How to break up with a nice person who has serious problems?
July 28, 2011 5:47 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice about breaking up with my very nice but very troubled boyfriend.

This is going to be long, but the gist of it is that I am in a relationship of nearly three years with someone who has an addiction to painkillers. I’m looking for advice on extricating myself from the situation - in other words, I need breakup advice. Posting anonymously because my boyfriend knows that I read Mefi and Ask Mefi daily.

Let’s call my boyfriend Ben. Ben and I have been dating for almost three years. After about a year of dating, I broke up with him because he had slipped back into using painkillers and had been lying about it to me for a very long time. He cleaned up his act - so I thought - and we started seeing each other again. I ill advisedly decided to have him move in with me shortly after we got back together; at the time, I truly thought that he was making a real go at sobriety and thought that living with me - I’ve been sober for more than 3 years - would also help. Even so, I had inklings that his newfound sobriety wasn’t completely sincere, for lack of a better word. Despite my faint reservations, I decided to plunge full-steam ahead.

I’m pretty certain that he was totally sober for at least the first few weeks of living with me; the rest of the one-and-a-half years since then, though, he most likely hasn’t. The trouble here is that he has a genuine problem. He spends all of his extra money on pills. He neglects all of the other parts of his life. He is in serious financial trouble; his car is on its last leg. He has a low-paying job with no prospects of doing much better - especially when he can’t get off the drugs.

Meanwhile, I have made leaps and bounds in the last three years. My career has flourished and I am achieving many exciting things. I also have a child, and I spend a huge majority of my spare time with her. I’m renting a place currently but want to buy a home next year. Everything is on track for this to happen easily.

We staged a pseudo-intervention for Ben a few months ago, “we” being myself and his parents. He immediately fessed up, as always, and started hitting meetings. That quickly tapered off and it also quickly became apparent that he was not staying clean. The tricky thing is that it’s nearly impossible for me to tell if he is using because it just makes him tired. He works odd hours so it’s just hard to tell.

There were a few other “confrontations” about his using in the intervening weeks. I say that because I am terrible at confrontation. I have the hardest time just talking to him about this. As busy as I am, it’s often easier just to let things slide. He’s also a very kind person and has never raised his voice at me or done anything remotely unkind to me. The times when I have really gotten fed up with the status quo, I’ve sent him emails about how I felt. Lame, I know, but I just feel like I’m going to start bawling or something if I even think about broaching the subject of breaking up.

Which brings me to now. I am officially, finally, fed up. He was clearly high a few weeks ago and it scared the crap out of me. I told him that he needed to find a sober living place and to go do that until he got his act together. He said he would. Then he said that he wasn’t having any luck, which I know is BS. We live in a metropolitan area and I know for a fact that there are many, many options. Then he told me that he had to save up some money, which I also know isn’t true. Since then, the subject has been dropped entirely. Ugh.

At this point, I just want to break up. It’s so hard though because we live together. It’s doubly hard because I have no idea where he will go or what he will do. I know that I can’t stay with him just because of that - or that I shouldn’t stay with him just because of that - but the actual thought of breaking up is just so difficult. To add to all of that, I have discovered the joys and benefits of sobriety and it angers me to live with someone who is still in the throes of addiction. I feel like I am cheating myself; I also know that I have some signs of codependency.

I should also add that he recently told me, via email, that he thinks he would be dead by now if it wasn’t for me. I know that is manipulative, and it worked. I feel guilty about leaving him.

Finally, my question: How can I go about breaking up with Ben without crushing him? I know it sounds like I want a magic wand that will make this all go away; I kind of do. What I’m after here, though, is real-life advice from those who have had to break up with live-in SOs, in situations that were “one-sided.” In other words, non-mutual breakups, which most of them are.

Also, am I crazy for wanting to break up with him? Is it cruel to do this to someone who is struggling with these problems? I guess I don’t want to be “mean,” which is really dumb, but there it is.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and for any advice!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You are not a prescription. You are not a prosthetic limb. You are not a course of therapy. You are not responsible for this guy's situation, and you have done what he allowed you to do to help him. You have to do what is best for you and your child. Ben is not your child, as much as he appears to want to make you more responsible for his life than he is.

Dump him. Do it gently, but do it firmly, and tell him that he is not welcome back until after he cleans up his act, and maybe not even then. But make it clear that there is nothing he can do right now to keep the current situation, and he needs to leave.
posted by Etrigan at 5:56 PM on July 28, 2011 [8 favorites]

I can't directly address your experience (I haven't had a one-sided break-up with a live-in SO, I'm sure others will chime in). But I can tell you that you are NOT crazy for wanting to break up with a drug addict who is using and lying to you. It's not just OK to break up with him, you HAVE to do it. You need to protect yourself, you need to protect your sobriety, and you need to protect your child.

