I got involved with a married alcoholic and now I'm all messed up

I always get over relationships quickly, but this one has left me shattered and angry and baffled.


Cary Tennis
February 12, 2005 12:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm a young (22) city-dwelling woman. A while ago, I sought out a casual, sexy relationship. (I liked -- and still do -- a lot about being single.) The one I ended up with happened to be with a man who was "getting a divorce." Through a series of revelations, several things became clear to me. He had to keep this a secret from his wife, he couldn't handle a casual relationship, he told me that he loved me and wanted more emotional involvement from me. Finally he told me that he is an alcoholic and can no longer see me, and finally, that he's going to stay with his wife. It seems like a very stereotypical end to things. I know I shouldn't have been involved with a married man, but the shocks came piecemeal, and I found ways to rationalize it.

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Since I became attached to him after a while, I was upset, but I know that I'm very resilient. When I get hurt romantically, I grieve, then I rest, and after a while I feel better. I'm not really worried that I won't get over him. In fact, even the other night I came home from work and sighed with relief knowing I wouldn't feel obligated to put in a lot of time composing e-mails to this guy. In some ways, I'm an increasingly solitary person.

Ever since things ended, though, I'm finding I have a particularly hard time coping because I feel like I can't believe anything that happened or anything that he ever said. It's as though I'm stuck in a Rashomon-style nightmare, where different story lines play out in my head. It's like I've become cagey to the point of chronic suspicion. While we were together, I worried that he wasn't telling me the truth about a divorce, but decided to live with the consequences either way.

Now that things are over, I vacillate between extremes of belief and disbelief. Sometimes I can give him the benefit of the doubt, sometimes I feel tremendously naive for doing so. One moment, I'm struck with deep compassion for an alcoholic. I'll become very sad, and I'll be overwhelmed with the memory of my own alcoholic family. I'll hope that he gets help. I'll wish him the best. The next minute, I'm furious for being played the fool. I feel like everything, from start to finish, was a cruel joke at my expense. I feel lied to. I feel bewildered and confused. Sometimes I think he isn't an alcoholic, sometimes I think he never planned to leave his wife, sometimes I think he never meant it when he said anything nice to me. Then I feel like a very bad person for thinking that someone would lie about being an alcoholic. It's very confusing.

I guess what I would like is a little help figuring out how to cope with the fact that I'll never know what really happened, even though I was an active participant in events.

Baffled

Dear Baffled,

One reason you are having trouble resolving this may be that you have never been in an intimate relationship with a sociopath before. The behavior of drunks and addicts in relationships is sociopathic.

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Sociopathic behavior in intimate relationships causes intense confusion and rage because it consists of deception at a deep, existential level. The deception is baffling and unconscionable; it is not just deception about ways and means, about whereabouts and actions, but about soul and intent. The soul of an addict, to put it plainly, is not there; when you are dealing with an addict, what may appear to be the soul is merely the front for a voracious, amoral hunger.

With a drunk or an addict, the basic relational contract does not hold; the supposition that each person is vulnerable to emotional pain and equally susceptible to pangs of conscience and thus constrained in his behavior is violated from the start. So that's what we feel after such an encounter: violated.

It might help to conceive of this not as a relationship at all, but instead as a gruesome accident, a hit-and-run. You were blind-sided. This man was drunk and should never have been given the keys to your heart.

Will you ever get satisfaction from this man? Not while he continues to drink. But perhaps one day you will hear from him after everything has run its course; he will have recently sobered up and will offer you something in recompense. Perhaps what he offers will seem tawdry and thin -- a threadbare apology, a few bills he stole out of your purse that you never even missed -- but it will be a moral gesture, and you will know that at least his conscience has begun to function.

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In the meantime, you will have to get over it on your own. If just knowing what happened is not enough to settle your heart, it might help you to spend some time with a group like Al-Anon. Those are people who really do know alcoholics. They know what it's like to get blind-sided by somebody who never should have been handed the keys.

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