How to talk to new boyfriend about his relationship with alcohol?
August 26, 2013 7:09 PM   Subscribe

I have been dating a lovely man for two months. We met online. I'm concerned he may drink too much and would like to talk to him about it.

Signs: I don't think a date has gone by without alcohol; oftentimes he arrives at my apt in the evening after sitting in traffic (mid-week) and has two-four beers while he unwinds before bed (usually brings his own beer, I stock microbrews and he brings cheap, light stuff); he and his brother recently intervened with their sister to get her checked into a dual diagnosis (mental health and alcohol dependency) rehab program and - in her anger/resistance - she accused them of drinking too much themselves; he showed up yesterday early afternoon after a 4.5 hour drive smelling strongly of booze (had been drinking heavily at a family reunion the night before, and has poor oral hygiene, so maybe the smell was leftover from the night before?); he'll have a night cap before bed (shot of vodka, usually) if he's not tired enough to fall asleep naturally.

I don't actually notice his behavior change when he's drinking, and he's conscientious about not drinking too much and driving. I'll often have one or two drinks with him, but would usually be just as happy abstaining. He has attention deficit and suffers from some anxiety and depression, too, and has mentioned that the anxiety is better when he doesn't drink.

I have no experience with alcoholism. I'd like to engage him in conversation and find out, from his perspective, whether his drinking is a problem or not. I'm nervous about rocking the boat, but also want to see what's in the boat! Any suggestions for opening and holding this conversation, staying balanced and compassionate yet also able to recognize warning signs (if he reacts with anger or resistance, for example) and express concerns? Specific verbiage would be great. Thank you.
posted by AlmondEyes to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If he's this cavalier about imbibing questionable amts of alcohol in front of you now, imagine how bad this will be a month, two months, three months from now... run run run!
posted by charlemangy at 7:15 PM on August 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

This all sounds like it's within the range of normal (albeit weighted a little towards the heavier end), except for the possible drunk driving. Being "conscientious about not drinking too much and driving" (emphasis mine) is not really being very conscientious at all; please encourage him, as much as you can, not to drink and drive, to consistently have a DD or cab money or whatever. That's not necessarily a sign of alcoholism (it can be, but some people just aren't...that careful about it, for whatever reason), but it's a bad idea.
posted by kagredon at 7:18 PM on August 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Aside from the nightcap thing and the possibility that he might have done a long road trip while drinking, none of this sounds remotely problematic to me.

Keep in mind that light beers are lower in alcohol than, for example, a microbrew IPA. Drinking three miller lights isn't the same as drinking three dogfish 90 minutes.
posted by Sara C. at 7:24 PM on August 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

It sounds like this is outside the range of your comfort level around alcohol. If I were you, I would back off of this relationship until you have a better sense of his substance use/abuse and how in/outsync this is with your position on this.
posted by HuronBob at 7:24 PM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

how old is he? i feel like any advice or commentary i'd have here would really depend on that. It's one thing to be drinking like that in your early 20s(although, imo, nightcaps are a bit weird)

No one i know really goes on dates without drinking unless they're coffee/lunch dates. The mid week beers thing and drinking a lot at a family reunion sounds pretty normal to me(i don't think i could go to a family reunion without drinking. a lot of people have families like that...). The poor oral hygiene is a totally separate issue, like, wtf, brush your teeth dude. I can smell like booze in the morning if i don't brush my teeth and eat something light.

The second paragraph is good, because all the awful alcoholics i know get... weird. I hope you mean he only drives if he's only had a couple beers, and not just that he only drives when he's like "i'm totally ok!". Although, if it's an early 20s thing... a lot of people i know have had to climb over that hump of idiocy.

I won't get in to the anxiety/depression angle, because i think internet diagnosing someone of having an alcohol problem or self medicating on that front is pretty damn gross.

Why are you nervous about rocking the boat? You should have that conversation. It sounds like you're worried you'll find something you don't like and would rather just avoid it. I think you know pretty much exactly what to look for even by what you've listed there. Specific verbiage just sounds like you're trying to tip toe around it when i think most people if presented with this discussion would know exactly what you meant.

Rock the boat a bit, see what falls out. Don't just avoid it when it sounds like you're uncomfortable with this a bit, which is what really matters.

