Functional alcoholism and family life.
July 17, 2012 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Functional alcoholism and family life.

How do I reconcile a natural disrespect for alcoholism with my love for my husband who is otherwise meeting all his obligations and is not abusive? He generally treats me with respect except for this one issue, one which would normally be a deal breaker for me, and threatens to become one between us. We have children, and while I'm not keen to stay together "for them", things aren't objectively bad enough to leave, and my prospects are rough as a single parent (lack of education, spotty work history). I love him, and otherwise I feel that life is good. I'm pretty happy. I have two opposite, extreme gut feelings about this, one which says to stay and bury my feelings, and the other which says this is a disease and it will only get worse and I should protect my children before it does.

Some background info- Some alcoholism exists in my family history. I was raised to only drink occasionally and in moderation, and was frankly scared of alcohol's effects until I was of age. Because of my experience with an alcoholic step parent (briefly, thankfully), I grew to dislike any kind of regular drinking. I would say that I now have a particular sensitivity to excessive alcohol consumption, or at least perceived excess.

Despite this, I managed to fall in love with an alcoholic. I won't say that I didn't know he liked to drink from the start, only that he is so functional while drinking that I didn't notice just how excessive his drinking was. I'm willing to allow for some cultural differences- where he comes from, regular beer consumption is normal. His drink of choice is beer, and he doesn't consume liquor with any regularity. I've once seen him nearly die as a result of alcohol poisoning, and that's when I realized just how big an issue this is.

For me, it's threefold. First and foremost, I have trouble handling the fact that he will often drink at any obvious opportunity- Friday night? Beer! Pay day? Beer! Sunny afternoon off? Beer! Wife leaves her spare bottle in the frige for 24h? Drink it! He also has trouble moderating his drinking when there's a large quantity available. So, the alcoholism itself is a major factor.

Second, finances. We are stretched thin, and although our bills are paid and we even have some luxuries, we lack a safety net, and I can't help but feel like the beer 'budget' could make up for that. Now he's decided to make his own, so it's cheaper by volume, but his first batch of home brew has gone so incredibly fast that I'm questioning my patience- it's not really cheaper if the readiness makes it disappear faster. It's clear to me that the beer has a very low percentage, but it just drives me wildly mad to think about the sheer numbers and cost of him blowing through that first batch. He's become very interested in the process, and I doubt I'll be able to discourage it as a hobby, and can't be sure whether he'll start being more reasonable with future batches- he claims he will, but I have trouble trusting him on this subject for obvious reasons.

Third, the fact that I can be open and honest about all my feelings and am then lead to believe that I'm the only one with a problem. Sometimes I feel like we have really respectful conversations about my worries, but the desire to take action just isn't there, or he ends up making promises he doesn't keep, leading to more frustration, anger and disappointment from me. He has told me that it's "not a problem" for him, and I don't think he believes it when I say that it might become one for him if I have to leave.

I nearly left him once in the past, but his habits improved for some time. It seems we're moving back into an active phase of the disease, and I'm beginning to question my ability to withstand this cycle permanently I would be interested in Al-anon meetings, but unfortunately none exist for me locally.

Where do I draw the line? I sense that askme will say "a deal breaker is a deal breaker", but I think I'm in too deep for that with the kids aspect. I really don't stand to do well on my own with the kids, and it makes equally little sense for me to leave them here with him. They're young, not in school yet and I'm a stay at home parent.

tl;dr How do I navigate difficult feelings and family life with a man whose alcoholism I can't respect, but who is otherwise a loving husband and father who provides for us.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
alanon was made for you.
posted by bensherman at 8:37 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

What makes you call it alcoholism? I understand that you're upset about his drinking and the expense of it, the fact that he seeks out opportunities to do it, etc. but it doesn't sound like it's really hurting his ability to be a caring husband and father.

I'd like to know what bensherman thinks al-anon would do for you - I think it would show you only the worst side of what-could-happen, and reinforce your existing fears.
posted by Lady Li at 8:39 AM on July 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

AskMetafilter's standard therapy answer applies here.

Seek out a personal therapist to help you deal with your perceptions of the consumption of alcohol. Seek out a couple's therapist to help with finding a happy middle ground.
posted by royalsong at 8:42 AM on July 17, 2012

It could also show her that it isn't alcoholism or give her language to use in confronting this.
posted by bensherman at 8:43 AM on July 17, 2012

My father was an alcoholic, functional (mostly) for all of my childhood. My mom stayed with him until he became non-functional in his late 50s, long after my sister and I were grown. She stayed because she had come from a broken home, and was determined to give my sister and I a "normal" family life. And from the outside - and even from the inside, due to an absolutely iron will on her part and us being young kids who didn't really understand what was going on - it seemed normal. In retrospect, however, I realize my dad was never around in any meaningful way. He was not emotionally supportive. He was a nice guy, and never hurt us, but his priority was always drinking. It never occurred to me to rely on him for things. In every way that matters, I grew up with one parent.

