Life After No-Drinking-Allowed: what's the next step?
April 4, 2015 6:23 AM   Subscribe

I gave my problematic-drinker boyfriend an ultimatum to stop drinking for at least 30 days, and he accepted the challenge. Which is great... except I have no game plan for what comes next.

I have been dating my boyfriend for a bit over 5 months. He is great in many ways: fun, creative, and genuinely cares for me, as I care for him. Unfortunately, he also engages in problematic drinking: while he doesn't get smashed every night of the week, when he does drink he frequently does so to the point of blacking out, and it causes him to be both erratic and unreliable (examples: being out of touch for hours because he's gotten drunk when we have plans, or missing plans entirely because he's hungover, or on the other end of the spectrum, rapid-fire texts/calls when he knows I'm hanging out with friends). Major incidents are uncommon enough that I haven't outright dumped him, but after the most recent one I told him that I think he has a drinking problem, that he routinely prioritizes drinking over me, and that there's no way for us to move forward with his drinking being the issue it is. He agreed with me on all counts and told me he was willing to make whatever changes necessary to be with me. Yay! But...

I told him he had to stop drinking completely for a while, and suggested a trial run of a month, which he agreed to (I offered to also not drink during this time in solidarity). However, I'm not really sure what my game plan is here: if he slips in this month, do I break up with him, in the interest of keeping my boundaries? What happens at the end of this month? Are there some safeguards or guidelines for trying to ensure that things don't just go back to the way they were before? Or am I just putting off a return to Unreliable Drunk Boyfriend?

There are tons of resources out there for people with very clear-cut alcoholism, but this seems to me to be a gray area where he is capable of drinking socially sometimes, but has trouble not overdoing it. Or maybe I am being too lenient here? I've never been in a relationship where this was an issue, so I don't really know how to deal with this situation. I'd like to be supportive and caring towards him, but not at the expense of my sanity or my ability to trust him.

I've read through the other very helpful AskMeFi posts on partners-with-problematic-drinking, but I'm looking specifically for practical suggestions on steps beyond the one we've just taken, and what recourse is appropriate if he doesn't follow through on what we've agreed. Anyone have a flowchart handy?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Moderation Management. If the person can successfully moderate, that group or its instructions are all that are needed; if not, there are a variety of options for abstinence.

How old is the bf? The majority of problem drinkers actually age out of their problems, often due to ultimata like the one you gave (though sometimes with some bumps: it takes time to learn new behavior and that doesn't necessarily mean failure if the person is trying and learning from what doesn't work). Most problem drinkers aren't alcoholics and even the majority of alcoholics stop without treatment or AA.

See this. Also try this.

If there is an ongoing problem, the book I co-wrote, Recovery Options: The Complete Guide, can be helpful. It is a little old, but sadly not out of date because this field moves slowly.

The medication naltrexone (reVia) can also help some people moderate; another drug that can be useful (off-label) for some people is baclofen. You can find lots of info on these online.
posted by Maias at 6:53 AM on April 4, 2015 [27 favorites]

I hate to say it, but it's 100% not up to you, except what you'll tolerate in terms of behavior in the relationship. If he agrees that his drinking is a problem, then it's up to him to determine his method of approach. Can he drink without overdoing it? Perhaps. There are many people, especially young people, who don't quite know where that line is when they're imbibing. Learning moderation is a difficult process, and it's something you can support, but you can't force.

In recovery, many say that the first relapse is the most important thing. If he gets blackout drunk after this test period, how will you handle it as a couple? Being open to the idea that he may slip, but that isn't because he isn't trying, and what the game plan is for both of you (how honest he'll be about it, how you'll support him and how he'll respect you) if and when that happens.

Again, it's his issue, and all you can determine is what is acceptable to you in terms of his behavior in the relationship. Nobody can bring forth a habit change or a recovery in another person, which can be frustrating.
posted by xingcat at 7:11 AM on April 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

this seems to me to be a gray area where he is capable of drinking socially sometimes, but has trouble not overdoing it. Or maybe I am being too lenient here?