You can't break up with Ben without crushing him, or at least risk the possibility of crushing him. That's how break-ups work: you can't control what happens afterward, unfortunately. You have to break up with him anyway. You know that it's the right thing to do, so go ahead and do it. Pack him a suitcase, change the locks. You've told him he needs to move out. Now it's time to be mean about it. Sorry, I know you don't want to be mean, but you need to.

If you feel guilty about doing this, would it help to frame it as something you need to do for your child? Do you really think it's good for your kid to be around a lying using addict? Use that to talk yourself into doing this.
posted by medusa at 5:56 PM on July 28, 2011

You are right to make this decision, and it's OK to not want to live with an addict. You mention that you previously staged an intervention with his parents; I would essentially hand him over to them. Let them know that you're planning to do this so they can be there to provide support.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:00 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Explain to him that you can not be raising your child with a man who has addiction problems. This makes him a bad role model and that it's no longer an option for you to live in the same house. Tell him he can come back and try to woe you again if his parents confirm that he's been clean for a year. You may love him, but this is the only way for him to get his life together, and you are showing your child that addiction is unacceptable and leads to bad things.
posted by becomingly at 6:03 PM on July 28, 2011

You have to ask yourself if this is the kind of relationship you want your child exposed to ... probably not. Get out, get your kid out and don't look back. You have wonderful things ahead of you, a flourishing career, a home of your own, a good life for you and your child. Don't let this man weigh you down or guilt you in to remaining not one moment longer. Go, live joyfully and pursue healthy relationships that enrich your life.
posted by Allee Katze at 6:06 PM on July 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

You know what? You were having the journey of addiction and now you are not. Therefore, it is difficult, no, impossible for you to continue to intimately associate with a difficult journey you are no longer on. This is Ben's journey, not yours anymore.

I used to live someplace with a majority of dysfunctional folks. Some of the folks who are more normal and still live there (because it is a damn beautiful spot!) occasionally invite me back for dinners or parties. I like see to these folks out and about, but I never go back to my old place because of dirty icky dysfunction. And despite what the more normal folks think, the dysfunction does effect them just by virtue of proximity. I see it.

You gotta do what's right for you. This is not your journey anymore. Whatever penance was necessary, you've done it.

I get that you don't like confrontation. Contact his parents and tell them to come get him. Or some variation on that.

I don't think you owe this person much of an explanation. Put your decision in an email if you like. Set an end date. Notify his parents of the end date. Stick to the end date.

BTW. Congratulations on your new life!
posted by jbenben at 6:33 PM on July 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you might need an ally. A reinforcer. Do you have a friend who will support you through the breakup process and help you to keep on track? I mean someone who will gently (or when necessary even forcefully) remind you that you are doing this, why you are doing this and that you must complete doing this. It works: friends and I have been allies/reinforcers for each other over the years. Once or twice with actual physical presence during their or their ex's moving out and always with emotional support. Sometimes the process takes a bit of time, maybe a few false starts, but in the end it really works.

I'm suggesting this because you have made it clear that you have problems with confrontation and he has successfully guilted you very recently. You want to commit to a decision, but you may lack the staying power once he revs up the guilt trips - and he has great incentive to do so. Because if he does it just right, you will let things slide again.
posted by likeso at 6:37 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because in his experience and in his mind, if he does it just right, you will let things slide again.

That's what I meant.
posted by likeso at 6:41 PM on July 28, 2011

How can I go about breaking up with Ben without crushing him?

You can't, but that's ok.

Also, am I crazy for wanting to break up with him?

You'd be crazy if you didn't.

Is it cruel to do this to someone who is struggling with these problems?

You're about to do something that's hard, but it's the best thing for you, your child, and for Ben. It would be cruel to stay with him for another 3 years and allow him to think he can get away with his habit.
posted by auto-correct at 6:44 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like part of your problem is merely practical. (Not all of it, but part of it!) You seem pretty worried about where he will end up. From your post, it sounds like you don't feel like you can break up with him so long as he's still living with you, but he won't move out until you break up with him! It also sounds like you feel a little trapped, so long as your plan to break up with him depends on him finding somewhere else to live, given how poorly he's been handling that task so far.

So, can you move out? Just do all the preparations and plannings so you can say, "The apartment is yours. I'm moving out. Bye." And be gone?

