Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How Much do I Love Thee? Let Me Tell You...

The topic of my Valentines Day meeting was love and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

What I have known for a while now is that before I came into this program, I had no idea what love was. I confused love with obsession. And it was all bound up with expectation.

That’s been true of my relationship with my daughter, who is my alcoholic. And it’s been equally true of my romantic relationships.

In terms of my daughter, I thought my constant worry about her and what she was or was not doing was proof of love. I see now that was not love. It was obsession.

That I was willing to do anything—anything—to get her to do what I considered the right thing was further evidence in my mind. But that was expectation.

I had a picture in my head of what a daughter was supposed to be like. All my efforts went into trying to mold her into that image. To get her to do what I wanted her to do.

I can see now that both my obsession and expectation were just forms of self-centeredness because it was all about me.

If I could get my daughter to conform to my standards, than I would feel more comfortable.

If only she… then I could be happy.

If she wouldn’t do whatever it was I wanted, I let her know she had disappointed me. In effect, I withheld my love. I would not have admitted that at the time, because I could not see it myself. But my love was conditional.

One problem with having expectations is that they keep me from seeing what’s in front of me.

My husband is a good example. I had a picture in my mind of the perfect man. I had, in fact, a list.

It was a short list. There were only five items on it. But it was rigorous. And I measured every potential suitor against it. One day, I would meet my perfect “five.” Then my life could begin.

If only… then…

Guided by my list, I had one volatile, obsessive relationship after another.

I've been an excitement junkie since I was a kid, and I loved roller coasters. The bigger, the faster, the scarier the better. And when I got older, I picked the men who would put me on an emotional equivalent. The biggest, fastest, scariest of them were the ones that triggered my grandest obsessions. Those were the men I thought I loved the most.

I hated the lows. But the highs! They were so high! And that stomach-in-your-mouth feeling as the car began to plunge! Oh!

Because I had an expectation of what my perfect man would be, I failed to see the man who would be my husband. He did not possess a single characteristic on my list. He did not put me on the roller coaster. So my heart did not see him.

Though I had not yet found Al-Anon, while I was getting to know my husband I was beginning to experience a spiritual awakening. In a very Al-Anon moment, I threw away my list and prayed for God to send me the man he would have for me.

I opened my heart, and there, clear as day, was my husband.

That isn’t to say that I don’t continue to let expectations get in my way. Only today I can more often see them for what they are.

Take Valentine’s Day. It just so happened to be the day we had scheduled the final inspection on the house we’ve been building. So my husband can be forgiven for being distracted. Still.

There were roadside stands selling mylar balloons. We purposely avoided the restaurant we normally visit at least once each trip on the night we knew they were serving their Valentines menu. When we went to lunch there on Sunday, the owner sent us out a complimentary dessert—for Valentine’s Day.

Even so, on Monday, when my husband got up and found the card I had propped up against his cup, he said, “Oh!” in surprise.

“I didn’t think about it being Valentine’s Day,” he said. “I thought about it being inspection day.”

I had a choice. I could let my expectations about what I thought a husband is supposed to do on Valentines Day fuel my disappointment.

If I had, I might not have thought about the feeling I had just before I got up, when my husband wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close. And how when he did, I felt safe and loved.

If I had, I would have let that disappointment cast a pall over the much-anticipated day we did, in fact, pass our final inspection on the home we had been working on for the past three years. And isn't building a home together the very essence of love? Is it not way better than a card?

I thought so.

Perhaps because my daughter is my alcoholic, most of my early work in this program involved my relationship with her. I had to learn to detach. I began to see that her choices didn’t have to affect me. I never understood that before.

I thought because I’m her mother, what she does it my business. I thought because she’s my daughter, I’m responsible to “repair” whatever she “breaks.” Every time something went wrong in her life, it made me angry because I thought it was one more thing I had to fix.

It was costly and exhausting, and to my diseased mind it seemed I cared more about her life than she did.

Why couldn’t she just stop screwing things up? Why did she have to keep making things so hard for everyone around her?

I seethed with resentment.

It was only after I understood that I wasn’t responsible for the consequences of her actions that I began to love her unconditionally. For the first time, I could allow her the dignity of making her own choices. Because for the first time, I understood that I also needed to let her accept the full consequences of those choices.

Then I could love her where she was.

Still, my expectations got in the way. A little more than a year ago, I posted on this blog a dilemma I was facing.

My relationship with my daughter felt very one-sided. I was the one to initiate contact. I called on a regular basis just to see how she was. I sent chocolates at Valentines Day. Peeps at Easter. I gave her cards and gifts on birthdays and Christmases.

And I got…. Nothing. No gifts, no cards, no phone calls. Not on my birthday or Christmas or at any other time. Except when something was wrong or she wanted something and I was tired of it.

“I’m thinking of not calling my daughter on a regular basis,” I told my sponsor.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she snapped back, “Well that’s very selfish of you.”

I was shocked and a little stung. “Why?” I finally managed.

“Because calling our kids is what loving parents do.”

Usually, I accept what my sponsor tells me, even if I don’t like it. In this case, I thought she was wrong.

My husband faced the same situation with his son, so he stopped calling and sending cards and gifts. Then his son came around.

I thought he had the right idea.

I put the question to you readers, and got passionate, heart-felt responses both for and against.

Today I see the question differently, and I understand why my sponsor said what she said.