I tell you this because, as an adult woman in an absolutely wonderful marriage myself, it breaks my heart that my mother didn't have this. I've seen her, in the years since my dad left, become a truly free and happy person for the first time I can recall. I appreciate what she tried to do for me and my sister, but I feel strongly that I would have benefited at least as much from having a mother who placed importance on her own needs as well. I have had issues with codependency and "fixing" other people's issues myself, and I know that part of that is rooted in witnessing my parents' marriage.

It's impossible to say whether or not your husband will get worse. There's a good chance he will, due to the nature of the disease, but he might not. He might stop drinking someday, too, who knows. But the thing is, you can't count on it, and you need to figure out whether this is something you want to spend your life dealing with. Things don't have to be rock-bottom horrible in order for you and your children to benefit from being away from his drinking.
posted by something something at 8:45 AM on July 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

I actually can't tell if he has a drinking problem or not, but it seems like you have a communication problem at least -- he likes doing this thing that you don't want to do with him, and he likes doing it a lot, and you haven't been able to resolve it.

Compromise, boundaries, and some parameters would probably help and if you can't manage to collectively come up with those on your own as a couple, marriage counseling would be a good idea.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:47 AM on July 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't know if/how you could make this apply, but a few years ago Mrs. Straw said, of a particular physiological issue I was having (she complained that my body smelled really weird), "Why don't you stop drinking for a month and see if it clears up?" It's kind of a hard request to say "no" to: A month is just 4 weeks, and it being ancillary to alcohol made it a "well, yeah, I can try that".

Been several years now, and I haven't started drinking again, and a few people in my life have suggested that, yes, I was drinking a little much before. Won't work for every relationship, but it worked for ours.
posted by straw at 8:48 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dear Anonymous,

I noted you said there are no al-anon meetings near you. You can get to online meetings, though, through the website. That's a good place to start. Also, get your hands on some books and daily readers. They can help a lot.

The biggest thing you can do for yourself and your children is to begin the process now of researching and facing how alcoholism affected YOU in your family of origin, creating patterns of behavior in you that were coping mechanisms at the time, but which are now actually counterproductive.

You may not see these patterns in you right now -- they are so insidious and they mask themselves in lovely, "nice," helpful costumes.

Getting to the bottom of how your own skewed life experience perfectly prepared you for marrying an alcoholic, the familiarity of it all....make that your aim. And then begin the process of getting yourself healthy, not focusing on him and his problem.

You don't have to leave may decide that is best for you and your children in the long run, or you may not. You definitely will need some time to learn to LOVINGLY emotionally detach from him.

You may be carrying on patterns of behaviour that make it very easy for him to keep on drinking heavily. Not that you now start to make it hard for him. Don't make that mistake. Just start quietly, privately beginning your OWN journey. And love him well as you do that. But focus on you.

I hope this helps. Email me offlist if you want a friend through this! I have a sister and a partner with addiction issues.....the process of detaching LOVINGLY is hard to learn, not possible alone, but can lead to you being able to keep drinkers in your life but keep your sanity. And develop much better boundaries. THERE IS HOPE.
posted by sleeping beauty at 8:49 AM on July 17, 2012 [8 favorites]

it doesn't sound like it's really hurting his ability to be a caring husband and father.

Really? She's seen him nearly die, is concerned about their finances, and if he drinks at every available opportunity it will interfere with his ability to parent (if it hasn't already). There is also the issue of respect: she's had an alcoholic parent and he should therefore be extra sensitive to her concerns, maybe even drinking less than he would like for her personal comfort.

Everyone is going to say therapy. They're not wrong. I'd also think about what you can do to make the situation better for yourself. You're thinking a lot about his needs here (now that he's started brewing he won't want to stop). Think about your needs, too, and work on asserting them. A therapist can help with this. I'd recommend individual and couples counseling.

Best of luck to y'all.
posted by k8lin at 8:49 AM on July 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

I've been in somewhat of a similar situation. We didn't have kids, so I can't comment on that issue, and I also had a job and could afford to be on my own, which it sounds like you may not. But otherwise:

My ex-husband drank every single night. Every. Single. Night. 2 or three nights out of the week he wouldn't drink to a point where I could see an effect, but the rest of the week and on weekends (when he started drinking beer before lunch), he would get pretty drunk. I don't know if he is/was technically an alcoholic or not, and to be honest, the label didn't really matter much to me. What did matter is that I was uncomfortable with the amount he drank, despite the fact that he was completely functional in life. It affected our relationship, it was affecting his health, and it was making me very resentful. This by far wasn't the only problem we had, but it was by far the biggest and the one he absolutely refused to address.

