My alcoholic ex is torturing me from afar

I have drunks in my family! I know how crazy they can get! What's even crazier, I'm thinking about seeing him!

Topics: Alcoholism, Family, Since You Asked,

My alcoholic ex is torturing me from afar

Dear Cary,

I moved to the U.S. two years ago for a work assignment and I met a guy — he and I were on (different teams in) the same project, and lived in the same apartment block. He was several years younger than me, and I didn’t take him seriously at the start — maybe I never took him seriously at all. He drank — and got drunk — a lot, and even before we were together he had black moods during which he would ignore me and pretend I didn’t exist. Our stormy “courtship” lasted a few months during which I said no over and over again — then I gave in. I thought I knew how to deal with him — there are alcoholics in my family. I knew better than to complain about the drinking or to try and fix it.

I spent the year alternately pretty happy and in fits of misery. When things were going well they were so good. But every 10 days or so, almost like clockwork, he would wake up and look at me with actual hatred, before proceeding to ignore me for days — no phone calls, no eye contact, not sleeping at our apartment. He said it once — that he hated me for making him feel like this. Like what? I never knew. His dark moods would last a few days and then he would be back, sunny, sometimes apologetic, always optimistic and caring and altogether delightful. The dark moods coincided with big events — the office Christmas party, the winter ball, our group conference, the end-of-year barbecue. Or when I left him for a few days to visit family. Sometimes, drunk or sober, he would blow up at me about something — I never really knew what he was angry about — or if I did know, it was something so strange I couldn’t understand what was making him mad. He was jealous — I couldn’t spend time with other men — or envious — I got promoted twice during the 12 months — or just plain mad about something I had done or hadn’t done.

We kept our relationship secret from our co-workers, trying to maintain some privacy, I thought. Later, I found out there was another reason — another woman, a friend of mine. I had seen her in his apartment one night early on, and accepted his explanation. But I kept seeing things — text messages, e-mails, hugs, enough to make me uneasy, but nothing damning in itself, and every single time I asked him outright whether anything had happened. He denied it flatly to my face every time, and every time I decided to believe him and continue the relationship. Eventually I gave him an ultimatum and told him I wouldn’t keep our relationship a secret anymore. It had become too difficult and I was feeling too strange about this huge part of our lives that we were hiding from our friends. He raged and stormed, and told me that the other woman would be terribly hurt. I asked why she would be hurt if nothing had ever happened between them. He looked straight at me and denied ever having said that she would be hurt. He told me I was so crazy and suspicious that I was imagining things. He actually told me I needed psychiatric help. I almost believed him.

Anyway, we managed to survive and the last few months we spent together were good, mostly. But I had to return to my home country and he still had several months till his assignment was done, and though we talked about emigration and engagements and marriage, and even children, we hadn’t made any plans beyond getting together when he was done. Leaving him was … difficult. And three weeks after we separated he called me, drunk and laughing, to tell me he had just slept with another girl — not someone I knew, someone else.

In my head it was over from then. A few weeks later he called and confessed to having slept with the other woman while we were together. That was months ago. We have been in touch sporadically since then. Mostly it has been him breaking a few weeks’ hiatus and e-mailing or calling out of the blue. Sometimes we talk, but inevitably I get angry or sad and tell him not to contact me again, which he inevitably disregards. He calls at holidays and on birthdays, because he is thinking of me and he misses me. He is also angry that I am still angry and hurt and disappointed with him. A few days ago he called because he misses me and loves me, and thinks he will never find anyone else like me. (If he is talking about someone who will entertain the thought of going back to him in circumstances like these, I think he is right.) He wants to see me — something that will involve vacation time and passports and forward planning. I am horrified that I am even considering it.

I look at what I have written above, the garbled mess that it is, and I feel like you must think I am insane. Because why would anyone stay in such a relationship? I spent so much time thinking that myself. I read up on emotional abuse and battered women (not that he ever hit me — well, only once and it wasn’t serious (and I know how that sounds) and Stockholm syndrome, trying to explain it to myself. And then for a while everything would be lovely — perfect. Except that I would be walking on eggshells waiting for the next bout of temper to arrive. There were good times, there must have been, am I crazy to think that for both of us the only reason to continue with such madness was because we really did care about each other?

Some days I miss him. Some days I am so angry at him I can’t swallow. Other days I am so sad I can’t move. Sometimes the sadness is for us, it’s a grieving for the good parts. Sometimes it’s just for me, for the year and a half I have spent in this emotional firestorm. I haven’t seen him in months now. My friends would think I was crazy for even contemplating seeing him again. I think I am crazy. I am thinking about seeing him again. He says my memories are unbalanced, that I am exaggerating the bad things. I am terrified about what might happen if I see him. I lost part of myself in that relationship and I want it back. How can I be done with it all? What is wrong with me? This is more than just a bad breakup, right?