I don't think you can expect Ben do be in any way proactive. I don't think you can expect him to be mature or at all helpful in the breakup. That sucks. So, you need to make a plan that depends on him doing anything as little as possible. Extract yourself from his life, rather than putting yourself in a position where you have to wait for him to extract himself from yours.

I guess I don’t want to be “mean,” which is really dumb, but there it is.

The real advice for this is, see a therapist. That will help you live a happier life. The silly advice is this: watch a marathon of "Intervention." What you'll see over and over again is that the family members who don't want to be "mean" are, again and again, the ones who get abused the most and do the most damage to the addict through their enabling. Watching it reinforced in so many episodes that hanging around just for the addict's "good" is actually harmful may help your heart (where you feel mean) catch up with your brain (where you know you're making the right decision).
posted by meese at 7:06 PM on July 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you've already decided that you need to end this, and that is a smart decision. However, I am thinking like need some sort of practical "plan". Obviously he's not going to put forth the effort to get himself out of the apartment.

What if you were able to find a bed for him somewhere in sober living (or whatever facilities are available in your area?). Do some behind the scenes work to find out when and where a bed would be available (hopefully this would be sooner rather than later...guess that depends on your area), then break it off. Either get his parents there to drive him to the facility, or you drive him yourself...whatever works out. Chances are an admissions counselor at a facility can help you work out a plan. I'm guessing he might agree to go, especially if he thinks that sobering up for a few days will bring you back to him (per his previous patterns). It's his choice as to whether or not he wants to stay at sober living, but make it clear that he will not be returning to you. You may have to figure out legally how to keep him out of your apartment (is he on the lease? can you change locks? will you call the police if he shows up?), but KEEP HIM OUT. And don't look back. Since you've dealt with addiction before, you know that the "rock bottom" is never pretty but always necessary. Don't rescue him. Also, get some allies on your side (his parents, perhaps?) and get yourself some additional you have a sponsor or a therapist?

Obviously your other option is to simply leave the apartment with him and get your own place. That would be a wonderful "fresh start" but you have to make sure you clearly sever all ties with the apartment (taking your name completely off the lease, etc). You don't want his antics to ruin your credit or finances.

You can do this. You know you can do this. If you've successfully beaten your addiction, you know you have the strength to walk away from this as well. Put yourself and your child first, think through a plan, and take action. You can do this.
posted by MultiFaceted at 7:45 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you really have time, energy and emotion for 2 kids? Your child needs your full attention, not that attention divided by a drug addict. Why are you letting him any where near your kid? Breaking up with him should be the least of your worries. Sorry to be blunt, but your priorities need a realignment.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:29 PM on July 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

holy cow!
Ideefixe is right, and I don't care if it is blunt.
You are a parent who is responsible for your CHILD.
Even if you were still madly in love with Ben, it isn't fair/right/loving to have an active addict in the house with your child.
It bugs me that you only mentioned your child in passing--come on, what other reason do you need to get out of this?
Now go plan and do what you know you should, what you know you want to do, and what the needs of your child requires you to do...
posted by calgirl at 9:28 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

i went through a similar thing- even the timeline of breakups and makeups is similar. he wasn't on pills, but he was having trouble with drinking too much and smoking too much pot. anyway, like you "our" place was really my place, so I couldn't just leave, I had to get him to leave. and like you, i was codependent and he was extremely manipulative/ persuasive. I knew he had the power to talk me out of it if we were face to face, so I had to be gone as soon as it was over. Here's what I did:

When I was home alone, I put everything that was valuable to me in my car. I didn't THINK he would fuck with my stuff after I broke up with him, but I wasn't sure enough to find out. So, everything important went in the car. I made plans for somewhere to stay after the breakup.

Then, I did it. I told him we needed to break up and he needed to move out, like, now. I did this on a Friday, I told him I was going to be staying somewhere else and that he had until Sunday night to get his stuff out. I knew it would take him that long for it to sink in (meaning, I knew he wouldn't believe it, he'd wait around for me to cool off and come home.) But I didn't. And once he realized I wasn't coming back to talk to him, he started begging and pleading through texts and I just stayed firm and told him I had made my decision and he had to leave. It was pretty hard- he got really upset and said some really horrible things to me. But I just refused to give in and finally he started moving out on Sunday. Just to be on the safe side, I couch-surfed for a few more days, then sent one of my friends with my keys to make sure he was gone. He was.