On preview, i agree with sara c. And it also occured to me that the light beer/super cheap beer thing is kinda weird. Why not drink nicer beer? I don't know anyone who actually likes pisswater macrobrews, we just buy them because they're cheap or we're trying to get a lot to share. It's a weird thing to just sit down and plan on drinking regularly unless you're getting pitchers at a bar with friends or something. That with the nightcaps is kinda weird to me, but i can't explain exactly how/why. It just pushes in to a weird zone in my mind when looking at this sort of thing.

So yea, rock the boat a bit. See what he says.
posted by emptythought at 7:28 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

"The amount you drink makes me uncomfortable" is a very VERY legitimate thing to say, even if his habits are within the realm of "normal".

Don't be wishy-washy about it (using words like "kinda" and "maybe"), and don't apologize for being this way.

You have the right to a lifestyle that doesn't involve drinking every day, and the right to require your partner to share that part of your lifestyle.

Also, have ideas about what, specifically, you want changed--in case he asks. Don't suggest he change his behavior unless he asks for your ideas on how to do so. But know what kind of behavior patterns *would* make you comfortable, if the current ones do not.
posted by itesser at 7:31 PM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Plenty of people like macro brews and drink them on purpose at home as their poison of choice. I don't think that's a warning sign of alcoholism at all.

That said, I once had a roommate who had a clear drinking problem and who drank a lot of "alcopop" type things. But she was putting away like a six pack of that stuff every night, day in, day out, on top of a lot of other classic drinking problem red flags. I don't know that I'd zero in on bad taste in booze as the prime indicator.
posted by Sara C. at 7:36 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

We are both 34-years-old.
posted by AlmondEyes at 7:57 PM on August 26, 2013

Regarding the strong smell of booze the day after the family reunion, some people's body chemistry makes them just oooooze the smell of certain types of hard alcohol for a whole day or more afterward, even after showering and such.

If I go with that explanation (which honestly strikes me as more likely than him drinking his way along a 4.5 hours drive) none of the drinking you describe is outside the range of normal, non-problematic drinking in my upbringing and in my adult experience. Mind you, there is absolutely no way for me to tell you whether he has a healthy relationship with alcohol or not, and I'm not trying to do so. I'm just saying that the amount and pattern alone is not an automatic beyond-the-pale red flag of a problem.

But you don't need to find his use of alcohol off-putting for "objective" reasons, you can just say that you aren't accustomed to that kind of drinking and you find that it makes you uncomfortable, and explain why. Maybe you feel like he's not valuing your company if he's drinking like that. Maybe you wonder whether what he's like without his inhibitions lowered by alcohol. Maybe the idea of a nightcap strikes you as self-medicating/chemically dependent. Whatever it is, maybe you can find a compromise. Or maybe not.
posted by desuetude at 8:24 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

This really doesn't seem like a problem for him. His drinking seems normal to heavy-normal. I wouldn't bat an eye at someone who drinks this much.

I'd like to engage him in conversation and find out, from his perspective, whether his drinking is a problem or not.

This isn't the issue. It's a problem for you. If you go at this thinking you are going to show him he drinks too much, you a) could be wrong and b) will not get too far with him.

First, decide if this actually bothers you, not just not that you think it should. Secondly, if it does, you tell him that. Not that you think he might have a problem, but that it bothers you. You'll talk, and he will either change his behavior, you will change your mind, or you won't get anywhere and will eventually break up.

Any suggestions for opening and holding this conversation, staying balanced and compassionate yet also able to recognize warning signs (if he reacts with anger or resistance, for example)

Plenty of non-alcoholics would be upset or resist if they were incorrectly accused of being an alcoholic. Please notice two things: though you framed this as finding out if he does have a problem, your phrasing indicates you have already decided that he does. Secondly, you have created a scenario where you can't be disproved: he either agrees that he has a drinking problem, or he denies it, proving he has a drinking problem.

The only person you can control is you. Approach your problem in that spirit. If you are not happy, you are allowed to leave.
posted by spaltavian at 8:25 PM on August 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

Drinking to sleep is a HUGE red flag for me, a guy with a brother in rehab and a history of alcohol related deaths in the family. I'm clearly biased, but that SCREAMS alcoholic or at minimum abusing alcohol in troubling ways to me. I worry that he uses alcohol for everything; sleep, social lubrication, boredom killer, etc.

The sooner you have some kind of talk, the better. Alcoholism can easily be genetic. It sounds like everybody he knows drinks. In my biased, kinda damaged world view on alcoholism, it sounds to me like he has a big, big problem, and it will not get better unless something bad-bad happens.