It's not a question of leniency; it is a question of both you and your partner understanding the hallmarks of alcoholism. From your description of inability to self-regulate, blackouts, and impact on his life, your boyfriend sounds like an alcoholic to me.

if he slips in this month, do I break up with him, in the interest of keeping my boundaries?

In this instance, I would be inclined to point out that his inability to not drink demonstrates that his addiction is so firmly seated that he needs recovery help.

What happens at the end of this month? Are there some safeguards or guidelines for trying to ensure that things don't just go back to the way they were before? Or am I just putting off a return to Unreliable Drunk Boyfriend?

The assumption that he will return to drinking is potentially problematic. He may or may not be able to do that.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:16 AM on April 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

Rethinking Drinking may be another resource for him.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:26 AM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

You've been together five months? At this point he should still be on his very best behavior. Consider whether you want to be his not-drinking enforcer for the rest of the relationship. If it were me, I'd get out now. This is not a good sign of things to come, and you and an ultimatum can't fix him; he has to want it badly enough that he'll do it on his own.

Good luck to you both.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:29 AM on April 4, 2015 [28 favorites]

I did a month off, on the road to deciding that I cannot drink alcohol at all. I benefitted from it some, but, 6 months later I was as bad or worse as I had been before. That perhaps biases me to pessimism about his prospects - I'm sure there are people who succeeded in moderate drinking after doing this - but, for what it's worth, here is my advice based on that experience.

Taking a month off is great, and it can really help people get clarity about their drinking, but there has to be real and lasting change after the month off. And that change has to be something he wants for himself, not just a bargain to keep you as a partner, or it just won't last. If he does this with success, and then seems to be reasoning, I could stop for a month, so I'm not an alcoholic, so there's nothing wrong with me and my drinking, and he then continues to drink to blackouts or exhibit a loss of control over drinking once it has begun, then, in my opinion, you should leave. You have been dating for a few months; you are not life partners.
posted by thelonius at 7:33 AM on April 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

the both of you haven't just taken a step. this is his issue. it of course affects you, but you can't love him into stopping drinking, you can't set up just the right plan to make him better, you can't manage his relationship with drinking. this has to be on him. i think you need to find yourself a friend & family support group like al-anon and try to figure out why you got so entwined with someone's problematic relationship to drinking.
posted by nadawi at 7:36 AM on April 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

The problem with the '1 month' approach is that if he successfully completes the 1 month with no drinking, it may in effect "prove" to him that he doesn't have a drinking problem and therefore the bigger picture moderation is unnecessary. What you really want (I assume) is that you can share a bottle of wine (or 2!) together over dinner or go to a party and have a few beers (maybe even 1 or 2 too many!) without it ending in blackouts and inability to move the next day. Perhaps just setting up that as the 'new normal' is a better model rather than the outright prohibition.
posted by modernnomad at 7:38 AM on April 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

I feel if there have been enough instances in 5 months of dating that you felt the need to issue an ultimatum, there's a good chance he's a problematic drinker...and i have little faith in problematic drinkers changing when they're doing it to make others happy.

The end of the 30 days may give you a decent idea. Does he promptly go get trashed? Big red flag, unreliable drunk boyfriend may just be who he is.

If he does not even make the 30 day mark? Or, even if he does make it and he drinks less, but it's still at a level you're not comfortable with(which is something you'll have to decide)? I'd personally be inclined to end the relationship, no negotiations. I wouldn't want to feel like I have to be his monitor. I also wouldn't have faith that anything he promises (however sincere) about moderating his drinking is one he could keep. Even if you give him all of these great resources and he says, "wow, this is all helpful!" I'd be skeptical, as there no evidence that he's internally motivated to change.

