My husband's an alcoholic but doesn't think he has a problem

What can I do? Should I leave?

Published August 21, 2008 10:09AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have been married for 21 years. He's a hard worker, smart, kind and honest. He also is an alcoholic and is pretty much an absent husband on the weekend. If there is a golf tournament on Saturday, he plays. He plays every Sunday with a regular group of guys and then on Monday in a golf league. As if that isn't enough, he then drinks from the time they stop golfing until he feels like coming home, which might be anywhere from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m. I feel like such a fool to put up with this. He's not abusive. He just acts like a drunken fool.

When I have gotten mad in the past and have threatened to leave, he gets out his gun and says he is going to end it all. I am frightened that he'll do something to himself. However, it's emotional blackmail. I want to leave but I don't know what to do or what to do first. We have a mortgage payment, lots of credit cards, car loans, etc. I have stayed because it's easier to stay than figure out how things will get paid without both of our paychecks. I am sad and so hurt.

Yesterday was my breaking point. It was his birthday and we had plans to go to dinner with his family and some friends. He played golf and then went to three different bars all afternoon. I called him numerous times asking when he was coming home and he said he'd be home shortly. Friends of ours picked him up and took him to where we were eating dinner. He was so drunk it was embarrassing. Our 19-year-old son and his girlfriend, along with his family, witnessed his obnoxiousness and that makes me feel worse than anything.

When he isn't drinking, he's the best guy in the world. He has told me he likes to drink and he will not stop. He sees nothing wrong with his behavior. He sees no harm in spending so much time in a bar. I feel like he sent me a giant message that he would rather spend his birthday with friends and beer than being home with me. I am so unhappy and ashamed of myself for putting up with this behavior for far too long. As I said, it is easier to stay but at what cost? Am I being unreasonable?

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

There are some situations that call out for the mind of a poet with its capacity for seeing nuance and unseen implications. And then there are some situations where the beauty is in the sheer infallible obviousness of it. This is one of those pretty obvious situations, which is nice, because you don't have to get all weepy about it. You can just say, Oh, yeah, I know this one.

So here it is in a nutshell: People leave alcoholics. That's what happens. Alcoholics get left. They get left in bars. They get left on the side of the road. People tire of alcoholics. They wear out their welcomes. They grate. Invitations are not extended. Their subscriptions lapse. It's like, not your fault. It's a natural law. It's not even personal. You can tell him that. You can tell him that it's no hard feelings, it's the nature of the thing.

It's a classic progression. The alcoholic starts out with stuff, things, people, family, job, network, a whole world. One by one they get snipped off. Things and people disconnect. The alcoholic's world shrinks.

But he doesn't know that yet.

He may feel surprised and indignant when those around him first begin to get tough on him. Your leaving, or your visit to Al-Anon, and your putting up of serious boundaries, may be his first inkling that he's sliding down the mountain. Or maybe what happens first is the bar at the golf course becomes less friendly and eventually there is an incident and word reaches him that he's not welcome there anymore. Places he used to go, they say, well, he's not really all that welcome anymore. We kind of got tired of him. The trouble he brings. It's just not worth it.

And so it goes.

The main point is the simplicity and clarity of it: If he's an alcoholic, this is the way it's going to be. And he might not agree that he's an alcoholic. You might be the only who who says it. It doesn't matter. Call it anything you want. Call it chronic unfitness. Call it mental cruelty. What's important is that you are true to yourself now, and that you trust your own reactions. And you recognize that, if indeed it is about alcohol, most likely it's just going to get much worse before it starts getting any better. So you might as well plan now to get out, or, if not to get out, to at least radically shift the terms on which you live with him.

Because of the gun, and threats of violence, you will want to plan your departure with care. You might want to arrange for civil standby from local law enforcement.

It's his nature to try to control you with threats and maudlin displays. Not to discount these: No threat of suicide should be discounted. But you cannot be held hostage to it.

If you do decide to leave, in a way, when you leave, he might be glad. Not that you want to be doing him a favor. But it's hard for an alcoholic to have to live with somebody. It's a drag to know you're the one who's always screwing up, especially if you don't really feel like you're screwing up that badly. You sort of know you're screwing up but you're still having fun! Damn uptight citizens and wives, freaking out over one broken window or one single accident or one single DUI, one single night in jail, one single foreclosure, one single bankruptcy, one measly infidelity, one tiny birthday missed, one little party, one little screw-up!

He's still having fun, or he thinks he's having fun. Who can know for sure?

Nice thing is, you don't have to know. You don't have to explain to him.

It's a natural law: People leave alcoholics.

Sure, you're going to feel terrible about this. But the decision to leave, or, if not to leave, to accommodate by detachment, to erect clear and impermeable boundaries, perhaps with the help of a group like Al-Anon, that decision need not be complicated. You can make it today. And the sooner you do, the sooner you will begin to feel that it is not hopeless, that you can manage your own life.

It does not need to be figured out. It just needs to be done. It's very simple. People leave alcoholics. It's the nature of the thing. The alcoholic has a certain nature. His life is a knowable trajectory. So there is no complexity about leaving. It's a normal thing to do. You either stick with him as things spiral further and further out of control -- note, he doesn't yet think there's even anything wrong! -- or you get out of the way and hope to salvage something of the situation once the fire has burned out.

Who in their right mind would choose to stay in such a situation?

Whatever you decide to do, it will take its place, eventually, in the litany of signs and symbols that will be viewed, in retrospect, as the narrative of collapse. We are in the early stages but you would not have written if there were not a problem. So I think you can leave without guilt. It will be hard but it is not complicated. Or you can stay. You can stay and get involved with others, like Al-Anon.

Meanwhile, don't worry about him. I don't mean you won't have feelings about him. But know that alcoholics often prove to have miraculous resilience and enviable luck. They are tougher than they look. It's your own fate that you need to worry about now.

The Best of Cary Tennis

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