Should I leave my husband because he won't quit smoking?

I know it sounds crazy, but the smoking is making me insane; I figure maybe if I left he'd get the message.

Published October 24, 2008 9:40AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

The mockingbirds are still singing. (If I were a spy, this could be some kind of coded message.)

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for years, and appreciate your writing and the spirit and originality of your advice. Now I would love to get your wisdom on a problem of my own. I have a marital quandary. In a moment of anger (OK, more than one moment), I've given my husband an ultimatum: Quit smoking or move out. I said this to him a year ago. He didn't do it, but he did start seeing a therapist, so I thought I should give that time. Then I said quit before our second baby was born -- I didn't want a little baby coming in close contact with smoke on skin and clothes. He didn't do it; I think he tried for half a day. For some reason -- lack of strength? -- I just let it go for a few months. Then, at the beginning of August, I said enough is enough again. Quit by the end of September or move out. At the end of September, he said he wasn't ready yet -- just needed another week. And then he did stop. Pot and cigarettes. Hallelujah! The difference was amazing. Then we had a bad day, and he bummed a smoke off my dad. And another one. And then he said he was going out to buy a pack, but he was still quitting. I said pack a bag and get out. He bought the smokes but he didn't leave. Now he says he's having two a day, but he's still quitting. I've been a smoker, and I know two a day is more likely to become more than less. What am I supposed to do?

Some background: My dad has smoked pot and cigarettes my whole life. I think I've made my peace with that now -- he's 65, he's tried over and over to quit and hasn't been able to. This is part of who he is. I'd rather enjoy the time we have left than make him feel guilty for the smoking. But I feel outraged that I am now going through that all over again, and putting my kids through it, too -- kind of unwittingly, since my husband wasn't smoking when we met. I was smoking then; I know how utterly enjoyable and addictive it is. I quit after seven years so that we could get pregnant. It sucked, but I did it. Sometimes I wanted to start again, but I couldn't because of the kids (we now have two under 2). I know how it brainwashes a person, so he can believe himself when he says things like, "I smoke outside so it doesn't hurt the kids." Even after we saw his own mother die of lung cancer less than a year before her first grandchild was born.

And there it is -- he's had a pretty difficult time the last three years. He went through all the biggies in that time -- got married, lost his mom, changed his job and had two babies. It's more stressful than I can understand. Add the fact that I came into the relationship a financial mess and the providing burden's been almost solely on his shoulders for the past five years -- and I'm in no small part responsible for the stress he's feeling. Really, I believe he has been depressed since his mom's death, and that's a terrible place to be. He's working on it, though, and he's been making a lot of progress with his therapist.

This guy is the love of my life. It would break my heart to leave. I know because my heart breaks just thinking about it. Not to mention the prospect of splitting up our kids' family. A nightmare. But I keep thinking that his smoking is death by a thousand cuts. That if I don't leave now still loving him, I'll leave five years from now hating him. I'm not sure ultimatums are proper marital behavior, but as my own therapist said, you have to know where you draw the line. Smoking is where I draw the line -- but am I just trying to wriggle out of the "for worse" part? Am I supposed to accept this unacceptable (to me) thing in exchange for all the pain-in-the-ass things about me that he accepts? Am I weak because I don't want to sit tight and let him do it in his own time? Probably I'm being too controlling: I am upset that he continues to defy me! But every time he sneaks outside, I feel afraid that it will just never end -- until I'm sitting at his hospital bedside watching him die. This fear turns to anger, and the more he smokes, the angrier I get. Then there I am in an angry marriage. And if you look at it sideways, it's like we don't even like each other, just like the relationship my parents had -- the one they should have ended years before they actually did.

In the angry times, I start fantasizing about getting an apartment for me and the kids, and leaving him on his own to enjoy his stress-free life, where he can get a full night's sleep and there's no crying and his money is his own again and he doesn't have to sneak around to smoke to his heart's content and he doesn't have to feel guilty or see the contempt in my eyes. And I hope that when he got all that, he'd see that it's not as good as his family, which is, I think, pretty freaking excellent. And he'd quit and stop stressing and we'd be happy again. But it's a fantasy, right? If I really leave him, aren't I saying that he's not good enough? Isn't that a huge betrayal?

Cary, help me please. I'm stuck.

Torn by Tobacco

Dear Torn,

Leaving your husband because he won't quit smoking is not the solution.

You have to make peace with this situation. Your husband is trying to quit. Quitting is hard.

