Patterns of behavior

I'm worried about my emotionally vulnerable friend who is involved with a recovering alcoholic.

By Cary Tennis
Published July 23, 2003 7:22PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a good friend who has recently started dating a recovering alcoholic. He's fairly young (mid-30s) but after a few DUIs, losing his driver's license, and almost losing his job, he went sober. Now he's attending AA meetings and trying to get his life back together.

My friend has had one failed marriage and is emotionally vulnerable. I can tell she feels her biological clock ticking and wants to start back on the path to a long-lasting relationship and a family.

I know one cannot make completely accurate generalizations about any type of person, but there are predictable patterns of behavior. What I'm wondering is what she has to look forward to if the relationship becomes long-term. What is it like to live with a recovering alcoholic?

I worry about her. I don't want to be too critical of him, because this may be her big chance for happiness. On the other hand, I think that she should go in with her eyes open, and I don't know enough about the situation to advise her.

A Concerned Friend

Dear Concerned Friend,

Why are you so interested, if I may ask? It's because you're concerned for your friend, isn't it? You like her and don't want to see her harmed. Your intentions are probably good, but I would caution you against trying to save her from herself. Your concern for her well-being is understandable; just be cautious. People fall for alcoholics for all kinds of reasons; sometimes it has something to do with alcoholism and sometimes not. Sometimes people want to fix other people. Sometimes they want a bargain fixer-upper boyfriend. And sometimes there's a weird romantic glow around a newly sober person, a luminous fragility and openness, like he's walking on a cloud. It usually doesn't last.

But I want to be cautious, too, and not generalize or give you the wrong idea. I don't know anything about him. So I think your best chance of helping her is to be a better friend to them both. Draw them closer to you. Spend more time with them. Get to know him as a person. Show interest and curiosity about the process of recovery. Ask her how involved she is in his recovery: Does she accompany him to meetings? Has she heard him stand up in front of an AA group and tell his story? Would it be possible for you to attend a meeting with them? Ask him to tell you his story, what happened to him.

Get a copy of the AA Big Book and read it for yourself. In particular, read the last dozen or so paragraphs of the chapter titled "To Wives." Its gender assumptions are a little too 1930s for contemporary cultural tastes, but it does spell out in clear and practical language the problems that arise when alcoholic men reenter society and try to repair their relationships or develop new ones. There is good advice in there for people who are not alcoholics but wish to help.

These steps will help you be a better friend to them. As you develop the friendship, you can draw your own conclusions about their prospects for long-term happiness. And then, if your friend should ask you what you think, your opinion will be founded on careful and compassionate observation and thus will be a valuable gift to her.

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Cary Tennis

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