February 23, 2009


Recently a wife of an alcoholic wrote me, sharing with me that the teaching of unconditional respect permeates Al-Anon. Al-Anon is an organization created to serve family members of alcoholics.

She wrote, "Al-Anon teaches that everyone deserves respect and dignity and the right to be their own person – no matter what their problems are or how they decide to manage (or not manage) their lives.

“When we are dealing with obsessions/ addictions it is so easy to lose respect for the person afflicted. In general, addicted people act, and we, who are involved with them, react.

“Until I began attending Al-Anon, and became of aware of my own actions, I had no idea that my words and even my body language showed disrespect for my husband. I was so obsessed with his problem that I forgot about him. I was blinded by anger and by fear.

“Al-Anon teaches us to really look at ourselves and realize how out of control we have gotten. It teaches us to become aware of ourselves and our actions, reactions and behaviors. It teaches us we can only control ourselves, no one else. It teaches us to let go of our loved-ones and allow them to be their own persons. And to put our trust in God.

“The Scriptures in Love and Respect that teach respect is not earned but must be given unconditionally reiterates what Al-Anon teaches. That no matter what – respect (human value) must be given. A little hard to do sometimes when the chaotic crazy cycle is going - but I have found it greatly rewarding when put into practice. And the more it is practiced, the easier it is.

“With the AA and Al-Anon principles being learned and practiced, and the grace of our Heavenly Father, my husband and I have found a new delight in each other. We are dealing with life joyously and realistically and we will be celebrating 38 years of marriage this June and 7 years in recovery!"

I rejoice with his wife! Though she suffered unjustly by having to deal with her husband's alcoholism and additionally suffered by having to face off with her disrespectful reactions, she is now dealing with life joyously as she applies unconditional respect.

On the other hand, what about a wife married to a non-addicted, good willed husband who fails to be the man of her dreams? Why do we sometimes hear such a woman say with a spirit of contempt, "I am so obsessed with his problem that I no longer care about him. I am blinded by my anger and fear"? The extent of the problem is that the husband fails to talk with her at an emotional level to her satisfaction, he works longer than he should work, and he forgets special things like Valentine's Day. Consequently, she believes her husband deserves disrespect and must be punished with disrespect.

Why? She bought into the idea that she has a right to show disrespect toward the spirit of her husband when he fails to be the man she expects him to be.

Husbands make the same colossal mistake. Instead of loving their wives unconditionally, the men send the message, "I will only love you until and unless you perform to my satisfaction." When telling this man that he must love his wife unconditionally he blurts out, "Nobody can love that woman unconditionally! She is unlovable!" He rationalizes his harshness and hostility by claiming her unlovable features prohibit him from showing love. But of course if he thinks his unloving decor will motivate her to change, he may as well flap his arms in order to fly. Stupid is as stupid does. On the other hand, a wise husband knows that he must love his wife apart from her performance. He must come across lovingly in the face of her unlovable features. Only then will she soften her heart.

How have we missed as a society this idea of unconditional respect, and even unconditional love?

Confusion arises when using the expression "unconditional." We immediately think that we must respect or love bad behavior, and go along with bad behavior.
But unconditional does not mean we remove all healthy boundaries from relationships. Unconditional means there is no circumstance, situation, or condition that forces us to show hate or contempt to another person. No condition prevents us from coming across lovingly or respectfully. That's what unconditional love and respect means.

No one denies the difficulty of applying love and respect this way. A wife married to an alcoholic never finds it easy to put on a respectful demeanor toward her drunken husband, especially when he locks himself in a bedroom or embarrasses the family in public. But, she realizes the habitual demeanor of contempt, attitude of disdain, glare of disgust, words of dishonor, and actions of disrespect prove unfruitful. After years of dealing with alcoholic husbands, for instance, Al-Anon preaches the showing of positive regard toward the person in the gutter in order to help that soul out of the gutter. Nothing else works.

But that leads to this question for the rest of us: If these extreme cases of addiction demand such an approach why would a husband scoff at the idea that to soften the heart of his good willed wife he needs to guard against harshness and hostility? Why would a wife mock the idea that to soften the heart of her good willed husband she needs to guard against disrespect and disgust?

We should all be left scratching our heads in bewilderment.

One thing is for sure, and this should encourage all of us, many testify that the more they practice unconditional love and unconditional respect, the easier it gets. Contrary to what one initially thinks, this works over the course of the relationship!

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