That being said, sometimes people just have developed bad habits. I've seen some groups of people that are fine separately, but together still act like its highschool/college. Just taking a break might be enough to break the cycle. So if you want to wait and see, but keep an eye on the situation, I don't think that's unreasonable or doomed to failure. The question is if you think he's worth gambling several months to a year of time on (because even if he's a problem drinker he might be able to "behave" for a while). Time where you'll probably be holding back a bit. For a guy who was apparently ok about being inconsiderate to you repeatedly, and blaming it on drinking.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:52 AM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

He has to be able to quit or moderate for himself. If he does it for you, what happens if you break up or aren't around for a while? He has to come to this conclusion for himself. But if you have been able to help him see that, that's great!

Moderation in all things, including moderation. How this works for me is that I have caffeinated coffee and refined sugar a maximum of once a month each. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but it does give me a good guideline for what appropriate should look like for me. It's possible that a similar approach could work for your boyfriend.

But yes. If he goes back to blackout drinking, it isn't something you are going to be able to solve. You will just be more sad when you eventually leave. So sticking to your boundaries is a good idea. At least, that's where I would set my boundaries. It sounds like it would be the healthiest solution for both of you.
posted by aniola at 8:05 AM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't want you to spend the whole month fretting, but I think it's good that you consider what happens if he fails, and what happens if he succeeds but still enjoys going out drinking and wants to drink in the future.

I'm reading a book about micro resolutions that talks about how being consistent with small changes is what the human brain can handle, and how big, big resolutions tend to fail. So, I do think it's possible that he will want to drink this month, will rationalize drinking "just a little", and will drink more than he intends on at least one occasion. That seems more probable than him having an immaculate month, which takes a very large amount of self control.

If he slips, it might be constructive if you can talk about it in a non-blamey way. Analytically. He has to learn to wrestle with temptation. I guess I think the point of talking is to report what his behavior was like and how it affected you if he isn't capable of remembering it. This can easily lead to a fight, so maybe non face-to-face communication is what is needed.
posted by puddledork at 8:07 AM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh hi! I have been where you are, and life is currently good and great. My boyfriend did a month of no drinking (with one slip-up. he did not want to stop drinking and says he was "white knuckling it" all 29 days of sobriety) and returned to the same behavior, only with more confidence that he wasn't an alcoholic--he made it almost a month without drinking! see! no problems!

Only there were problems, and of a greater magnitude than I'd realized. The problem drinking I knew about? It was only the tip of the iceberg. He was hiding a lot. And there was nothing I could do about it besides establish what I was and wasn't willing to put up with (AskMe was helpful in this regard, as was my personal therapist).

A couple of months after his return to "moderate" (LOL) drinking, there was a point where he was finally ready to stop. He had had enough and he wanted to change. He had to decide that for himself, was the thing. He started going to AA, and that works better than Moderation Management, etc., because there are regular meetings and a supportive group is available any day of the week. However one dis/agrees with the twelve-step stuff, the presence of other folks in a group is invaluable.

If you love him and this is really going to work, be prepared for a rocky road. I do believe it's possible to stay together and have a healthy love after problematic drinking. Al-Anon is something I never thought I'd do, but it's been very helpful. You might try a meeting or two and see if it offers any perspective. Feel free to message me, and good luck!!
posted by witchen at 8:10 AM on April 4, 2015 [11 favorites]

One more thing. While a few of us have rightly said that controlling drinking or getting sober is something a person has to do for their own sake, not to gain others' approval, it is also possible that someone could have a "moment of clarity" where they realize: I am valuing getting drunk over my relationship - is that how I really want to live?
posted by thelonius at 8:17 AM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can only relate what happened to me. I would do those 30 days off whenever I had done something particularly dumb. After a month, I could have a couple beers and be OK. After a few days, I'd figure "So why not go ahead and have three? "
Typically within 2 weeks I would be back to the same, or worse, amount of drinking as before. But I had convinced myself I wasn't an alcoholic, after all, hadn't I just done 30 days?
The binge drinking episodes got closer together, and the moderation times got shorter.
I finally, after much noodling around it, decided I was probably an alcoholic. Most people that knew me already knew that, doctors and psychiatrists had told me that, but I was smarter than them. But finally, I decided for myself to get help. I went to AA, read some of the book, and became convinced I was indeed alcoholic, I had probably been born alcoholic, I just needed to add booze for the disease to set in.
Last December was seven years without a drink. My life is immeasurably better.

