I had a one-night stand, and now my wife says no more drinking!

It's not the drinking that made me do it -- I like to have a few beers is all.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 12, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am married and had a one-night stand in my house while my wife was away for the weekend. In trying to explain why I did it, I mentioned that I had had a few drinks, among other circumstances.

A few times since then, I stayed out until 2 a.m. with friends and stayed over at someone's place when I had had too much to drink. Since then, my wife has asked me not to stay out past midnight, and I did stay out past midnight a few times, which resulted in serious conflict. In the last few months, I have been home every night before midnight and don't go out very much in any case.

My wife now wants me to stop drinking because she believes I have a drinking problem. Except for one time shortly after this ultimatum, I have stopped drinking -- but under protest, believing that my errors have been the result of poor judgment, not too much to drink.

I've offered to get an assessment and accept the results one way or the other, but she insists that I take the assessment and not drink permanently no matter the results.

Though it's not the end of the world, I love to go out and have a beer with friends. Should I just give up and move on? Is this the penance for my sins? Do you have suggestions?


Dear G,

My suggestion is: Spend some serious time with your wife. Take a week or two. Take a month. Get comfortable with her again. Go somewhere. Talk about why you got together in the first place, what you like about each other, what you're trying to accomplish together. Find out if you really want to be married to each other. Face it honestly. Maybe you'll find out it was a mistake to get married. Or maybe you'll find out you love each other but you're having trouble adjusting, or you don't know what the rules are (we'll get to that), or you love each other but you're too angry to think straight. Screw up your courage and take the time to find out what you're feeling, what's going on, what your complaints are, what you're angry about if you're angry, what you're afraid of if you're afraid, what you think she did to you, what she thinks you did to her. Spend a lot of time sitting on a dock on a lake somewhere, or walking together, and find out what's going on.

The reason I suggest this is that you told me about your one-night stand and your wife's demands concerning your drinking, but I did not get a sense of the overall emotional tenor of your relationship, or your general hopes and dreams. People usually characterize their marriage in some general way when they write to me; they mention what the pluses and minuses are, why they got married, if they feel disappointed in some way or surprised or misled, or if their expectations have generally been met, that sort of thing. If religion is a factor in matters of sin and penance, they mention that. If they were very promiscuous prior to marriage and now are finding it hard to stay monogamous, or if they were sexually inexperienced before marriage, they sometimes mention that.

Most letters provide some context that tells me how the couple makes decisions and what their struggles are about, and I get a little sense of their history. That makes it easier for me to imagine what might be going on that is not expressed. With your letter, I cannot really do that. You might have thought a great deal about these things and just did not consider it relevant. Or you may not have considered them before. In either case, I would suggest that you and your wife take a good deal of serious time and talk about these things together.

After you get your bearings in that way, you need to do the hard work of making your expectations explicit. My idea here is that most couples have a set of rules they operate by, but they don't always spell them out. You probably in general knew that having a one-night stand was against the rules. But had you talked, prior to this, about what you and she would do if that should occur? Did you agree that if you were to have sex outside the marriage, you would tell her about it? I'm suggesting that you and she take this time to look at the full range of things that can go wrong in a marriage, and talk about what they would mean to you, and how you would deal with them. Some couples, for instance, would get divorced over one instance of infidelity. Others would not divorce at all no matter what. Some would want to talk about it. Others would want to hush it up as if it never happened. I think you need to figure out, between the two of you, what your rules are.

This goes for the one-night stand and also for your drinking. The drinking is a whole separate issue. What exactly are your attitudes toward drinking? Does your wife drink at all? Does she disapprove of drinking in general? And what about you? Do you get too drunk to drive home at night? Do you drink to get drunk, or just to relax? Do you sometimes drink when you don't really intend to?

There are also questions of power involved here. What is the procedure by which one of you can tell the other one what to do? You know what I mean? Is she allowed to tell you to stop drinking? Are you allowed to tell her to stop eating cookies? What is your understanding of power in the relationship?

Talking about all these things and coming to agreements is an immense task. It could take years. I'm serious. It's not an overnight thing. So first you have to find out if you're really still committed to each other. It may be that you two conclude there's already been too much hurt and the marriage was a mistake. Or you could conclude that you just never had the time to do the difficult work of clarifying to each other what you expect and what you think the rules are.

As to your alcohol use, I'm sure it can't hurt to have someone assess your alcohol use and tell you where you fit on the scale compared to "normal drinkers." But your wife's insistence that you quit drinking no matter what an assessment says indicates that the assessment isn't relevant to her. She wants you to quit drinking no matter what.

Her concern about your drinking is another tricky issue. Simply put, if you've really got a drinking problem, you're probably not going to stop. If you don't have a drinking problem, there's no real reason to stop. So you've got some serious talking to do there. Plus there's the question of whether your one-night stand happened because of your drinking. Drunk or not, you're responsible for your actions. It's better to keep these issues separate. If your wife really thinks you have a drinking problem, she might want to seek counseling for herself -- because wives and relatives of alcoholics generally find there's not much they can do about someone else's drinking.

So I wish you luck. You've got a lot to talk about. I still don't fully know what all the issues are in your marriage. But if you two can clarify for yourselves what they are, that's what matters.

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