I tried more times than I can count to talk to him about and how his drinking made me feel. I tried approaching it from a health angle, I suggested that we have one alcohol-free "date night" together, I tried everything I could think of. Nothing worked, and our marriage fell apart.

I'm not saying DTMFA, but I am saying that you are allowed to be uncomfortable with his behavior and ask for change. You are allowed to set boundaries about drinking around your kids and/or how much of the family budget is going towards his habit. You are allowed to sit him down and tell him how you feel.

I guess my point is, it's easy to come up with reasons why it's not a problem (but he goes to work every day! and supports us! and is a good dad!), it can be much harder to justify your own feelings and actually act upon them.
posted by tryniti at 8:52 AM on July 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

I would immediately work to get good employment and begin to feel self-sufficient. Do you work now? Could you get a better job?

Here's the question you need to ask yourself. Would you leave if you won the lottery and money wasn't an issue? If you'd answer yes, then you know in your heart that this isn't a situation that you can tolerate.

It drives me nuts to see women making life decisions based on money. So you don't have a hot education or you have a spotty work history, meet that where it is and let's make it better. Look into an educational program where you can receive job training. If you have a job now, see what you can do about making enough money to feel comfortable being on your own.

Also, if you leave with the kids, your husband would have to pay child support, so you wouldn't be doing this alone.

Get your ducks in a row and then tell your husband that he gets into a program and stops drinking or you're leaving.

Do not compromise on this. This is your life, and every minute you stay in a situation that you KNOW is bad is one minute you'll never get back. Also, your children know that dad has a problem and that you're unhappy about it. Is this the environment you want to provide for your children?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:58 AM on July 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding Al-Anon. The purpose of Al-Anon is provide support for people who have an alcoholic in their lives. In other words, it is a program to help family and friends of alcoholics deal with the disease of alcoholism. With that said, no one other than your husband can make the diagnosis of alcoholism.

There really is no such thing as a functional alcoholic, although I know what you and others in this post are referring to. Alcoholism is a primary, chronic, progressive, and fatal disease that has no cure. If someone is a real alcoholic, their drinking and behavior will deteriorate. GUARANTEED. In my experience, the hallmark symptom of alcoholism is the utter inability to stop drinking once someone takes the first drink, regardless of the negative consequences they may encounter.

As far as the financial stuff is concerned, it might be wise to start looking into further education and part-time work. This will help you should you need to make the decision to take your children and move out.

Another thought is to have an honest conversation with your husband about your concerns. Maybe suggest that the two of you attend an open AA meeting together.

Alcoholism is not your fault. It is not even his fault. It is a disease. The good news is that alcoholism can be treated.

You didn't cause his drinking problem, you can't cure it, and you can't control it. Your job is NOT to fix him. All you can do at this point is take care of yourself and your children as best you can and make decisions that are in the best interest of you and your kids. I have a ton of experience with this and you can memail me if you would like to talk. Best wishes for you and your family.
posted by strelitzia at 9:17 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Please think hard about staying "for the children." If I had a nickel for everyone I know who had a miserable childhood because their mother (usually) decided that she had to stay "for the children" and subjected them to an asshole other parent, I'd be rich. It could be that having their father in the home will be worse for them than living with a loving, functional, albeit poor single parent.

Nthing that you get your ducks in a row with regard to employment, schooling, whatever you need to prepare to live on your own so you are not dependent on this guy; even if you decide to stay, it is the worst feeling in the world to be dependent on and beholden to a toxic person. It also gives power to that toxic person - he knows you are dependent on him and therefore has no incentive to change. Power corrupts, and absolute power can turn a basically nice person into a scumbag.

Also, strongly suggest couples counseling. But it sounds like he may not have what I call a "reservoir of goodwill" - an unselfish desire to do right by you and the kids - to get clean and sober. What will you do if he says, essentially, "I prioritize my drinking over you and the kids. Take me as I am or leave?" This is why you need the option to be able to stand on your own.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:23 AM on July 17, 2012 [11 favorites]

k8lin: "Really? She's seen him nearly die"

I would question this part of the story. The OP seems very fuzzy on the distinction between casual alcohol consumption and full-blown alcoholism. I would imagine that there might be a similar fuzziness between "drank too much" and "nearly died."

I certainly don't want to belittle the OP for being in a situation where she's uncomfortable (which is certainly what matters here), but I'm getting a very unclear picture of how severe her husband's alcohol consumption problems actually are. 2-3 drinks a week are well within cultural norms, although I suppose you could indeed argue that this is still too much. I also only see one reference to him actually getting drunk. As far as I can tell, the OP is uncomfortable with any level of alcohol consumption (which is fine, but needs to be communicated). The "Wife leaves her spare bottle in the frige for 24h?" detail is the only one in the OP that suggested to me that her husband might actually have a drinking problem, although even this could be purely anecdotal.