Just because someone can "white knuckle" through thirty days does not mean they are not an alcoholic. Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, relates that he did the same thing plenty of times.
posted by rudd135 at 8:27 AM on April 4, 2015 [15 favorites]

It's good that you're thinking about what to do if he fails to live up to his promises. But it's probably worth giving some thought to how you can alter your shared environment to help him better see the benefits of not drinking.

I quit drinking in January for health reasons. (Short version: I rarely if ever drank to drunkenness, but beer was making me fat; men in my family die from being fat.) One of the things that has made it much easier is that my wife has encouraged me to treat myself (and her) at the grocery with the money I once would have spent on booze. Having steak regularly and drinking awesome European coffee I would never have sprung for before is easing the blow considerably.

It gets thornier if he spends a good deal of time socially with other drinkers. I didn't, so that part wasn't so bad. But if your bf does, you can help him by finding ways to replace that social interaction without alcohol.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:31 AM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I should have added though: there are ways you can be supportive and marginally helpful, but as other people have pointed out, this is all on him in the end.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:45 AM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Let me lay a little Al-Anon on you: You didn't cause it. You can't control it. You can't cure it.

Why not give yourself an assignment, too: go to some Al-Anon meetings during this 30 days. If you don't like the first one, try another. They're all different. You will find a lot of support at a good meeting, and lots of ideas about next steps.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:56 AM on April 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Whatever comes next, keep in mind that you don't have to stay with him if you don't want to. Regardless of what he does or doesn't do.

A lot of times people drink as a coping mechanism for something else. Stopping drinking is not the same as fixing the something else. Stopping drinking for a month does not suddenly bring the something else into focus. Recognizing and working on the something else is often an entirely separate journey, and it's only on reflection years later does someone go "OH, my shitty drinking habits at that time were because XYZ!"

None of that has anything to do with you, really. "What next?" is really a question for him.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:19 AM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hey! Your boyfriend sounds a lot like me when I was drinking - I could go weeks at a time without drinking (so of course I didn't have a problem, right?), and then would start drinking again (and quickly get back to my binge-drinking habits) once I had "proven" to myself I didn't have a problem. The need to be totally abstinent to not over-drink is one of the hallmarks of a problem drinker - the all-or-nothing approach.

I think if you believe that your boyfriend is capable of moderate drinking without the black-outs/flakiness/problem behavior, you need to ask for that rather than abstinence. If he's not, he might need to join the non-drinkers club - I've been here for almost two years, and life is so much easier/happier than I ever thought it could be.
posted by superlibby at 10:56 AM on April 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

He could go to an addiction counselor for an evaluation. A problem with going to AA is that it pushes a lot of people in the other direction; they hear something and think "No, I'm not as bad as that."

The counselor may actually say he's in a category where he doesn't have to quit right now. But even then, it wouldn't mean you would have to like his lifestyle, necessarily. There are plenty of people who either don't drink at all or don't act obnoxious when they do so.
posted by BibiRose at 1:23 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think the lede is getting buried a bit here.

At first i was going to ask how old you guys were, but actually i don't think that matters as much. Similarly, i'm not a huge adherent to the whole 6 months/year "honeymoon period" thing. Some people take time to get comfortable in a relationship and act better. Not that it's worth waiting for if they're being shits, but that one bugs me as much as the "texting is not a serious communication medium" thing.

To get to my point though, i think you have two problems here and i don't think getting rid of one, the drinking, will get rid of the other... which is just being an inconsiderate prick.

Because, i was going to chalk this up to(potentially) typical early 20s bullshit if that was applicable, but then i realized that even at my worst stupid drinking, and my friends/acquaintances worst stupid drinking, i/we still didn't blow off plans with people we were interested in.

