leaving!" I felt trapped by my own inner conflict and raged at Cheryl, blaming her for my pain. We spiraled into a pit of awful arguments, painful feelings, and an inability to leave the relationship.
I interpreted her withdrawal as her wanting to leave me but not having the courage to leave. I felt I was invited into a big beautiful house and Cheryl ran into a room and shut the door in my face. I felt trapped inside and alone. This was my biggest nightmare, my core issue from my family-of-origin. I had the fear of abandonment and Cheryl had a fear of enmeshment; we were the perfect couple!
Gabrielle moved to San Jose the weekend before I (Cheryl) went back to work. I was just over two months clean and sober. To deal with my anxiety about returning to a stressful work environment, I put up my protective shield. I didn't recognize this behavior as shutting down; I was reacting to my fears the only way I knew how. With Gabrielle in the same city, I no longer had the cushion of miles to keep my distance. With daily contact, I was no longer able to disappear into my shell; I was in a monogamous (gasp), committed (gasp, gasp) relationship.
I was able to communicate with Gabrielle about physical aspects of life, but it was very difficult for me to talk about the emotional aspects. In my family I did not learn to express my feelings. All negative feelings (sadness, loneliness, frustration, anger), were either fixed or discounted. I learned to disengage from my feelings at an early age. Even when I could acknowledge a feeling, I did not have a vocabulary to describe it. My catch phrase seemed to be, "Hey, I'm a newcomer, I don't even know what a feeling is yet!" I was able to ask Gabrielle to point out to me when she felt I was withdrawing. I would then stop and examine what it felt like physically; it felt like my chest was in a blender. This was the only way I could learn when I was withdrawing. I also discovered that this was the feeling I drank over, smoked over, overate over, and was compulsive over. Through participation in the ACA program, I knew I needed professional help to assist me. I found a 12-Step therapist. Not long after, Gabrielle began to see the same therapist.
I (Gabrielle) didn't know about the hypnotic family state I get into when I'm vulnerable and intimate and sexual with someone. I always interpreted the discomfort as external factors. I had never thought that I invited my whole family into the relationship, or that I started to react to Cheryl as if she was my family. So by seeing the same therapist, I would have to begin owning my own projections. However, knowing this didn't stop me from going into my crazy thinking. I knew I was powerless over my interpretation of Cheryl's withdrawing, and still continued to rage and say crazy things that I later regretted saying. I felt like I was two separate people, and they didn't like each other.
Then one of our many miracles happened. I (Cheryl) read about Recovering Couples Anonymous in a local recovery newspaper. We both jumped at the concept immediately. In the classified section of the same newspaper, I saw a notice for a Lesbian RCA meeting in San Francisco (fifty miles north of San Jose). We took this as a sure sign from our Higher Power. In the RCA meetings, we were amazed to hear that other couples experienced similar problems. We were not the only couple who had a complimentary dysfunction: where one partner's dysfunction triggered a diseased reaction in the other partner. When I withdrew, Gabrielle raged; when Gabrielle raged, I withdrew.
Cheryl worked on her tendency to withdraw and didn't always succeed. I (Gabrielle) worked on my tendency to rage, and didn't always succeed. I at first thought everything would be okay but I continued to rage. I got frustrated with myself and our continual participation in our complimentary dysfunction. It did get better and then we'd slip. Sometimes we didn't slip so far down. Sometimes, it was worse than ever. Cheryl finally got sick of me thinking she didn't want me. She told me she would release me from our monogamy. I knew then that she was sincere, and I believed that she did want to be in this relationship but she was powerless over her tendency to withdraw. I no longer took it personally. I began to see she was struggling with a lifelong pattern which started as a defense to help her survive her family-of-origin. This was a major breakthrough for me. This new way of perceiving Cheryl's withdrawal gave me new insights into Cheryl. I could see and feel her struggle and even feel compassion for her. I began to have the ability to let go of her withdrawal.
I discovered that instead of expressing what I was angry or upset about, I would store it up. I would obsess about it, interpret its meaning according to my way of seeing the world, and create a mass scenario in my head. It ended with me exploding into an insane rage. Cheryl, who was new to recovery, didn't know herself or how she felt well enough to know whether I was right or not. When she knew I was wrong, she wasn't able to articulate the correct interpretation.