You can legitimately say "You're not an alcoholic, but I still don't want you to drink around me or our children." I think that's a bit closer to the reality of the situation, and is a completely acceptable course to take. It also sidesteps the issue that he probably doesn't consider himself to be an alcoholic, and might react negatively to the fact that you repeatedly labeled him as 'diseased' in this post.

If this is indeed a situation of "You need to change, and I'm not willing to budge," you need to communicate that clearly. That's a perfectly acceptable position to take here, but you need to state it clearly. If this is something that deeply bothers you, it won't be productive to let these feelings brew and simmer over the long-term without doing anything about it. If you're talking about divorcing your husband behind his back, it's clear that you need to take some sort of action, be it a serious conversation, therapy, or (as a last resort) an actual divorce. Letting this sit is not fair to you, not fair to him, and not fair to your children.

I'd second the suggestion for therapy, to actually talk about this with him, and to drop the armchair diagnosis of her husband as "diseased," unless a neutral third party has made that same assessment.

On preview: Everything Rosie M Banks said should be considered above all else. If your husband is not living up to his obligations as a father, you are doing no favors to your children by staying with him. I'm not sure that is the case here, but only you can answer that!
posted by schmod at 9:28 AM on July 17, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm not trying to be harsh when I say this, but the reality of the situation is this: right now you and your children have, as your sole financial support, a (currently) functioning alcoholic who seems to be on a downward trajectory. Do not wait until you and your kids are in a homeless shelter, or even until you and your kids have to go hungry or until you and your kids are frightened by your husband's behavior and have to go stay in a motel for the night. Start getting prepared to be independent now. If things never get worse, fine, but I don't think that's what's going to happen. Do you?

I really don't stand to do well on my own with the kids, and it makes equally little sense for me to leave them here with him.

The third option is to do everything you can to lay the groundwork so that you can leave him when this problem gets worse. If you don't have to leave, great. If you do need to leave, you can.

Staying at home is fine when it works, and I know that some families simply do not have an option due to childcare costs, but in this situation you and your children literally cannot afford for you to continue on this same path. Your husband's potential for alcohol-related disasters and your precarious financial situation mean that you need financial backup and relative independence ASAP. That means getting a job outside of the home.

If there are jobs in your area that allow you to afford childcare, great. Even if you aren't making much over childcare, it will still provide you with a safety cushion, work experience, good references, contributions to your social security account, contributions to unemployment insurance in case you get laid off.

There are some jobs, like call center jobs or waitressing/janitor jobs that have evening and weekend hours that can minimize your childcare costs for as long as you can rely on your husband to safely care for your kids. You can also look into working in childcare, either by taking children into your home or working for a child care center. Finally, if you've never gone to school, look into community colleges and local universities. Find out what you would need to do to enroll and get financial aid. Student loans could end up being a lifesaver for you if things go bad.

Good luck, and please feel free to mefimail me or email me. I'm really rooting for you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:37 AM on July 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, also, you say you wouldn't do well on your own with your kids. He will be required to pay child support as well as childcare costs in proportion with his income. It varies by state and situation, but just googling "[your state] child support calculator" could really change your perception of the situation.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:39 AM on July 17, 2012

I'm sure I'm going to catch hell for saying this, but it doesn't sound like your husband is an alcoholic; it sounds like his hobby is drinking. It is for a lot of people, especially those who are under 40 and bored with some or many aspects of their life. Not to denigrate your feelings or anything, because your feelings are valid - just wondering if there's another way to approach this than standard suggestions of therapy, DTMFA, or ultimatums before leaving with the kids over this one issue.

You say that other than this one issue, you love him and feel life is good with him. Perhaps if you reframe the discussion (and the way you think of the situation) in terms of how he chooses to spend his leisure time, you can come up with a (shared?) hobby that will allow him to ease off the drinking and into something healthier and less aggravating to you and the household budget. Maybe even something the kids can participate in too, like camping or cyclocross or kite building or...whatever. A lot of times people do dumb, quasi-destructive shit because they are bored or don't have an easier alternative right in their face. Create an alternative, sweeten it with your genuine enjoyment and appreciation of his shared interaction, and push for it to take up as much time as possible so that he doesn't default to booze. Eventually drinking gets boring when there are better things to do with a more tangible reward (and less hangover).

Nthing the suggestions to lay a foundation to leave in the future if necessary, though. If he can't stop annihilating all beers as the years go by his skills as primary earner aren't going to be assured.
posted by par court at 9:46 AM on July 17, 2012 [17 favorites]

OP, in addition to what I said above, I also want to encourage you to be honest about this situation with people close to you. Alcoholics and addicts can be very good at hiding the depths of their problems from everyone except those closest to them, and unless you have told your family or a close friend what is going on, it's likely (or at least possible) nobody has any idea. My mom faced a lot of backlash and confusion, especially from my dad's family, when she finally left for the first time because no one, not even her own mother, had any idea that she'd been living with a secret alcoholic for thirty years. Also, when you live with an alcoholic, you kind of lose sight of what "normal" is, and it helps to have an outside perspective from someone you care about who is able to be honest with you in return. I know breaking the silence is a hard step to take, but you have done it here and I hope you are able to do it in your real life as well.
posted by something something at 9:47 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please think hard about staying "for the children." If I had a nickel for everyone I know who had a miserable childhood because their mother (usually) decided that she had to stay "for the children" and subjected them to an asshole other parent, I'd be rich.