I don't think this is so much about drinking, it's about putting hanging out with his friends or whatever ahead of hanging out with you. Whether it's direct, or by getting super hammered beforehand and being too hungover to do it. Does he have a job? I bet he's fairly decent at structuring his plans around not being too hungover to work and getting fired.

It honestly wouldn't surprise me that even if he 100% abstained, you wouldn't be rid of any of these behaviors. The people i know who do even one thing like that do it whether they're drunk or sober. I think you might just be getting, at best, a preview of how he'll act sober in a few months when he's drunk right now if there's even a difference at all.

Pretty much, i think he has an asshole problem, not a drinking problem. And if he does have a drinking problem it's unrelated to the asshole problem and at worst just exacerbates it a little bit.
posted by emptythought at 2:35 PM on April 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

To determine what happens at the end of the month, regardless of whether or not he drinks during the next 30 days, you need to figure out what your boundaries are. Is it the drinking that bothers you, or the subsequent behavior? Suppose he can drink and keep his plans with you, not cancel plans because he's hungover, not pester you when he's drunk and you're out, etc? Would that be okay with you? That's how I would frame both your boundaries and your eventual response to him at the end of 30 days. Either:

I don't want to be with someone who drinks so much OR
I don't want to be with someone who breaks plans & is a jerk

Both are perfectly acceptable feelings to have. It's okay to be with someone who drinks a lot if you want to be.

In my experience, there are not as many “clear cut” alcoholism cases as you may think. You need to decide what you can and cannot deal with in general and apply your answer to this situation.
posted by lyssabee at 2:57 PM on April 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

am I just putting off a return to Unreliable Drunk Boyfriend?

posted by kinetic at 4:12 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

In my experience, there are not as many “clear cut” alcoholism cases as you may think

Totally agree. We have a very unrealistic binary view as a culture - someone is an alcoholic, or they are fine.
I have counseled a lot of people who are on the verge of stopping drinking over the last three years, in an online support group, and many of them are vexed by this. They may not have a physical dependency on alcohol, they may not meet other criteria that they think or have been told are essential to alcoholism, but they are experiencing chronic negative consequences from binge drinking. I like to ask people to imagine - and anonymous here may benefit from adapting this thought experiment - that we had no concept of "alcoholism", and no one is an "alcoholic". Would they be OK with their drinking, in that world?
posted by thelonius at 4:28 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Many people believe that if you black out sometimes you are clearly on alcoholic. Certainly not a good sign at all.
posted by jcworth at 5:00 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm curious as to why you picked a month? What did you think it would prove and what did you hope it would accomplish? It's not like you can force him to stop for good, nor are you in the position to evaluate his condition and deem him "cured" if he passes your test. I understand why you would ask that of him, but I worry you're a little out of your depth, here. You seem to be focusing on his behavior rather than your feelings about his behavior, when that is what will guide you here.

Just as a data point, many, many alcoholics can quit for a month. Because they know it's not for good. Then they use that very short period of abstinence to prove that they don't have a drinking problem.
posted by kapers at 7:43 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I forget what the time period mrs. straw (in her pre-mrs. straw days) suggested, I think it was two months rather than a month, but once I learned how to socialize without drinking, and stopped using it as a crutch, I've just really never gone back. Maybe once or twice a year I'll have a drink or two because someone's broken out some homebrew or something that they're really proud of, but drinking as a habit has gone away.

So hang out with him, help him find social patterns that don't involve alcohol. Learn in bars to order something non-alcoholic that you have to pay for (tonic water or ginger ale is my go-to, usually I start with one of those and then switch to seltzer water), and then tip as though it was a full-priced drink, and the bartender will be on your side.

