I have followed your much-revered advice in dating and have since found and established a wonderful relationship for what I hope my fiance and I will thrive in for the rest of our lives. We just have one snag we can’t seem to get past despite even our best efforts exercising patience, generosity and kind but frank communication to one another. One evening, about a year and a half into our relationship, I discovered my boyfriend at the time, Bill, at his home, by himself, on his couch, surrounded by lots of empty beer cans. I asked Bill what was going on and he broke down in tears, saying that he thinks he has a problem with alcohol. He told me that it seems to run in his family as his father and both grandfathers were heavy problem drinkers with DUIs, as well as perpetrators of vicious, alcohol-related domestic violence. He got private counselling sessions after the incident and afterwards established new boundaries he created between himself and alcohol. No more getting drunk and no more drinking by himself outside of social situations. He asked if these boundaries made me comfortable enough to progress the relationship (which I was verging to break off) and I said yes.
Fast forward two and a half years later: as our relationship thrived, we enthusiastically got engaged and moved in together. Bill (now 32) had no slip ups drinking or getting drunk that whole duration and we could easily keep beer/wine in the fridge without worry for future social events. Life is good…but just recently he mentioned how he wanted to have a beer here and there by himself again and, I admit, I (now 27) just froze in terror. I told him I wouldn’t be comfortable given his own admittance to a past problem as well as his family history and I would prefer if he just stood by the original boundaries he made for himself 2.5 years before.
Since then he’s been calling those boundaries “My rules” and has a bitter if not resentful and embarrassed relationship with them, claiming it’s me trying to “control him.” I’m absolutely devastated and to an extent feel tricked into this place. I don’t know what to do. He says he will follow “my rules” because he would rather do that then potentially lose me, but the bitterness behind it doesn’t feel right and every time I bring it up he says something resentful and shuts the conversation down. The rest of our relationship is truly life-giving and wonderful, but I don’t know what to do. How heavily should one weigh genetics and family history when making a lifelong relationship choice. How do you know the difference between a glaring red flag and normal bumps in a relationship. Should I stay?
Longtime reader and first-time writer,
That’s a rough one, my friend.
First of all, if I were you, I’d seek professional help from Al-Anon, an organization that specializes in helping friends of alcoholics. I’m just a guy with an opinion.
Looking at it from your side, it’s easy to see why you’re alarmed. You certainly don’t want to go down the road that Bill’s mother and grandmothers went down. You’re afraid for your future. You don’t like the tone Bill’s taken since his admission. You don’t want him to feel controlled but, at the same time, you don’t want to build a relationship on a risky foundation. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, they say.
He may have a family history of it and may have abused it a few times in his 20’s, but that doesn’t mean he is like his father and grandfathers.
But here’s the thing: I’m not positive he’s an alcoholic. He may have a family history of it and may have abused it a few times in his 20’s, but that doesn’t mean he is like his father and grandfathers. If anything, his self-awareness allowed him to prevent a potential problem from blossoming. For this reason, I hold him in a different category than other alcoholics, like my wife’s uncle, who go to meetings twice a week and never touch a drop of alcohol, so careful they have to be to avoid falling into their old patterns.
The way you make it sound, Emma, Bill drinks somewhat like the rest of us drink – socially.
And since he seems to be in a good place with you and his relationship to booze, he’s wondering if he has to adhere to the rules he put in place a few years ago, which are pretty rigid. I, too, am a social drinker – 95% is out at parties or restaurants – but I’d be lying if I said I never had a beer or a scotch my myself. On the other hand, I’m not considered at-risk for self-destructive behavior, so perhaps the rules are not universal for all people.
Ultimately, I think there are two things to consider here:
First is how much you trust him as a man, a human being, and your future husband. If you believe in him because he did the right thing three years ago, I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to loosen the rules a little bit. If it becomes a problem, you always have the right to walk away from the relationship, but we don’t know it’s going to become a problem.
The other issue – the one I’m personally more concerned about – is the potential gaslighting that’s going on when he turns things around and says he’s living under YOUR rules. That’s revisionist history and his ability to press his case as if that’s true is not a good harbinger of a sound marriage with healthy communication. It sounds like a child, a narcissist, or, if you may, an alcoholic, who is willing to say anything to get what he wants.
I think you should have a heart-to-heart conversation with him – not as his opponent, but as his caring fiancé. Acknowledge his bravery for changing his habits a few years ago. Acknowledge that it’s probably not a big deal to have an occasional drink outside the original rules. Get him to acknowledge the reason you’re afraid of the worst-case scenario. And then bring it back to the communication piece – let him know that it feels bad when he’s giving you a guilt trip over a rule that HE imposed when he was vulnerable – a rule that was designed to preserve both his health and your relationship. Let him know that you don’t want to be the bad guy but you have to have an honest conversation about how you got here and where you go from here. His reaction to this conversation will be far more telling than whether he has a beer after work one day.
Good luck and please let us know how it goes.