Miss Information

My boyfriend's an alcoholic, and everyone says I should leave. Should I?

by Cait Robinson

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Dear Miss Information,

Three years ago, I rebounded from my last relationship with a guy, A, whom I dated for about four weeks. He broke it off with me, I didn't take it too personally, and we became friends.

Now I have been in a relationship with J for two years. J is mostly amazing. He makes amazing meals and dotes on me like crazy. We've done a lot of amazing traveling and other things together. He is super sweet most of the time and helps me out with anything I need. The sex is honestly the best I've ever had. We're building the kind of relationship we both want, a life together with someone to grow old with. We've been living together for more than a year and he proposed to me on his birthday while we were hiking at Yosemite. I said yes. I really believe he loves me and I have always felt devoted to him.

But there are two problems: one huge and one just medium.

The first is that J is an alcoholic and I'm an enabler. When I met him, he was sober and I'd never dealt with alcoholism before. My social life is pretty much built around getting together with friends and drinking. I don't really want to give it all up, but I think I'll have to for J to get sober. His drinking really started progressing after we moved in together and he had some work stress come up. Now J drinks himself into an angry, sad incoherent mess nearly every single night. He spends every dime he has on alcohol. He'll spend hours being drunk telling me I don't love him, that I'm going to die alone, that he's not cut out for this world, that he wants to die. He has gone to AA at various points in our relationship, but never twice in a row. He has seen a therapist, but as far as I know, they didn’t discuss the drinking. I cannot marry an alcoholic, and told him that if he didn't sober up, I will have to leave him. We are going to his counselor together next week. But I still don't know that if he sobers up, this won't just all happen over again later. And I'm tired of missing out on social engagements or feeling guilty about my own drinking. Online advice all says I should've left long ago, which leaves me feeling hopeless.

The second problem is that J is very insecure about our relationship. He's been cheated on in the past. I don't know if it's the drinking, his baggage, or me, but the fact that I'm still friends with A drives him crazy. He accuses me of constantly of wanting to be with A, of A wanting to be with me, of cheating on him, having another "relationship," texting A all the time — none of which are true. I feel like I've done everything I can to show J that I love him and that I want to build a life with him — if I didn't, I had plenty of reasons to leave long ago.

I really don't know what to do. When J was sober, we were really active. We went hiking, rock climbing, on road trips. Now he's not sober for long enough for us to do those things. He's still really loving before he gets too drunk. That's about twenty hours out of the day. The other four hours leave me feeling alone, isolated, worried and lost. My friends love him and love us together, but they don't see him at the end of the night and I don't want to tarnish their opinion of him. The few people I've talked to about it have said maybe the drinking will lighten up if I stop hanging out/talking with A, so they think I should do that to make J more secure. I think that'd be stupid, and it's not the way I want to live my life. Maybe I should relent. Maybe he would stop drinking if I didn't have male exes in my life.

I write all of this and in my head, it seems obvious to break up with J. But in my heart, I'm still searching for a solution. Is there one?

— Searching

Dear Searching,

90% of the time, the pat Internet “dump him!” advice is right-on. Enablers shouldn’t date alcoholics, and nobody should pull anyone else into a misery spiral. However, yelling, “Dump him! We're done here, I’m going to Wendy’s!” misses some nuance. Alcoholism is a significant challenge that J needs to take seriously, but it does not make him broken, less human, or undeserving of love. Many couples have stayed together through trials like this, and emerged stronger for it — but it will take an iron will, razor-sharp emotional intelligence, and a lot of outside support. Think carefully: are you up for it?

You describe the symptoms of J’s illness really well, but your letter misses his attitude. Does he see the problem? Does he want to change? If the answer to either question is “no,” you won’t get very far. His drinking has everything to do with the demons in his head, and nothing to do with how many exes you talk to. Period. You can’t save him, nor can you ruin him. He is responsible for his own actions. You need to know this and believe it first and foremost.

What I find most concerning are his depressive and suicidal thoughts and tendencies, as well as his wild accusations. This is absolutely an “if you see something, say something” moment. If you’re close to his family, bring up your concerns with them. Confide in a trusted friend who might be able to support you. It’s sensitive, but you can’t shoulder this burden by yourself, nor should you. We are social animals, and we need people most in times of crisis. The more of a secret you keep his depression, the easier it will be for you to wrap yourselves in it and disappear.

J’s healing will absolutely require sacrifices from you — but, hopefully, the benefits will outweigh the inconvenience. You will need much clearer, stricter boundaries. Make sure he finds a good therapist, and make sure he goes consistently. While we’re at it, you need a good therapist, too, and to go consistently. Go to AA. Make time to see your friends and cultivate relationships outside of your romantic life, so you can feel more supported elsewhere. Make a plan, but make sure J is driving it. This needs to be his project with your sideline support, emphasis on “sideline.” He needs to heal himself; the most you can do is cheerlead.

Also know that sometimes, admitting “I love you, but this is bigger than I can handle” is the most loving option. He needs help; everything else (including your relationship) is secondary.

Dating someone whose wounds are so raw is not for the faint of heart. This is why, 90% of the time, “dump him!” works. But, for the other 10%, careful consideration and cooperation can get you through storms intact. Just make sure he is ready for the challenge. Most importantly, though, make sure you are.

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