I'd be curious about how long he's been drinking like this. And why, though I seriously doubt he would admit to having any problems requiring drink to hide them. If you went booze free, what would his reaction be? If you banned booze from your house?

Sadly, I suspect he is an alcoholic (biased! yes.) They tend to not react well when confronted on their issues, in my limited experience. Good luck.
posted by Jacen at 8:38 PM on August 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sounds like if he doesn't have a problem now, he probably will later. And so will you. Him.

Poor oral hygiene is not good. Poor hygiene in general, actually. What are you thinking?

At 34? Come on. Do you think this will get better?
posted by FauxScot at 12:41 AM on August 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

So, his daily intake (that you know of) is 2-4 beers and a shot of Vodka before going to bed? Does he ever not drink at night? Can he just skip it or does he have to drink?

and he's conscientious about not drinking too much and driving.

He can't just not drink if he is driving? What is not "too much?" To give you an example from my circle of friends and family, many do not drink at all when they have to drive from an event or will have one beer and that's it.

I think you have correctly intuited his drinking is a problem but you are seeking an admission from him. You are unlikely to get it.

But, to your question. Alcoholics are world-class at deflecting, denying, changing the subject, evading, et cetera.

Any suggestions for opening and holding this conversation, staying balanced and compassionate yet also able to recognize warning signs (if he reacts with anger or resistance, for example) and express concerns? Specific verbiage would be great.

First, this is a totally reasonable thing to want to ask him about, and he should be ok discussing it with you.

"Hey, I am curious, do you drink every night? Because, you know, I can go without, depends on the meal I am having or if I am in the mood, but you always drink when you are at my place."

Then just observe and study his reaction. The best outcome would be if he freely discusses his routines about drinking.

If he were to question why you are the standard to be compared against, or complain about how stressful his life is, or how difficult the drive was, or if he complains about being questioned, or what brought this up, et cetera, well, then you have your answer.

It will also be interesting to see the tone of how he responds. Is he self-deprecating or does he become annoyed or angry at you? He might even ignore your question.

Whatever his response is, it will be valuable information, so don't focus on getting an admission from him, just see how he answers (or does not answer) your question.
posted by mlis at 1:33 AM on August 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

The only problem I can see here is that your dude really needs to brush his damn teeth.
posted by downing street memo at 4:07 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised by how many people consider this normal. I had a boyfriend who had to have several drinks a day like this (like he couldn't go one day without) and it was a problem. It was very, very much a problem - to the point I would never date anyone like that again.
posted by Jess the Mess at 4:12 AM on August 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

That's not really a huge alcohol intake, in my opinion. I think if you are worried about him having a drinking problem, some of the main indicators would be drinking increasing, the appearance of heavy binges, personality change when drinking, or an inability to control amount or frequency of drinking.

I think the main issue is you and what you are comfortable with in a partner. If, say, it bothers you that drinking some beers seems to be the first order of business when he gets home, as opposed to doing something else together, you should talk about that.

A lot of people drink some alcohol almost every day, but other people find that to be not a lifestyle they like to be around. There is a lot of cultural variation about how much is what people do and how much is excessive, too. I'm told that, in some places, if you try to explain, hey, I am an alcoholic and I don't drink at all, they have a really hard time understanding what the hell you are even talking about. It's like, you aren't in the hospital, work (with the boss looking),graveyard or church - why aren't you drinking with us?
posted by thelonius at 4:13 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I say it is not huge, I'm comparing it to alcoholic-style intake, where there is none of this stopping at the 4th beer stuff.

I used to work in a bar where a guy would come in and drink 2 or 3 pitchers of beer by himself. We later found out that he was coming to our place after the one up the street cut him off; we were the second half of his NIGHTLY intake of what comes to at least 24 beers. I don't want to suggest that, if someone doesn't drink THAT much, they are fine, since someone else is worse. 4 drinks a day is probably more than a doctor wants to see you have.
posted by thelonius at 5:18 AM on August 27, 2013

...he showed up yesterday early afternoon after a 4.5 hour drive smelling strongly of booze (had been drinking heavily at a family reunion the night before, and has poor oral hygiene, so maybe the smell was leftover from the night before?)

Umm, what? Yuck! That alone would turn me off.

I dated a guy once who was like this. He turned out to be an alcoholic.

Your intuition is telling you something. What you describe is a lot of drinking. He sounds like he's self-medicating. I wouldn't date him, personally. If you talk to him about it, expect him to try to reassure you that "it really isn't that bad." If you continue to date him, you will find out exactly how bad it is, but don't expect that he is going to be willing to disclose it. You'll probably find out in bits and pieces, with that bad feeling in your gut growing every day.