Conversely, if I had a dime for every woman I know who left her spouse for the good of the kids and discovered that she couldn't make enough to fill the huge gap between low employment pay, child support, daycare and after school costs, I'd stock a lot of pantries with something other than ramen. The OP is the poster child for America's poorest segment. Statistically, the only way this could be worse is if she's anything other than white.

This situation seems problematic and less than ideal but not in any way a crisis. I think the OP would possibly be better advised to try to improve things in the short term with some support and some marriage therapy if possible, and some education and job training in the long term. If she's going to leave, she has the luxury of making sure she's stepping into something better, not (potentially) enormously worse.

Friday night? Beer! Pay day? Beer! Sunny afternoon off? Beer!

This does not sound like alcoholism, FWIW. What this describes is more akin to binge drinking. It is a risk factor for alcoholism, but does not make your husband an alcoholic.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:47 AM on July 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

Man, I am sure comfortable with all this judging about whether this man is or is not an alcoholic. It takes a lot for a spouse to talk about this stuff with anyone, much less internet strangers, and if what she's experiencing looks and feels like alcoholism from within her own home, it probably is.
posted by something something at 9:50 AM on July 17, 2012 [12 favorites]

the desire to take action just isn't there, or he ends up making promises he doesn't keep,

Regardless oh whether the problem is alcohol or anything else, at a basic level if one person brings up a problem in a relationship then both parties should work on resolving the issue. It sounds like you have communicated your feelings clearly but he does not agree it is a problem. Maybe a third party can help. You mention him spending money on his new hobby, are you able to spend the same or more on yourself? If not, halve his "hobby" fund split in two to be fair.
posted by saucysault at 9:54 AM on July 17, 2012

Also, look, even if he's not an alcoholic, from what you're saying he is not financially responsible. That means you need to be the financially responsible one, as much as you are able, which means working to increase your income and your income-earning potential. I know leaving your little ones is hard--God, do I ever know that--but you have to think five and ten years down the road for them, when they're heartbroken because they can't go on a field trip because you don't have the money because your husband spent it on beer.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:57 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Read "The truth about addiction and recovery". Some folks stop drinking, without going to AA. The disease model is not the only point of view on the subject.

Do not conflate the financial problems with the drinking. My mom tolerated my dad's heavy drinking early in the marriage in part because there was always more than enough money. He later stopped drinking, cold turkey, and basically never touched it again except for a few swallows while teaching his grown son about good beer.

Go to school, read up on women and money, prep yourself to some day have a real career. Whether you stay married or not, in this day and age, women typically live long enough after the kids are grown to pursue a real career. Plan on doing so. It makes it easier to stand up for yourself if you don't feel you are simply trapped. Strengthening your position might actually help you improve the marriage. If not, when you do reach your limit, leaving won't be catastrophic.

My ex moved out shortly before our oldest turned eighteen. It was a long time in the coming and it was possible to leave because I did things like pursue an education. I have health problems and special needs kids. I just kept at.
posted by Michele in California at 10:09 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

From what you've described here, he doesn't really sound like an alcoholic. It sounds like he's mainly drinking in relaxed or celebratory situations, as a way to unwind and enjoy the weekend. Drinking low-alcohol beer seems more indicative of enjoying the activity more than a desire to become drunk, and if he's brewing his own, that also sounds more like a hobby than an addiction. Really, his relationship with alcohol sounds well within normal for many cultures, except for the almost died thing -- although you don't say when that was or what the circumstances were. Some people have to learn their limits the hard way. If it's something that happened one time five or ten years ago, obviously that's less concerning than if it happened last month.

Maybe you don't want him to drink at all, and that's OK -- but you can't approach that by saying "You have a disease, you need help." You should approach it by saying, "This is my hang up, this is my background, please be understanding and supportive." If you're going into the conversation telling him that he has a disease, maybe that's why he's getting defensive and making you feel like you're the one with a problem. If he's cracking open a beer on the deck on a Friday night and you're calling this alcoholism, he might just feel like you're over-reacting and thus be actually less likely to sympathize with the experiences that have made you more sensitive to alcohol consumption.

Of course, I could be completely off-base about this. Maybe he really does have a problem. It's just hard to get a read from your post since there aren't a lot of specifics.