If he can't do a month, he's got a problem that goes deeper. But based on my experience, if you can help him through that first month or two and break the habit of drinking, he'll have no reason to go back to it.
posted by straw at 9:05 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think both of you need to think of this 30 days as the beginning of an ongoing conversation on the topic. From the way you described it, it seems like he's fairly on board with making changes, and probably not just to be with you, but because some part of him recognizes something not right in his own behavior. Whatever heavy-drinking consequences you feel impacting you, he probably has waged upon his dignity/self-conception tenfold. But you can sense better than us whether he's genuinely open to change or if he's simply saying what he needs to for now.

Even if he's fully committed to making change, it's rarely an easy, bump-free ride to an acceptable sort of balance. But certainly you have not-so-awesome behaviors/tendencies yourself that impact your relationships. Both of you will have to continue to evaluate whether or not working through the bumps strengthen you or if they spin you around, plow you over, and whether or not you're willing to put up with the bumps, if the frequency and scale of bumps are acceptable to you.

I think the 30 day thing has the potential to be a wake-up call. It could be a time to reflect on his drinking habits and how he feels about them, to discover what can trigger the urge to drink heavily, and begin to sort out issues, challenge old behaviors, to face shame, accept mistakes, rewrite self-concept, accept the wobbliness of where he's at.

But, hopefully you're aware that people with alcohol issues are often notoriously good at lying/hiding/justifying drinking, and for putting on a great face for the cameras. So, if things smell fishy to you, trust your gut. Things are probably fishy, even if they otherwise look like everything you hoped and dreamed for.

The other thing I'd like to add is that a good partner is a healthy partner. What I mean is: if you want to be a good partner, take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself will keep you healthy, help you to be emotionally available for support during a difficult transition, it will keep you independent so you have the strength to walk away if need be, and it will model healthy behaviors/coping-mechanisms for him. Likewise, if he wants to be a good partner, he'll take care of his own health. The benefits will be reflected on the both of you.

Good luck! Keep moving forward, keep evaluating your feelings on the situation, and take care of you. You sound like a thoughtful, cool partner...good wishes for you both!
posted by hannahelastic at 4:03 AM on April 5, 2015

The cliché, "two days/two weeks/two months," does have a basis in reality when it comes to breaking and relapsing into bad habits. There's a valid reason that AA asks for a 90 day commitment in the initial phase.
Most young drinkers drink because they are bored, and it's an escape from routine. Social drinking is glamorous and fun. Younger blackout drunks usually drink too fast, then "suddenly" find themselves way over their limit. High school and college are supposed to teach you the errors of those ways.
Until he finds something that is more important to him personally than his current habit, this behavior will not change; you cannot "love him out of it." You definitely cannot guilt him out of it, either.
If you're feeling generous, and it's worth the effort, give him 90 days, but don't tell him he's got 90 days. Just know in your heart that if it doesn't change by then, that your destiny lies elsewhere.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:10 AM on April 5, 2015

if he slips in this month, do I break up with him

Yes. Without question. If this person can't go a few weeks, this person had absolutely no control.

am I just putting off a return to Unreliable Drunk Boyfriend?

Probably. I have gone months without drinking. It never improved my ability to moderate at all. It's more like avoidance. Additional work is required.
posted by zennie at 4:49 AM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

He prioritized booze before you. You came last. If it isn't drink, it will be something else. My game plan would be to find someone who puts me first and allow him to find someone who could love enough to put first. But, hey, I'm 42 and single so, maybe that isn't the best plan.

Value yourself enough to walk away. He was broken when you got him. It isn't your fault or your responsibility.
posted by myselfasme at 5:56 AM on April 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Everytime this topic comes up, or any topic about drinking, there are loads of people keen to shout alcholism at behaviour which, in many societies, among young men in particular, is pretty normal. FWIW, I'd suggest that drinking here isn't the problem, ocassional drinking too much and being an idiot as a result is. It's great he's happy to change, but this is about behaving like an adult when its apropriate, not about medical addiction. Focus on the behaviour that'a unacceptable (like missing arrangements etc) and look to sort that. Only if you can't do that would I start looking at wider issues.
posted by prentiz at 8:46 AM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

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