Dear Stuck,

You got into a relationship with an alcoholic. You thought because you have alcoholics in your family you could handle him.

Ha! The great paradox!

Having alcoholics in the family may inoculate us to certain of their more obvious ploys. But at the same time it seems to infect us with susceptibility to their more deeply cloaked intrigues.

A healthy person unfamiliar with alcoholics would have quickly decided he was untrustworthy and abusive and cut off contact with him. But people with early family contact with an alcoholic again and again drift into their orbit, subtly influenced as if by a scent.

Of course at first you sensed danger and unsuitability. Yet he drew you in. Recognizing someone from the clan, the clan he rules, the clan all alcoholics rule, he drew you into his circle of enchantment.

Then, “every 10 days or so, almost like clockwork,” he would turn on you.

We put our head into the lion’s mouth again and again. And each time we emerge again stunned! How could that have happened! What was I thinking? Well, thinking wasn’t the problem. This happened below the level of conscious thought, more in the realm of unconscious family drama playing out in the absence of your real family. Besides, relationships with alcoholics are not really consensual. They are battles. The alcoholic’s battle strategy involves a subterfuge of seduction in which the alcoholic performs a dazzling soliloquy of devotion. Who could resist? But he is never really on your side. He is always and can only be on the side of alcohol. That’s the only side there is for him.

No need to feel bad or ask what’s wrong with you. The only thing wrong with you is that you got into a relationship with an alcoholic. And that’s nothing special, because if there are alcoholics in your family then you’re already in relationships with them. Just not romantically. That’s a new kind of torture. But of course you fell for it. You’re from a certain kind of family, you grew up a certain kind of way, and this kind of man is exactly the kind of man you have a weakness for. I suspect he played a certain role in your unconscious family.

Who were the alcoholics in your family? I’m curious. It must have been someone in a position to withhold what you wanted … so you would be searching for it the rest of your life. Was it your father?

There is so much that is compelling and fascinating in your letter, so many individual sentences ripe to bursting with significance! They resist narrative. Each one glistens on its own. So I will touch on them in list fashion:

  • “We kept our relationship secret from our co-workers, trying to maintain some privacy, I thought.” If you consider your work environment the family, then we might consider that there was an incest taboo at work, and that is what you were keeping secret.
  • “He actually told me I needed psychiatric help. I almost believed him.” It might be stretching it a bit, but it interests me from a standpoint of the triangles in family systems: In a moment of extreme stress, he introduced a hypothetical third intimate and directed you toward him, to move you out of the sphere of direct intimacy. Of course, psychiatry is often helpful, but he wasn’t going, was he? He was the one with the alcohol problem, the mood swings, the fits of anger and depression … but he’s trying to get you to go.
  • “He is also angry that I am still angry and hurt and disappointed with him.” That’s classic. He is angry that you’re angry? That sounds like low differentiation of self, in the Murray Bowen sense
  • “He was jealous — I couldn’t spend time with other men — or envious — I got promoted twice during the 12 months — or just plain mad about something I had done or hadn’t done.” You did well in the family — er, company — better than he did. That stimulated his jealousy.
  • “His dark moods would last a few days and then he would be back, sunny, sometimes apologetic, always optimistic and caring and altogether delightful.” They lure us in by offering what we want but do not even know that we want until we see it and want it and then they take it from us. They involve us and then they turn on us, keeping us always off-balance, walking on eggshells, playing the sucker.
  • “Eventually I gave him an ultimatum and told him I wouldn’t keep our relationship a secret anymore.” You were going to speak honestly within a relationship that was founded on secrecy. No wonder he freaked out.
  • “And three weeks after we separated he called me, drunk and laughing, to tell me he had just slept with another girl.” He attacks you with glee, but also as if he is looking for absolution. Astoundingly cruel, yet quite in character.

Sometimes I just like your writing. You write, “Some days I am so angry at him I can’t swallow. Other days I am so sad I can’t move.”

Incidentally, you might give some thought to the functioning of alcoholism in family systems. Also, a while back I wrote this column addressed to a man who might be a little like your boyfriend. Just a guess.

Other things you say interest me, too. You say, “We managed to survive.” Isn’t that an interesting choice of words: You managed to survive. This relationship  was a lifeline for you.

Finally, let me say this plainly: Do not become involved with this man again.

Find a less harmful substitute. The more I think about it, the larger role family plays. You were missing the closeness of family and your familiar country. He was in your own apartment block, almost like in the family house. So to replace what you feel you are missing, try getting closer to your family. That might give you solace. My guess is that being away from your family led you to replicate certain features of family life, and that he is playing the part of the family alcoholic, that character who only rates one sentence in your letter but whose shadow looms over this entire scene.

The only thing your family can’t help you with is the physical intimacy. That you’ll have to work out on your own.

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What? You want more advice?


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