My partner won't stop drinking

I finally told him to leave. Do we have a future?

Published December 1, 2009 1:31AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Nothing new to report on the cancer today. I am feeling fine and we are still talking with doctors to determine the best plan for treatment. I remain optimistic that this chordoma can be removed safely and that a full recovery is possible. There are risks, of course, but until shown otherwise, I am planning to be just fine.

Again, your letters of encouragement and support have been priceless to me. I will keep you informed.

Dear Cary,

My partner and I have been together for many years and recently became engaged. Although we've always been serious and for years planned on spending our lives together, my doubts about wanting to make a life together have been steadily increasing. This has nothing to do with a lack of love or passion, both of which are abundant in our relationship, but a total difference in lifestyles.

We met in college at the height of drunkenness and irresponsibility and managed to create a meaningful relationship nonetheless. Since then, we've had a difficult time finding common interests. I like to run, hike, ski, read, write, etc. He likes to drink, hang out in bars (one in particular), and, well, drink.

It's not that he's ever mean or untrustworthy, and in fact is everyone's favorite happy-go-lucky and, yes, inebriated guy, but my increasing pleas to cut the crap and grow up have fallen on drunken ears. My tantrums have turned into a feeling of hopelessness and anger. I go into states of complete rage and have even acted violently toward him lately when he comes home slurring his words. I've threatened with everything I can think of and get almost no reaction. At times he promises to change and says he's trying, but each time he comes home with beer on his breath I feel so hurt and angry.

I love him deeply and feel unwilling to live my life without him, but I really don't know how this can go on. We still have good times in between all the fighting, but it seems fewer and far between. I feel so frustrated that I've been asking him to change his behaviors for many years and things have only gotten worse. On the other hand, I've gotten worse too and I fear my abusive behavior continues to drive him further over the edge.

Recently, I've taken a vow to myself that I won't react in that negative way anymore, that the drinking problem is his and if I'm upset I need to remove myself from the situation in a positive way and let him deal with his problems. Clearly, no amount of yelling, berating or violent shoving fazes him or helps the situation. The other day, he took the day off from work to do schoolwork (we both work full-time and are both in grad school full-time). When I arrived home at 5 on a Monday, he was falling down drunk. I was so furious, but I had taken my vow, so I told him I was angry, but couldn't be around him and asked him to please find someplace else to sober up and spend the night. I also asked him to give me space to think for a few days and that he couldn't stay here for the next few days. Obviously this all sounds really bad, I know. But I'm wondering, is it even possible that this relationship could be saved or should we cut our losses and try to heal ourselves alone?

Drinker's Partner

Dear Drinker's Partner,

To be honest, what you call a difference in lifestyles is the fact that he drinks alcoholically and you do not. Alcoholism is not a lifestyle. It is a disease. It is something he is in the grip of. He needs help. But only he can decide to get the help he needs. That is the sad truth of it.

Alcoholics and non-alcoholics can live together but only if the alcoholic quits drinking and gets treatment. If he continues to drink, it's going to get worse and worse and it's not going to end well. So you were  wise to suggest he leave.

He's going to have to stop drinking.

Until he does, things will keep getting worse.

Therefore, I would put all marriage plans on hold until your partner has entered some kind of program, is doing the program regularly, and has been free of alcohol for at least one year.

I wonder how these words affect you. Though your first reaction may be shock, it is often a relief to hear the truth: Your partner is an alcoholic. Now you can take steps to deal with this reality. You can begin living according to this new truth.

Al-Anon is a support group for friends, family and loved ones of alcoholics. As it is a relief to hear the truth from me, it is also a relief to hear from others who have been through the same thing you have been through. I suggest you attend a few meetings of Al-Anon and see what you can glean from the proceedings. You need not declare yourself. You can just go and listen and see if what you hear makes sense to you. Right now you may feel like the only person you know in a situation like this. If you go to an Al-Anon meeting you will hear stories similar to yours, you will meet people similar to you, and will see that your partner's pattern of behavior, though seemingly unique, is actually familiar and predictable.

I note that you are in graduate school and also working full-time. That is a big load. Clearly you do not have the time you need to deal with the emotional issues in front of you. You must find a way to carve out some time for taking care of yourself. Having your partner out of your house will give you some time to be alone. That will help. But it will probably not be enough. You may need to ease off on the workload, by working fewer hours and/or by taking a lighter class load for a semester or two.

The reason you need the time is that you now have a project before you that involves working to acquire knowledge but does not involve thinking as much as feeling. It is analogous to intellectual work, in that you set out to acquire knowledge, process that knowledge and produce something with it. But the knowledge you acquire in this situation comes from within; it is emotional knowledge, knowledge about yourself. It is just as important as knowledge gained from books and lectures but it is slower and more slippery to acquire. It is also harder to articulate. It is transformational in nature; that is, by acquiring it, you cause changes in yourself. These changes are gradual. They occur like changes in the natural world -- quietly, gracefully. They cannot be hurried any more than a tree or flower can be hurried. It's a different paradigm. It requires, I suppose, a degree of trust: You are heading for a new kind of understanding, and you must trust that circumstances have brought you to this and that you will be OK as you go through it.

I do feel I can say this with confidence: You will be OK. You are not the alcoholic. You may have other personality characteristics you were unaware of that led you to become involved with an alcoholic. But your problems are not his.

I urge you to take this knowledge in. Accept the fact that you are at a turning point. Accept the fact that the coming phase will involve learning that is not intellectual but that still demands as much of you as any seminar.

Urge your partner to get help but do not make any deals with him. Urge him to get help and then back off and watch what he does. If he gets help he may live a long and happy life, and he may return to you. Or he may not. It is impossible to know.

You have reached a turning point. You are facing the truth. No matter what happens, you can hardly go wrong from here.

That Special Time of Year

What? You want more advice?

By Cary Tennis

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