Sorry to be so gloom and doom, but I speak from experience. I would not date a guy who drank as heavily as your boyfriend. When I did, I found it was just the tip of the iceberg.
posted by Rainflower at 5:22 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

What you've seen may be how much he drinks and it may be how much you've seen him drink.

Agreed that what you've seen is probably in the heavy-normal realm, though the reality is the drinking, ADD, depression and anxiety almost always present serious, serious challenges in relationships.

Two months in, I'd move on.
posted by ambient2 at 5:43 AM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

You really lost me at "poor oral hygiene."

Liking to drink more than you do doesn't mean he has a drinking problem, it means that you have a problem with his drinking. And many people, alcoholic or not, will react defensively if you question their drinking habits. Especially if they just had an intervention where the person accused them of over indulgence.

maybe you could point out that your lifestyles might be incompatible on the drinking front, and what does he think?
posted by sm1tten at 6:15 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're uncomfortable with his drinking. That is completely okay. You can determine for yourself what is comfortable for you.

So the real question is: what are you hoping to accomplish by talking to him about it? If you're hoping he's going to change as a result of a conversation with somebody he's been dating for 2 months, you're going to be disappointed. What you really need to do is decide whether who he is right now is the person you want to be with.
posted by something something at 6:34 AM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

First and foremost, no one should or can diagnose your beau as an alcoholic. Anyone other than your beau can only say that you are correct in recognizing some definite warning signs. He could be a problem drinker, simply going through a phase, or any of a hundred relatively innocent things in relation to alcohol.

However, speaking as a recovered alcoholic, you need to trust your gut, and if you choose to stay with him, walk with your eyes and ears wide open. If there are more warning signs, talk to people close to you about them, and listen to what they say.

This is a forked road where the wrong branch can take you into an emotional hell. There is an entire Anonymous program dedicated to helping those loved ones, wives, and families of people enmeshed with active alcoholics, who over long periods of time become mentally ill themselves due to simply being associated with someone who is dependent on a substance.

Personal anecdota:

I was a sneak drinker, I dated a woman for three years (until I broke up with her) who made me swear I wasn't an alcoholic after noticing some of my own warning signs early on in the relationship (as her father had died due to medical complications from years of alcohol abuse).

I lied straight faced directly to her and swore I was just going through something, and that I was not, in fact, an alcoholic. It drove my sneak-drinking into overdrive, and things appeared OK on the surface for quite some time. It wasn't until we moved in together that the depths of my drinking became evident. By that time, we were so enmeshed that she made me her project to "fix." Needless to say, it didn't work.

With regards to your new beau's drinking, it doesn't matter if it's a problem for him, it's a problem for you.

Have a talk with him, let him know that you really care for him, and set some boundaries that are fair to you both. If he cannot adhere to these boundaries, this is a warning flag that MUST not be ignored. In the case of a violated boundary, this either means he doesn't respect your boundaries, or he's unable to because of alcoholism.

The pain I have caused significant others, and the hurts I have thrust upon them are some of the most terrible things I have done. To unwittingly and unwillingly drag someone you care about down with you. The neglect, emotional abuse, visits to hospitals, fear, depression, shame and self-blame these poor women have felt... simply because they knew me at my worst, is not something I would wish upon an enemy.

Granted, I am speaking to you from the hypothetical stance that he may be an alcoholic, but this is only because this is my only experience. I have spoken with a few long-term ex-girlfriends in recent, sober years, and the few things in common is that they all knew something was up from the beginning, and they all thought they'd be able to back away emotionally if their fears were realized, but in practice they ended up engaging in massive layers of denial and delusion with regards to my drinking.

If you were my sister, I would advise you to walk away. Knowing what I know, and living the life I've lived, it's just not worth it at two months in with these types of flags. However, because I have a very specific past, I would completely understand if she chose not to heed my warning, and I more than recognize my own personal bias in this.

Regardless of what you choose, or how you choose to approach this situation, know that you will be OK, either together, apart, or anything in between.

If he's not an alcoholic, you can read this thread a year from now and laugh about it.

If he's is an alcoholic, and you do what is right for you, you can still read this thread a year from now and laugh about it.
posted by Debaser626 at 6:37 AM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

It doesn't matter. Take him as he is right now. Drinking and shitty teeth. If he never changed (and assume he won't) is this how you want your life with your SO to be?