We started to work the RCA program. We set up a Fair Fighting con- tract entitled "When We Funk Out..." Even though we didn't always follow the contract, it made us more and more aware of when we were in our couple disease. By acknowledging our communications breakdown, we discovered that some of it was due to our cultural differences (Australian English versus American English). But much of it was due to the different emotional languages of our families-of-origin. We found that we could occasionally stop the disease in mid-air. We found that if we said, "We're doing it again," we could create distance from the disease. What often helped was backtracking our arguments to find the exact point at which we began to react. Sometimes we were able to pinpoint what one said to trigger the other. We discovered that we have trigger words, phrases, tones in voices, and facial expressions. We gave each other permission to ask the other to rephrase something or to not use certain words. We then took time to find out what we meant by certain words. We gave each other the space to articulate what we really wanted to say. We no longer had to be perfect the first time around.
Cheryl came home from a CODA meeting one night excited about an RCA meeting in San Jose. It was wonderful having a local meeting. It didn't matter to us that we were the only gay couple there. In fact, it was amazing how much we identified with other couples regardless of sexual orientation. The first meeting that we attended was on the Second Step: perfect! We realized that our commitment and intimacy were in God's hands and not ours. Although our commitment was given to us (neither of us manipulated the other into it), we both did a dance around the intimacy issue. I felt Cheryl was actively running away from the intimacy, and I was trying (unconsciously) to control it with my rage. Knowing that the intimacy was in God's hands meant that all we had to do was work on the barriers that each of us put up against it. We learned more communication skills in RCA. We learned that it was okay to point out to each other what upset us about the other, as long as it was respectful, non-accusatory, and was said without directing anger at each other or intending to hurt each other. We also tried to explain why we were upset, "It pushed an old family button," for instance.
The other helpful aspect of the RCA program was discovering that we have a Higher Power looking over our relationship. We wrote a prayer which we recited every night before going to sleep. We've started to say the Serenity Prayer together every day, and before any discussions that may be trigger subjects for us. Reading the reflections got us talking about how we felt about various couples' issues. We began to acknowledge our Higher Power, and started to see where we've had Divine Intervention in our relationship several times already. We started to take walks, do outdoor activities, and experiment with new adventures together. We are coming to believe more and more in Our Higher Power. We sometimes feel as if our Guardian Angels are guiding us and our relationship. Other times it feels as if there is a cosmic force that visits both our hearts and joins us together. We sometimes feel that the universe sends special power to shoot into both our hearts when we are open and loving toward each other.
Despite the fact that our complimentary dysfunction wasn't yet eliminated, our commitment to each other deepened. We decided we were ready to live together. Moving in together triggered another level of my (Cheryl's) fear of intimacy. The first night in our new house we got into an argument. I felt I had recreated my family-of-origin and this confirmed my fear of intimacy, so I shut down even further. I felt totally enmeshed with Gabrielle because I interpreted her actions as if I were interacting with my enmeshed family. When Gabrielle would specifically ask for my attention, I would go into emotional overload and push her away. Gabrielle did not know I felt enmeshed with her. This triggered her abandonment issues. Our relationship was still on an emotional roller coaster. I felt I was at the end of my rope.
It was tough times for us both. It got so bad that I (Gabrielle) started to lash out at objects, like smashing a window and breaking furniture. I felt I was hitting a rock bottom around my rage. I started to feel my rage was not just about Cheryl, but was also becoming a channel through which I expressed all other angers, hurts, and fears. I had never wanted to become one of those people who was friendly to everyone and took everything out on their partner at home. Both of us independently were starting to doubt whether this relationship would make it. One night I gave myself permission to think about leaving the relationship. I cried for hours and went to bed exhausted and traumatized. The next day I woke up feeling great. I later realized that by feeling free to leave, I was free to stay.
Cheryl finally quit smoking, and I gave up my rage two weeks before our second Christmas together. What a miracle this has been for us. We disagree about this, but I feel I was able to give up the rage because she quit smoking and thus quit using nicotine to suppress her feelings. I find my life with Cheryl is so much easier when she expresses her feelings, even when she's grumpy. I am learning to hear her without interrupting her and without reacting to what she is saying before she is finished. Cheryl is learning not to instantly shut down when I do interrupt her. I know that when she expresses how she feels (even if I hate what she's telling me), it means she doesn't have to shut down or suppress her feelings. When she does occasionally shut down, I don't panic and go into my hypnotic abandonment issues. I'm amazed that I haven't raged, even though some of our problems still exist. We have been experiencing more intimacy and enjoying it.