I wonder if the source of your discomfort really is more about finances. Maybe you feel like he is not being a good provider and he is not planning well enough for your future and your children's future. Maybe you feel like he is being irresponsible with the money you share, and that you can't totally count on him to take care of your family in the way you need him to. Maybe those feelings of financial insecurity are kind of dovetailing with the childhood angst about your step-parent's inappropriate behavior, and it's all kind of getting mixed up together in your head.

If I were you, I would try to take a step back and think more about what it is you really need from your husband so you can feel safe and cared for. Do you need him to stop drinking altogether? Drink less? Make a budget? Save more money? And then try to approach the conversation on those terms instead of focusing on the alcohol issue specifically.
posted by crackingdes at 10:43 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

It takes a lot for a spouse to talk about this stuff with anyone, much less internet strangers, and if what she's experiencing looks and feels like alcoholism from within her own home, it probably is.

You know, it is not remotely true that just because anonymous thinks this is alcoholism "it probably is." I have no idea if her husband is an alcoholic or not, which is a little strange since she wrote the long question and had the power to describe what she experiences. Indeed, most of what she described does not sound particularly like alcoholism to me, and I'm not only the child of two alcoholics, I work professionally with addicts and am licensed to diagnose them. Folks in this thread are hanging an awful lot of their advice on accepting the diagnosis of the husband's alcoholism. What if this is just a communication problem? Do folks still think leaving is the right choice?

As several folks have pointed out, what is clear from the question is that the OP is uncomfortable with her husband’s drinking. This is certainly something that they need to talk about. The husband may be an alcoholic, this may also be something they need to talk about. The advice here that suggests that the OP needs to expand her understanding (Al-anon, therapy) and her options (job, etc.), is good advice.
posted by OmieWise at 10:51 AM on July 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

I truly empathize with you.

I grew up with a parent who stopped drinking, cold turkey, because he felt it was affecting him and might affect his family if he kept it. My father cut ties with his "social drinking" buddies for many years, and only reunited with his best friend in the last decade or so, now that both of them are in their seventies and also does not drink. This man introduced my parents and was married to my Mom's sister before I was born, so even though I never felt my Dad's drinking was troublesome at all, even as a kid I knew it was a Big Deal for them to part ways. That it was over alcohol, and that my Dad never touched alcohol after that, obviously affected me.

I'm a control freak about my own alcohol intake. I've never been drunk. I've never even had more than two drinks in a single day in my life. These days, I don't drink alcohol at all.

In contrast, my husband frequently enjoys alcohol. To my knowledge, there is no history of alcoholism in his family, yet I can't help but find his drinking worrisome.

I feel very uncomfortable around those who drink what seems to me to be an excessive amount. The toughest aspect is trying to figure out how much my own history weighs into this. I KNOW my perception is skewed, because I am bringing my own baggage with me. How can I judge what really is "excessive"?

I think you have to seriously consider how your own past is affecting your take on all this. It may bother you that your spouse drinks at every opportunity he gets--it would bother me!-- but where is that worry coming from? His actions, or your history, or (most likely) a little of both?

I can't tell from your post how much your spouse's drinking is actually affecting your lives. You say he almost died from alcohol poisoning once. What happened after that? Did he curtail his drinking at all? It seems like he must have, as he didn't come close to dying again. If you don't feel he curtailed it enough, that's perfectly okay. Your feelings are important; marriage is a partnership.

Try sitting down and speaking with your husband when neither of you has been drinking at all (maybe over breakfast?), and explaining the anxiousness you feel and where it all springs from. The crux of all this, I think, is to really address your past. He needs to know that your criticism of his drinking is not about him, but about what drinking represents to you--a childhood of fear and uncertainty that brings out your own protective instincts and makes you want to get your children the hell away from that environment.

I really feel you and your husband need to be able to come to an understanding about alcohol in your home, and that may mean counseling. You will need to accept some drinking is okay for him (unless he decides to quit), and he will need to accept some boundaries to his drinking, if this is going to work out for the two of you. If finances are really a worry for you, don't just say drinking is costing you money! Explain what level of sacings put aside would make you feel comfortable.

If you two cannot work on this, you may end up parting. But I urge you not to do anything impulsive here. Whatever course you take, you are going to have to address your own issues before you can move forward.
posted by misha at 11:17 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

[This is a reply from an anonymous commenter.]
Wife leaves her spare bottle in the fridge for 24h? Drink it!

stands out as a red flag to me. Healthy adults who imbibe can manage to let somebody else's beer chill in the fridge (and this doesn't sound like an accident or one-off?). He can't moderate his intake, there's been an incident involving overdose, family finances are tight and he continues to blow money on a non-essential -- why's he got a pass to spend the family's money on beer?

Okay, admittedly very biased as I have booted a drunk out of the family home. But, going on the idea that your partner is some flavour of problem drinker, that you have sought counseling for yourself and as a couple -- if those are true, the next step is to start thinking about what sort of example you want to provide for your children, and what sort of family life you want them to experience.