Look within yourself. Look at your past. Can you find a time in your past when there was an intolerable condition that you accepted? Can you think of a time when you let go absolutely? You have to go to that time and find what is there. You have to find a time when the universe took care of you and you were OK.

You say you've made peace with the fact that your dad smokes pot and cigarettes. More likely, you have transferred your anger about it to your husband.

Take a deep breath. It's possible that to make peace with this you need to grieve. You have lost a lot. You lost the battle to make your father quit. You lost your mother-in-law. Most of all, you lost smoking.

You have to make peace with that.

Your fantasy of leaving him and making him see what you want him to see is a control fantasy. You have to find a surrender fantasy. You have to find a fantasy in which you come to accept the way things are.

If you leave your husband because he won't stop smoking you will be in hell. You might like hell at first. It will feel like agency. It will feel like control, even though it is hell. You could follow the anger of your uncontrol all the way to suicide.

But underneath it, I think, is grief.

The grief is where you need to go. It hurts.

Why can't you let yourself go there? Why can't you let yourself grieve for what you have already lost? You must go into the house of loss, that little cabin on the corner with the small door and the tiny window.

The grief goes deep: to your father's hazy disappearance into sinsemilla smoke and the acrid weeping odor of Carltons as he tried to quit; to the emasculated Carltons and Bel Airs when he really wanted Chesterfields and Marlboros; to the dull, half-suicidal compromise of low tar and nicotine.

I'm trying to get to the emotion of it. There is much, much more. There is your inability to control your father and your conflicted fear/love of your father and your transference of this difficulty into the convenient receptacle of your husband, who serves as a willing transfer station for the refuse of your heart. You have withheld much, I imagine, from your father.  A starting place would be to go to your father with certain gifts born of your grief. Give of yourself. 

That's the only way you can stop it. Do the opposite. Be inconsistent for once. Admit the loss and the pain and the powerlessness. Go into the little cabin on the corner and see what clothes you left there, what items of jewelry you might have taken off there, what might be waiting for you to return. Reclaim it. Reclaim what you left in the house of grief. Then begin making gifts.

To break this agonizing cycle of emotional torture, you have to go to the radical core of it, your existential situation, the basics. None of these people you have any control over. None. Not any. You are not in their heads. They might as well be buildings or trees. That's how much you have to say about it.

It is you and these two babies and the husband. They are doing what they are doing. You may have chosen this but you do not control it. You control nothing.

You are a mother to two small children and he is the father. You do what you do and he does what he does. He tries. You try. There is a lot you could think about.

There is that mockingbird singing again. That's two days in a row now the mockingbird has been singing. There is a siren. I am back in the moment. I control nothing.

You are in a web of consequence and effect and influence and causation but you are not the cause of it. You are just in the web. You are in the web with the rest of the beings. He is smoking. Get back into the moment! He is smoking. Go out there and join him while he is smoking. Be there with him as he smokes. Accept the smoking. Accept that the smoking will go on until the smoking stops. He hopes it will go away. You hope it will go away. It will go away eventually. But for now it has come to stay with you. You can't make it leave. Technicians are working night and day. They are doing the best they can. But they want you to stop calling. There's not much more they can do. Until it goes away it will remain. Maybe he'll get some gum or a patch. A patch might work. Did he get a patch already? Has he gone to smoking school? A million things he might do.

You have to get real about the tragic emotions of this. You have to get real about how angry you are at your father for this. It may be that you feel that if you could not make your father stop, at least you can make your husband stop.

You have to face the sad, sad, glorious, freeing truth of it: You can't stop an addict from doing what he's going to do. You have no control over other people. But you have duties now. You have commitments. You are just going to have to live with this smoking until the smoking stops. Think of it as a building that has to finish burning.

I think it would be morally wrong for you to abandon your family. I do.  Your husband is caught up in something. He has done nothing to harm you.

In writing like this I'm trying to get out of your head. Your head is not where I need to be. I need to be tinkering, finding silence. I need to be letting go of consequence and agency. I need to be going back into the grief house where the truth lies.

I have so much more to say but I have to go see my guru now.

I've gone on long enough like this, but I'm trying to draw you into the feeling. The feeling is this: You can't control anything. You must learn the neutral regard of someone who believes in something bigger. What is it? Who knows. But it rings your bell in the night. It blows trees down. It smokes secretly in the garden. Meanwhile you tend to your babies and watch the world burn. Take care of them. Stop at a minimart. Buy your dad some Skittles.

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