Hopefully you won't have to go to quite the extreme I did- I knew my ex got mean and angry; yours sounds like he at least tries to be nice. Which is good, but it's entirely possible he'll lose that composure when you break up with him. The only other thing I did several months later, and regretted not doing earlier, was blocking his number. If he's as manipulative as you think, you may want to consider it- my ex texted me all kinds of shit in the months following our breakup, from how much of a bitch i was, to how much he loved me, to how he was going to kill himself, and then finally how had a new girlfriend. i got to the point where every time i heard the little text-message noise on my phone, i felt sick and scared. I guess in my case, the reason I didn't block him at first was I was afraid of him figuring it out and actually trying to come back to the apartment to talk to me. After a few months I couldn't deal with the constant fear that he was going to keep trying to contact me, so I moved, and after I moved I blocked his number. It was totally worth it- I wasn't able to move past that relationship and its messy end when I was still living there, now I'm like a whole new person, it's a relief. If you think he's the type who won't leave you alone, maybe you should consider moving and blocking the number so you don't get sucked back into his shit.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 9:40 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

How can I go about breaking up with Ben without crushing him?

I dunno, how can he go about being addicted to painkillers without crushing you? Oh, yeah, he just does it. He is not your responsibility, you've given him ample time and support to clean up, and you can leave even if it crushes him.

besides, he might not be crushed. it happens sometimes.
posted by davejay at 9:57 PM on July 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

Your responsibility isn't to not crush him, or to take care of him. Your responsibility is to take care of yourself and your child. Ben clearly has prioritized maintaining his addiction over what his addiction does to you or your child; it's time for you to prioritize your child and yourself over his addiction. He is choosing what he's choosing. You have choices here, too. No guilt necessary.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:10 PM on July 28, 2011

OK. I don't say this to make you feel guilty, but to maybe help orient you toward understanding the true gravity of your situation. You're clearly empowered enough to know that you CAN choose to leave if you do in fact choose to, and there doesn't seem to be a level of abuse or control going on that disenfranchises your ability to choose to get the hell out. So here goes.

You are, right this very minute, teaching your daughter that it's ok to stay in a relationship with someone like Ben, someone who doesn't even treat you with the bare minimum of respect. She is a smart little sponge, watching you and seeing the pain you're going through, and she is seeing your choices to stay in that utterly respectless relationship. If you stay in this relationship with a person who "is really nice" but apparently can't even afford you the respect of honesty and trust and safety (if that's a "nice" person then I'd hate to see a mean one), then you're teaching your daughter that that's what relationships are like/should be like.

What do you want to be teaching and showing your daughter? Truly, there are so many reasons to leave this guy, but you really only need one--and you've got her right in front of you, depending on you to help her understand how to relate to others healthily in her own life.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:26 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mother had a boyfriend with a drug addiction when I was a child. My mother, an otherwise intelligent woman, did some things to enable his addiction and believed his lies.

When I was 11, he shoved me up against a wall.

You need to protect your own sobriety and your life that is going somewhere. And you need to keep your child away from this poisonous relationship. Even if it never gets violent, this is just a terrible example all around.

I know I'm a stranger, but please trust me. I have sympathy for people going through problems, but don't give him another "in". When you end it, end it.

Go enjoy your lives together as parent and child. Buy that house. Be happy together.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:27 PM on July 28, 2011

I had to cut off contact completely. Not harshly, just firmly. Neither of us could get out of our crappy relationship pattern as long as we were "talking" or planning to get back together one day. Depressingly, it really was permanent - I haven't talked to him in 10 years. But on the other hand he got his act together and seems to be doing well, and that's all I ever wanted.
posted by TallulahBankhead at 8:16 AM on July 29, 2011

Note: I don't think the "won't someone think of the children?" approach is remotely helpful here. We have no information about this child, her custodial arrangement, or anything other than that the OP "spends a huge majority of my spare time with her." There is no information provided about Ben and his interaction with this child, if any, other than the assumptions of the reader.

The question was not "How do I parent with an addict?" but "How do I break up with this guy I already know I need to break up with?"
posted by DarlingBri at 8:45 AM on July 29, 2011

You're going to break up with him sooner or later, because things are definitely going to get worse, as they always do with addiction. There's no benefit in waiting. As for being nice, I totally understand. You want to be supportive and show faith in him. But an addict doesn't get help until after they experience huge losses: they lose their job; their partner, friends, and family turn away; their health deteriorates; they can't pay for housing, etc. Right now he's rationalizing that he can't be that bad because his life is norma and you're still therel. So you're really not helping him by staying.

It's impossible to have a real relationship with an addict. They will always choose their drug over you.
posted by wryly at 10:34 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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