It is impossible to have a stable home life with somebody who is routinely drinking to excess. (Again, I am going on the idea that what you are describing as "Sunny afternoon off? Beer!" and which is being interpreted by some as happy guy chugging a couple on the patio is actually somebody getting wasted instead of making with the fathering, etc.) If he really is a problem drinker I can't imagine it's not having a negative effect on your parenting just from the stress, and what an awful message to the children, to have it repeated over and over that, given any stretch of spare time, drinking is preferable to fathering. (If a lot of the rest of the downtime is hangover time with lots of "naps" etc, that would be a red flag too.)

Your kids would rather be poor with a stable, happy parent than living in the chaos problem drinking creates with unhappy parents. There are some good previous threads/comments on this; unfortunately I am having trouble finding one good comment in particular from a few years ago, but the essence of it was disappointment at Mom for staying with drunk Dad; she was the adult, she had choices, we [kids] didn't, she could have taken us out of that environment and chose not to, and we were much worse off for it, rather more poignantly written than I have paraphrased it. Do read previous threads on this stuff if you haven't already.

stay and bury my feelings is not a good way to go through life. I do know people who parent well while being the beers-on-the-patio! types quite often, but you're not one of them and that's not going to change; even if some of the posters here are correct and he isn't an alcoholic or problem drinker at all, it doesn't sound like a fun situation for either of you -- this is quite the partner mismatch issue, one who likes beer and one who ends up with anxiety over it.

FWIW, my financial instabilities as a single parent are not fun, but are endlessly less stressful than living with hundreds of dollars going to pubs, bender-related hijinx that risked and/or resulted in arrest, a "father" that was either drunk or recovering from being drunk or grumpy about not being drunk, and, well, everything being unstable and unreliable instead of just money. My kid is as well shielded from the fallout of her father's substance abuse issues as is reasonably possible (and still likes Dad), and we have a happy, happy life I would never have envisioned in the dark days of trying to parent with an alcoholic. Speak with an attorney about what sort of support you'd be entitled to. There will be a rough transition period if you split up, but once that's done, that's done, and life just gets better. It doesn't sound like the odds of things getting better are good if you stay put. Separation might be a better thing to look at than divorce, though it sounds like he's made it clear where his priorities will remain. I am really sorry. But do know that there's something better out there. I didn't have any work experience either; I am a p/t "WAHM" with financial support from my ex. Whatever you do, work on strengthening your ties with others in your life -- with or without this guy, doing any of this -- parenting, or leaving a partner, or dealing with a drunk -- is unnecessarily difficult done in isolation. Reach out to friends. You will likely be amazed at how many have been connected to similar situations. DON'T BE ASHAMED! (Er. Posted anon to preserve child's privacy)
posted by cortex at 11:40 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

[This is a reply from another anonymous commenter.]
I'm commenting anon because I think my mom knows my username.

Basically I can't speak to the alcoholism, but I would question very carefully the idea that staying together "for the kids" is in the long-term best interests of either yourself or the kids if the marriage is otherwise untenable.

Because when I found out that my parents had done this, I was devastated. I felt like my childhood memories were tainted, because they were based on a lie. I felt like I couldn't trust my parents anymore, if they would hide something so important from me. I felt powerless, because I was being held responsible for a decision I had no say in. I felt insulted, because of the implication that I was the sort of selfish, greedy person who would trade their own mother's happiness for material comforts. I felt adrift, because their marriage had been my childhood model for adult relationships and I worried that I would seek out unhappy relationships as a result.

It drove a wedge between me and my parents and I still have a lot of residual anger. Now that time has passed, I feel more able to make allowances for the pressures they were under at the time, but I will always believe that staying in an unhappy marriage "for the kids" is bullshit. Your kids love you and they want you to be happy.
posted by cortex at 11:42 AM on July 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Read this. It is wonderful.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:54 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wrote a long, overly personal response and then deleted it. There are likely to be consequences to your husband's drinking that may not be visible until further down the road. Like something something said: "In retrospect, however, I realize my dad was never around in any meaningful way. He was not emotionally supportive. He was a nice guy, and never hurt us, but his priority was always drinking. It never occurred to me to rely on him for things. In every way that matters, I grew up with one parent."
Your kids are absorbing these sorts of influences right now. Aside from the psychological dynamic in the house, there will be continuing financial and health costs that your family will have to bear for his behavior. There must be strong, enforceable consequences for him to stop drinking.

