ALMOST every drinking problem is also a human-relations problem. Some alcoholics, it's true, have the gift of amiability. Drunk or sober, they have few enemies or strained relationships.
Most of us, however, don't have it so good. Drunk or sober, we rub some people the wrong way. We also come into the orbit of people who antagonize us. What can we do about it? Does the AA program offer a workable way of dealing with these human-relations problems?
The program contains an implied answer, even if it doesn't supply one directly. The answer is: Handle any human-relations problem by creating the right attitude towards the people involved; take personal responsibility for seeing that the antagonism is cleared up, at least from your side of the fence. This method is essentially what is conveyed in AA's Eighth and Ninth Steps, although sometimes we lose sight of our reasons for carrying out these suggestions.
The method works, and you can easily prove that the right attitude towards an unsatisfactory human relationship always settles the problem. At the same time, the wrong attitude only makes things worse and condemns the individual to go on creating additional friction with other people. Since we cannot afford much of this if we want to maintain happy sobriety, we have to find a way to settle old disputes and to keep out of the path of new ones.
We should remember, though, that nothing in AA promises to put us on cozy terms with the whole world. It is impossible to live effectively without coming into occasional conflict with somebody. Even in sobriety, we will continue to meet people we don't like too well, or people whom we seem to bother. The lesson to learn is a form of acceptance: We should learn to get along with everybody to the extent that is needed for the specific relationship involved. We should not try to push things beyond a fair limit if a certain relationship shows no signs of improving. At the same time, we should not feel guilty or unworthy if a number of people choose not to like us. We are bound to get into trouble if we demand that everybody like us. In effect, that is a demand on ourselves to be universally likable.
The goal should be, not to get on intimate terms with everybody, but only to achieve a general spirit of goodwill towards mankind and to put an end to rancorous feelings from the past. With certain people, we may never reach close relationships, but there can at least be goodwill. This goodwill should extend to everybody we have known, whether they are now living or dead.
The problem in any relationship, past or present, does not lie in dealing with other people's feelings. It lies in controlling our own. In AA's early days, some members quickly discovered that making amends didn't always clear up the other person's hostility. This was regrettable, but a fact of life. However, it didn't have to interfere with sobriety and happiness, the early members found, because the chief purpose of making amends was to clear up their own antagonisms, not the other fellow's.
Steps Eight and Nine have been completed (for the time being) when a member can review the situation and say to himself with all honesty: "I have done my best. I have cleared my mind of all malice and ill will. I am honestly sorry for the harm that I brought to this relationship, but it is part of the past and no longer has a place in my life. I have forgiven, and I am forgiven. I am not going to waste my time and energy stewing over this any longer, and when I occasionally think of the people involved, it will always be in a good way."
Does this attitude sound idealistic and unattainable? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is practical and effective. All you need do to validate this approach is to check it out both ways. Review a past relationship that was very unsatisfactory or has left a great deal of lingering antagonism. Ask yourself whether your own bitter feelings about the matter have improved the quality of your own life. Does it make you peaceful and serene to keep hashing over the relationship mentally, feeling new indignation over how badly you were treated? Or, if it's something where you were at fault, is the damage repaired when you go on lashing yourself with guilt and remorse?
Now try it the other way: Take the approach of praying for the others--not praying that certain conditions come into their lives, but simply praying for general good in their lives and being honestly willing to see it come. Work on it until you no longer have the secret, vengeful hope that they "get what is coming to them." Once this is accomplished, compare the results with those attained by the other approach, and you'll probably see a big change for the better in your own life.
In a few cases, such a change in attitude by one person mends the relationship and causes the people concerned to become close friends again. This is the ideal outcome, but it is not always necessary. More important is the destruction of harsh, spiteful, vindictive feelings. These feelings are so damaging to ourselves, as well as to the world at large, that we could not begin to calculate what they have cost us.
It has often been called merely "human nature" to handle unsatisfactory relationships by telling the others off or trying to get even with them in some way. History is littered with examples of injury, revenge, and counter revenge. Well, this may be one form of human nature, but it obviously doesn't work in any human relationship, whether between individuals or among nations. If a human being tries to terminate a bad relationship by telling the other party off or by any hostile behavior, all he succeeds in doing is damaging himself at the same time he is venting his spite.
Some people think that others will take advantage of them or continue to hurt them in a different manner if they adopt a forgiving attitude. Actually, it works just the other way. If we truly want to put a stop to something that has been causing us any kind of injury, the best way is to change our own feelings about it. We may be surprised to see the condition change when this is done, but we shouldn't be. It usually "takes two to tangle," and when we withdraw our own malice (and fear), we simply destroy one of the chief sources of conflict.
If it doesn't work that successfully, we should review our own feelings more carefully. Even when we profess to have forgiven somebody, often there is still a festering resentment just beneath the surface, and it can usually be detected when we discuss the matter. For example, a person will say, "I wish Pete no harm, but I don't want anything to do with him any more after the way he hurt me!"
Whatever the words say, the real feeling about Pete is conveyed by the tone of voice, the intensity of feeling in the statement. Sometimes, the speaker's mouth will actually become twisted with anger, or his eyes will grow hard and his face drawn. It is plain that he is still deceiving himself about the way he feels.
This underlying negative emotion usually produces at least two negative results. One is the continuing discomfort the person feels because he is secretly nourishing a resentment. The second is that the offender often comes back into his life and hurts him again! It's hard to explain why it works this way, but it happens time and time again. And if the same individual does not return to work havoc, quite often another of similar disposition does. There seems to be some kind of law of attraction operating here, a law which apparently draws to us people who will treat us according to our expectations.
This law operates against us when we expect the worst of others--but for us when we improve our attitudes. In one case, a woman was being annoyed by another woman, a neighbor in their small apartment house. The annoyances continued until the first woman decided to drop her own feelings of self-pity and resentment over the situation. Once she did this, the problem cleared up almost overnight, and the neighbor finally moved away!
In another case, a man was on bad terms with his personal secretary, who had always seemed to resent him. After a particularly outspoken argument one day, he realized that he was getting nowhere by brooding over the problem and trying to "set the woman straight." He decided to put everything on a very businesslike and formal basis, and not to permit himself anything except kindly thoughts towards the lady. The relationship got better immediately, and within a short time the secretary received an unexpected transfer and promotion to another department. Her replacement turned out to be a congenial person, whom everybody liked.
These are only examples; the actual working-out of a bad relationship is likely to be different in each case. We should simply avoid trying to manipulate or change others; it is not necessary in every case for the other person to "move away" or "leave." What we want is a satisfactory relationship, without harm to anybody. If changing an attitude of our own indirectly causes another person to leave, this is immaterial to the principle involved. We should not feel guilty about it, just as we don't feel guilty when our former drinking companions begin to shun us after we stop drinking. By changing an attitude, we have severed the connections which formerly tied us to certain other people. If these people are to remain in our lives, it should be on a basis of genuine friendship, not the unsatisfactory relationship we once had.
It takes time and practice to set most of our relationships in good order. But we're making progress when we try to solve a human-relations problem by getting rid of the personal resentment involved. When we do, we're likely to discover that our previous manner of handling the problem was ineffective in every way. As one of our AA friends puts it, when we have a resentment against somebody, we "wake up with him in the morning, carry him around all day, and go to sleep with him at night." This is certainly self-defeating. The AA way is better. What's more, it works!