You've come to a bump in your new relationship road, the guy has exhibited an undesirable trait. This is why people date, to see if they're compatible. This seems like an issue for you (it damn-sure would be for me) and it's not your job to fix or help this guy.

I'd just wish him well and send him on his way. Some things are just signs that it's not going to work out, a difference in the amount of alcohol consumed is one of them.

You don't have to try to fix him up to dump him. You can go ahead and do that. You don't even have to tell him why. Just say, "I think we have different views on important lifestyle choices."

At some point he may see that his drinking is affecting his relationships negatively. Or not. But is that a road you want to travel with a guy you've been seeing for only two months?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:57 AM on August 27, 2013

I drink a lot. I do appreciate it though when people are concerned about me (rather than trying to control me). So ask questions! "Have you ever gone for a week or longer without drinking? A month? A Year? Do you think it's a problem? Do you ever drive drunk? Have you ever? Have you ever had a drink when you woke up? What's the dumbest thing you've ever done while drinking? When's the last time you threw up from drinking? Do you have to have a drink before you go to sleep? What would need to happen for you to quit drinking forever?" Listen carefully to his answers to these questions, and pay attention to his level of defensiveness. If you just ask questions and hear his answers, he shouldn't feel accused by the discussion, and if he gets pissed off just talking about it, that's a much bigger red flag.

We can't diagnose your boyfriend from this post. You probably can't diagnose him even if he answers all these question. But talking about it is important. It may be a problem for him, it may not. It may be something that you can help with, or it may just cause you pain. You may have to leave him because of it, or your concern may help him cut down or quit. All of these things might happen. A long term relationship involves weighing a lot of possibilities and examining your own feelings and expectations to decide how and whether to blend your lives together, or to get the hell out.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:45 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

1) It doesn't matter whether he is or isn't an alcoholic. The amount he drinks bothers YOU. You seem to realize this since you want suggestions on how to talk to him about it, which suggests you want to come to a compromise on how comfortable you both are with drinking. This is good.

2) Verbiage NOT to use would be "alcoholic" or "problem". Just approach it as a mismatch the two of you have, like you would approach differing levels of wanting to go out vs. stay in. You will know from his reaction whether he is defensive about his drinking or not, which is a red flag. I'd say, "Hey boyfriend, we seem to be different in how we like to drink, and I feel a little uncomfortable with it. What can we do to plan our time together so that we are both happy with the amount we each get to drink?"

3) You didn't ask, but I'll tell you - if he gets angry or defensive, indicating that he has a problem with drinking, I don't think there is anything you can do, and I would advise getting out ASAP. A man who reaches 34 with poor oral hygiene, who has been told by friends, family, dentists, for YEARS that he needs to brush his teeth and still does not do it, will not stop drinking for you.
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:04 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Poor oral hygiene" in a grown-ass man is a dealbreaker for me. He couldn't brush his teeth before coming over to see you? Yuck. And this is early in the relationship when he's on his best behavior and trying to impress you, so it will only go downhill from there.

You can have The Talk with him, but what will you do if he can't or won't change? You can't count on being able to change your partner. You are not married to this man, nor do you have kids with him, so you aren't in the "for better or worse" position yet - so you can afford to be choosy. Do his good qualities make up for his being a fuzzy-teethed drinker? If it gets worse, what can you live with?

And if you are thinking in terms of wanting a family at some point, you want to think long and hard about who you start that family with. Kids do not ask to be born; parents are 100% responsible for bringing them into this world. Knowingly having a child with an alcoholic is a form of child abuse, IMO.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:28 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thinking about the incident you mention about the 4.5 hour car drive and arriving with scent of alcohol. That is serious. The scent of alcohol the day after drinking can also come from the skin pores - this sometimes is noticeable after heavy drinking. A person in this condition may not feel hungover at all, because they are still half-drunk, and they shouldn't be driving even if they are hungover, really.

Also, as a few people said, the drinking you see is almost always not all the drinking that is going on, in the case of a person in trouble with alcohol. People who only saw me drink at, oh, a work party, would be surprised that I am an alcoholic, because I was able to keep control of my intake at events like that. This control over alcohol was an illusion, in that it was possible only because I knew that I could drink like I really wanted to later, when I got home. Again, that's me, not him, but I hope this kind of experience is useful for you.
posted by thelonius at 4:07 AM on August 28, 2013

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