Sometimes our loved ones are sick and not able to give us the things we think we need from them. It’s the old adage of going to the hardware store for bread. But because they aren’t capable of meeting my expectations, it doesn’t let me off the hook. I still need to do the right thing.

And remembering my daughter on all those special days is just the right thing to do.

It’s what loving mother’s do.

If I were to stop sending cards and gifts in the hope my daughter would “come around,” that’s manipulation.

If I’m disappointed when I send her cards and gifts and she doesn’t reciprocate, that’s expectation. It doesn’t matter whether my expectation is reasonable. If I have an expectation, I have only myself to blame for my disappointment.

What I finally understand is that I have to act lovingly regardless of how the other person responds, or fails to respond. I have to learn to love without expectation. Because that’s what unconditional love means.

Perhaps ironically, just as I’m realizing this, my daughter is beginning to change. Now nearly a year into her own recovery, she calls me on a regular basis. (It turns out, that is her amends to me.) I got a card and some photos this Christmas. And, yes, she called on Valentine’s Day.

At the meeting, the chairperson shared that her husband commutes a great distance every day, and he loves having a clean truck. So whenever she uses the truck, she returns it clean and filled with gas.

It struck me as the perfect example of a loving gesture because it was the opposite of a self-centered act. Cleaning and gassing up the truck gives her no pleasure. But she does it because she imagines it would be the thing he might most appreciate.

If he ever noticed.

He never has. And she hasn't pointed it out.

She put that in the category of “doing someone a good turn and not getting found out.”

I thought that was an interesting interpretation on the Just for Today, and it got me thinking about my own behavior.

My husband loves caramels. So I buy them and mix a few in with the hard candies for him to find every day. But I can’t stand it if he doesn’t say anything. I find a way to not-so-subtly work it into conversation.

When I heard the chairperson share, I realized that I’m still looking for the applause. I want you to recognize and appreciate what I’ve done for you, damn it.

That’s not loving without expectation.

It was disconcerting to me to realize that, as far as I’ve come, I still have a ways to go. And it will require effort, thought and concentration.

So when my husband told me he planned to take a shower in the morning, I got up ahead of him, as I usually do, and turned on the bathroom heater. But what I didn’t do is say, “I got the bathroom nice and warm for you,” as I usually do.

If he noticed, he didn’t mention it.

I just smiled to myself. A small step, maybe, but a start.


  1. This gave me chill bumps reading. I understood and related too well to it. I am going to give that a try to.

  2. I love this post. I too went through a similar epiphany regarding unconditional love. I think one of the reasons I have always felt so "put out" by the world is that I have always wanted just to be accepted for who and what I am. Not who and what "they" want me to be. But it took me a long time to realize that the love I doled out had all those same restrictions and conditions attached (my part again, damn). I wanted something for all the "caring" I did. I wanted to care about myself.

    Unconditional is tough, but if we can acomplish it, it is blessedly free from dissapointment. It just requires lots of acceptance, letting go and all those other juicy things they teach us in Alanon. Thanks for your share!

  3. So much growth and learning shared in this post. Something for everyone to relate to. Letting go of expectations concerning your daughter surely has changed that relationship. I find myself seeing something my husband does in what you write here and had to remind myself that keeping his side of the street clean is his job not mine. So I let go of that thought and remained in the place of seeing how this post relates just to me and what I work on. Very good news that the final inspection is finished. Congratulations on passing that hurdle and on the great job you and your husband have done on building the house. You have been building much more than a building.

  4. wow kathy. you covered so much in this wonderful post.

    "And isn't building a home together the very essence of love? Is it not way better than a card?"

    yes, it absolutely is! Valentine's Day is a sweet holiday and i'm glad it exists for others. but we don't celebrate it much anymore because it's every day, all year long for us.

    the relationship between you and your daughter sounds a lot like the one i have with my oldest girl. and i have AA to thank, for when i stopped expecting, i learned how to be a better mother to her. and she noticed.

    thanks so much for sharing such a beautiful post about love and expectations.

  5. As always, interesting ideas to ponder.

  6. This was a good post to read today for many reasons. You've touched on so many aspects of the daily recovery journey.

  7. This really made me think... loving without expectation. That was such a foreign concept in my house growing up and still is with my parents. It's hard to move past the old habits. I can't stand it if I make dinner and my husband doesn't say something. I always ask, "So how are the pork chops?"

    Maybe I'll try to let it go...
    But then, I may build up resentments about it if he never says anything.

    This is tricky stuff, isn't it?

    I'm glad your daughter is in contact more now. Intention is a lot of what's needed to mend things, in my opinion, and it sounds like the intention is there.

    Hope you are going to be back to regular posting. I missed you.

  8. I can identify with so much of this. The obsession, the passive/aggressive stuff were all my attempts at control. Giving that up has made so much difference.

  9. Hi Kathy,
    God and I are working on this very thing...
    I could of wrote this myself.
    Thanks for the gentle reminder. :)


  10. As always, so much to learn from your posts. Thanks again for writing so beautifully and making me stop to ponder my own issues with expectations and unconditional love.

  11. Expectations is a buzz word for me right now... and yes we need to give them up to really be in an honest relationship but it's HARD! For me, it's more about my parents - how I still seem to expect them to be different. It doesn't matter that they've reacted the same way 500 times... I still hold out hope that 501 will be the magic number.