I (Cheryl) no longer need to play the victim role, and I am discovering my many forms of codependence. I am learning to ask for space for myself (without feeling guilty). I am learning that I can be with myself even when I am in a relationship; I do not need to lose myself. I can take time away from the relationship, even if Gabrielle does not have other plans. I am developing an independent support network and learning to meditate with my Higher Power. By working my own programs, I am able to be present in the coupleship; by being present in the coupleship, I am able to grow in my own programs. This is the upward spiral our coupleship has been blessed with. I believe that being in this committed relationship has accelerated my growth in my individual recovery.
We have discussed doing a commitment ceremony, but we don't know how to include our families. My (Gabrielle's) parents hate the fact that I am a lesbian. When I'm single, they can live in the hope that I will meet a man and become heterosexual. So we don't usually talk about my sexual orientation. But being in a committed, monogamous relationship makes it impossible to ignore the fact that we are in a lesbian relationship. It is sad to think that the very people who should be my biggest cheerleaders at my marriage have such mixed feelings about it. I have a brother who supports me one hundred per cent, and an extended family my mother refuses to tell. I (Cheryl) have a large extended family and I am in a dilemma about what to do about wedding or ceremony invitations. My immediate family has grown to accept me and us, but it is still difficult to deal with what is traditionally a large family affair. It is difficult to decide whether to send out invitations with no explanation, or personally contact every aunt, uncle, cousin, second cousin, etc. to discuss my orientation with them individually. Am I setting myself up for rejection? How do I deal with this dilemma? This is one example of how gay relationships do have specifically unique issues.
To acknowledge and nurture ourselves as a lesbian couple, we recently started a lesbian RCA meeting. We have a standing joke at the meeting, from the Characteristics of Functional Couples: "We don't have to be socially acceptable." We still go to other RCA meetings because we have a lot in common with all recovering couples struggling to restore their relationship to commitment and intimacy. We attended the National Conference last year and had a wonderfully affirming time. When we arrived, we realized we were the only gay couple attending the conference. We wondered whether we should ignore it or say something in our introduction. We "came out" to break the ice in case people didn't know what to say or not to say to us. We were met with acceptance.
Our Higher Power keeps pushing us deeper into our commitment with each other. After several bad experiences around our rental house, we decided we wanted to buy a house together. This is now bringing up all our money issues. We have been able to discuss very difficult aspects without too much trauma. We believe it is because we are now better practiced at the communication tools we have learned through RCA. We listen to what the other has to say and not react. We check to see if we've heard correctly; then say what we have to say and the other checks to see if they heard correctly. We allow each other to have their feelings. When I (Gabrielle) react to Cheryl, I am distracting her from her feelings and injecting mine. When Cheryl is reacting to me, it disturbs my whole inner process and brings Cheryl into my focus instead of my feelings. We discovered this is a way enmeshment develops. Allowing each other to have our feelings is healthy individuation.
We have been in RCA and therapy for most of our two-year committed relationship. We have been through a lot together. Since I gave up the rage, I have slowly become more comfortable expressing my anger without fearing it will trigger my rage. I've actually found the opposite. The more I express my negative feelings at work, meetings, home, etc. the less likely it builds up into a rage. I can no longer fill up the rage sack with all the unexpressed feelings, and eliminate them all when I explode. I have to deal with all my feelings each day now that the trap door to raging has been removed. I have become more real. Cheryl says it is like being with an entirely new person. I am no longer afraid that Cheryl wants to leave me. I am more able to let Cheryl be Cheryl and truly observe, discover and appreciate her for who she is. I (Cheryl) feel safer to come out of my shell. I am more trusting that the other shoe is not going to drop. I am more confident in my feelings and am able to express them without fear of ridicule or shame. I am feeling freer to express my sense of humor.
Being two separate human beings feels liberating. Being intimate feels liberating too - we are free to love.
We have to keep remembering we have a Higher Power taking care of our relationship. Nothing bad is going to happen just because we are having feelings about something, or disagree about something, or have a seemingly unresolvable problem. There is nothing that can hurt our relationship if we are working our own and the RCA programs to take care of business, and allow Divine Intervention to take care of the impossible.