Should I leave my alcoholic husband?

I'd give him an ultimatum, but what if he sobered up and I still wanted to leave?

By Cary Tennis
Published January 30, 2007 12:10PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am married to a kind, hardworking man who is also an alcoholic. He has had issues with alcohol for quite some time, and after a family tragedy a year and a half ago, they have gotten scarily out of control. On a good day, he drinks a little less than two bottles of wine and his speech is somewhat slurred by the end of the evening. On a bad day, he starts the day with several shots of tequila, and I have given up trying to track the total amount. He has no motivation to do anything around the house (although as far as I know, he is still fairly functional at work), won't do anything for fun and frequently forgets commitments he has made to me. I am afraid he is developing liver problems, as his doctor left a message for him to follow up on abnormal test results the last time he had blood drawn, which he has refused to follow up on. I have reached the point where I am scared to leave him alone with the kids and terrified to have him drive them.

I have tried almost everything I can think of to get him to stop drinking. I have been supportive. I have been confrontational. I have gone to Al-Anon, which was wonderful for me but made no difference in his drinking. I have read "Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening," which was also wonderful but again did not help. I went to a counselor who was trained in the CRAFT principles that the book was based on. Many things have worked for a short while, but nothing has ever had lasting effects. He still steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that there might be a problem.

The one thing I have not tried is giving him an ultimatum that either he get into treatment for his drinking or I am leaving. I have not done that for many reasons, the big one being that I know this is something I can do only once. I have not wanted to do this until I was absolutely sure that I could follow through because, despite everything, I have really wanted things to work out.

Two months ago, he came home from a trip to visit his family. I don't know what happened, but the next month and a half were sheer hell. He was pretty much never sober except for first thing in the morning, and even then, there were mornings when he still reeked of alcohol even before he had had his first drink. He was so drunk for both Thanksgiving and Christmas that he could barely speak. I was dealing with medical problems during that time that I had to get sorted out before I could deal with his drinking, and I finally addressed it after Christmas. I tried being supportive, which has had the best results in the past, and he looked at me and said point-blank that he had no problem with alcohol. At this point, I realized that I do not want to be in this marriage unless he gets sober, and I am in the process of seeing a lawyer and getting ready to give my ultimatum. (We have two young children, and before I act I want to make absolutely certain I can get custody if I leave him.)

However, over the last month, I have realized that I am so angry about this that I am not sure I want to be in the marriage even if he does get sober. I am now not sure what to do. It is entirely possible that if he got into treatment and apologized and was ready to make amends I would want to stay, but I am not sure about that. Somehow, announcing that I am leaving unless he gets sober, then leaving even if he does, seems wrong. However, if I just announce that I am leaving because of his drinking, I don't think he'll have any motivation to quit. He is still the father of my children and still someone I care about even if I am having serious doubts about the marriage at this point.

So, do I give him an ultimatum, knowing there is a chance I will still want to leave even if he does get into treatment and get sober? Or do I just leave and hope for the best?


Dear Negotiating,

An alcoholic of my acquaintance told the following joke recently: During the French Revolution, two alcoholics and a codependent are sentenced to the guillotine. The first alcoholic mounts the platform and places his head in the guillotine. When the blade falls, it mysteriously stops right before it severs his head. Astonished, the executioner proclaims it a miracle and frees the alcoholic. The second alcoholic steps to the platform and places his head in the guillotine. Again, the blade falls but mysteriously stops right before it severs his head. He, too, is freed by the astonished executioner. The third prisoner, the codependent, steps up on the platform, examines the blade and says, "I think I can fix this!"

Let me very direct with you: Get out. Take the kids and get out.

Do not negotiate. You are not escaping to save him. You are escaping to save yourself and your kids.

The effect of your escape on this man is not something we can predict in advance. So do not premise your escape on any agreements with this man or any expectations about his future. He is not a person you can make agreements with. He is not a person whose future is predictable. He is, for the moment, a hopeless alcoholic. All you can do is save yourself.

Alcoholics and addicts can and do get better. But they do so through some process that remains largely immune to the wishes and hopes of those who love them and would most like to help them. They recover and walk off the executioner's platform while some of us gape in mute amazement and others of us mount the platform to tinker with the blade.

Interventions can sometimes get the ball rolling. There is ample help available for the alcoholic who still suffers. But no power on earth can make him avail himself of it if he is not ready. That's just the way it is.

I must say, you hit the nail on the head with this sentence: "I have gone to Al-Anon, which was wonderful for me but made no difference in his drinking." I suggest you continue to visit Al-Anon, as its support will be very helpful over the next few months.

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