Nthing that staying together "for the children" is not justifiable. What they'll see is a dysfunctional relationship that will shape their expectations for their adult lives.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:40 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am with "something something" all the way when he said "if what she's experiencing looks and feels like alcoholism from within her own home, it probably is--whether rank amateur or licensed professional (which I was for over 30 years) all of us are speculating or guessing. But if 1/2 of what the poster says is substantially accurate there is reasonable grounds for concern. I nth the advice to make a commitment to long term financial independence and attending al anon. If it is like the al anon meetings with which I am very familiar you will hear all kinds of "stories"--including the skills of successfully living with persons who are alcoholic, emancipation and success from alcoholic partners and going down the drain with the alcoholic partner. The poster who said you would only hear negative stories either went to very few meetings, an unusual subset of meeting, had selective hearing or was just plain unlucky. If the meeting you attend does not work for you--read the literature, shop around or go online. Whatever you do, do not hope he will change--hope is an appropriate refuge for fear and desperation but not better living.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:06 PM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not your husband, but I am just like your husband. I drank every single second I could for four years. I also have a wife and kids. I also was high-functioning and most people probably didn't even know I was drunk when I was.

I only stopped drinking because I made a conscious decision to do it. I didn't do it for my wife or my kids or my budget (although those are all beneficial!). I did it because I was tired of what alcohol was doing to my mind and body. I was tired of being the slave.

I haven't touched alcohol since April 1 of this year. I'm only a few months in. But I won't be going back to drinking because now that I'm sober I can see exactly what it did to me.

My prayers are with you.
posted by tacodave at 4:24 PM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Man, my skin crawls when people say things like "pfft, little missy, that sounds completely normal!" Because that story sounds like every alcoholic I ever met- in the early years.

If the discussion even gets near the percentage of alcohol or "I'll cut back, I promise" interspersed with "it's no big deal", then alcohol is a problem in that person's life. The "alcoholic" label doesn't matter.

My suggestion: ask him to go to an AA meeting or two and just sit in. Someone who isn't an alcoholic should have no problem with that. They might think it is a silly idea and would go just to appease you, but they wouldn't have a problem with it. Someone with a less than positive relationship with booze is going to get twitchy and defensive. And is probably going to want to drink afterwards.
posted by gjc at 7:05 PM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

The label doesn't matter. Whatever causes trouble, is trouble.

The parenting he is not doing now because of his focus on drinking is nothing like as devastating to the kids as it will be later on, when they need more from him than paying the bills or watching them for a while to give you a much needed break. Then the toll mounts because of the lack of attention to their development and the perceived disrespect--yours for him, his for you and for what they need. They will learn that he is not as interested in them as he is in his favorite entertainment. They will learn that he can't be relied upon for some of the things good fathers do and children need. They'll form their own conclusions by the time they are eight or ten and before long, it will be too late for your kids to have the parents they need. Without ever diagnosing or labeling him, it seems he is already prioritizing his drinking over his family. If he doesn't have a drinking problem, he would be willing to let go of the priority he assigns to drinking. It is depriving your children of proper parents, plural, because as long as you are bewildered but accepting of his distraction and lack of focus on the family, you are also prioritizing his drinking over the children.

You have good advice here for learning the things you must to effectively deal with this. You are right that his drinking is not going to diminish unless he wants to change. Meanwhile, you need to start changing yourself so you can build a better life and be the kind of parent your children need.

Nobody knows the future. If you are diligent in your efforts to learn and prepare, he might choose to be a genuine part of his family and seriously address this issue. If he doesn't, you will have prepared to do what is good for you and your children. I wish you courage and all the best.
posted by Anitanola at 7:07 PM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was actually about to side with your S.O., until I got to the finances and that this is YOUR problem. Wow, that's classic projection and denial! You can't call him a "functional" alcoholic any longer.

So with that out of the way, I would seek counseling, I would visit a few al-anon meetings. Most importantly though I would talk to my S.O. about the future and what should/could be expected.

Considering what you've written compared to what you're going to learn at al-anon meetings, you are in a great position for now and there is a great chance of recovery/resolution.

In other words, this is nowhere near a worst case scenario. It's very workable if you have a little patience.

Best of luck to you!
posted by snsranch at 7:14 PM on July 17, 2012

None of us can possibly know if he's an alcoholic, and I'm not even sure that it matters if he is or not. If something he does bothers you, you should ask him specifically not to do it, or to change his behavior - but being specific is key, so you'll have to figure out what he does that bothers you first. Is it drinking every night? Drinking too much in one sitting? Spending too much money? You have every right to be bothered by any of those things. Hell my husband gets mad when I read too much because it takes my time and mind away from our family.

If he makes promises to you and then doesn't keep them, that's a problem, but again, that doesn't have anything to do with booze. That has to do with not being trustworthy.

So to answer your question, figuring out where to draw the line is half the battle, and something only you can do.
posted by lyssabee at 7:42 PM on July 17, 2012

fwiw, in the right situation i would also drink the beer that's been left in the fridge for 24 hours. if it's a good beer, not bad if it's flat, i don't have to drive anywhere or do anything important, yea, i'd drink it. but i'm also cheap.
posted by cupcake1337 at 5:25 PM on July 18, 2012

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