My partner, who I love very much, drinks and smokes regularly – daily – much more than I am comfortable with. Let me clarify: my partner does not ever smoke cigarettes, just weed, and usually it’s the recreational grade vape-pen oil that are lawfully sold in Colorado or California.
My partner drinks and/or smokes every day – I cannot remember the last day I did not see a drink or the vape pen in my partner’s hand at some point. My partner often drinks and smokes alone. But, also, my partner does not (to my knowledge) try to hide the habits from me.
After weeks of obsessive monitoring, I am convinced that, at the very least, my partner is a habitual drinker/smoker. On weeknights, my partner usually has 1-3 drinks, but on weekends, it’ll be more. I do think my partner has boundaries and knows when to stop drinking or smoking, although I will occasionally see my partner reach for that unnecessary last drink after they’ve been out all night drinking.
My partner’s drinking and smoking is always at ‘appropriate’ hours, in the evenings or on weekends. As far as I know, my partner has no problem fulfilling all work-related obligations, their relationships are positive and happy, and they do not drive under the influence. My partner is very smart, hard working, reliable, a thoughtful family member. These qualities have stayed steady since we’ve been together (about 3 years). Our relationship is pretty awesome. We bicker a bit about little things (the socks on the floor, showing up on time to family brunch, etc.), but we are overall very happy together and share important values.
The most visible change in my partner since we’ve been together is their weight, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s solely the drinking and smoking, or also the fact that their life is more sedentary now that we’re together (my partner moved from a city where they walked and used public transportation regularly, but now they drive to a desk job). My partner is blessed with a beautiful face, no matter their weight, and I am still attracted to my partner, despite the extra pounds.
I am more health conscious (and vain) than my partner. I monitor my weight and physical appearance, I try to eat nutritious foods, I work out regularly, I am careful about getting enough sleep, I meditate, I see a therapist regularly. Part of my conflict is that I feel my partner doesn’t value their health in the same way I value my own. (It might be important to note that I probably take ‘valuing my health’ a bit too seriously – I am a mild hypochondriac, and monitor my own body and mind with the same obsessiveness I’ve lately turned toward my partner’s drinking habits.)
It’s definitely important to note I have a complicated relationship with alcohol and drugs. A close family member of mine struggled through a drug addiction during my adolescence, and I am sure I have some unresolved trauma from that experience that is coming to life in this relationship. My family member is in recovery, has been sober for more than a decade, and by being a part of that experience I have learned a lot about addiction. Maybe too much, because I’m constantly monitoring myself, my friends, and now my partner, assessing their habits, predicting who I might need to support through treatment.
I know it’s not fair to punish my partner for my family member’s mistake and my own fears around addiction, but this pesky feeling – this fear that I’m repeating some family cycle, this fear that my partner’s health might seriously deteriorate too early – keeps reappearing.
When I bring this up to my partner, it comes out judge-y, and drives a wedge between us. My plan is to wait for them to offer an opening, a line of vulnerability so we can discuss my fears around their drinking and smoking calmly. But weeks turn into months, and no line of communication opens up.
I welcome your thoughts and ideas for how I can stop being so highly conflicted in my relationship, Dear Person.
Dear Highly Conflicted,
The beauty of writing our problems on paper (or screen) is that we have a visual map of the direction our mind chooses to take. We can follow its twists, turns, and contradictions. This gives us an insight that is usually hidden from us when we experience this stuff internally.
After reading your letter, it appears to me that most of your conflict is within yourself, dear, and not between you and your partner. I say this because of a sentence that does not mesh with the rest of your letter. It’s the part where you say “we are overall very happy together.” I am trying to reconcile this statement with the others in your letter, and I simply can’t seem to fit this detail into a different reality, the one in which you are obsessively monitoring your partner’s drinking, fearing for their health and safety, being reminded of your past trauma, and avoiding bringing any of this up because you don’t want to appear judgmental.
This is not an accusation, dear. I don’t blame you for waiting for your partner’s signal to bring up this sensitive issue. If it helps, I can even co-sign your justification for your fear. I can tell you that being hurt by a family member who struggled with addiction means your watchfulness and attention makes all the sense in the world. But this justification is only important if it helps you admit two things to yourself: one, that you are not in the happy relationship you claim to be in. And two, that you are, in fact, angry about your partner’s behavior.
As my bio page will attest, I am not a licensed therapist or mental health counselor. But from where I sit, it sounds like your partner is struggling with addiction. You may call it “habitual drinking” but I am not sure there’s any difference.
I don’t know where you live, Conflicted, but where I grew up — in the midwestern U S of A — nearly every adult was a functioning alcoholic. As a kid, I noticed friends’ parents standing at the edges of birthday parties, opening beer after beer. It was the same during football or hockey games. At bonfires. At night, after work, in front of the TV.
In college, almost all of my friends picked up the habit. Not only was there alcohol on campus, I went to school in a city that boasts “a bar on every corner.” I noticed friends taking shots before heading out to the bar, arming themselves against feeling embarrassed or vulnerable. But what could I say to them? College kids drink a lot, so what’s the harm? I didn’t want to become a “mom” to my friends, and I’d rather die than appear judgey.
The problem is, a habit doesn’t disappear when you get your diploma. I don’t know if your partner began drinking and smoking in college, Conflicted, but many of my friends who did have seamlessly incorporated their habit into their work lives.
The commonplace-ness of habitual drinking masks the problem that it is. I’m guessing you’ve found yourself frantically googling symptoms of alcohol dependence, hoping to check enough boxes off a list to comfortably diagnose your partner.
Stop. You don’t need any more proof. The fact that your partner is not hiding their habit or skipping work, and that they drink during “socially acceptable” times doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. It is.
Let’s return to your anger for a moment. Something that I spend a huge amount of time on is separating the feelings I have from my judgments about those feelings. I was not raised in a religious household, yet I automatically think of certain emotions as “good” and others as “bad.” Happy = good. Angry = bad. If you were raised with religion, Conflicted, detaching morality from your feelings may be doubly or triply difficult for you.
But I encourage you to recognize that a feeling inside of you is just a feeling. It’s roiling around in your guts the same way gas does after eating Brussels sprouts. You can’t convince yourself that the feeling isn’t there any more than you can convince your body that it doesn’t need to fart. And like farting, feeling a feeling isn’t morally good or bad. It just is.
You, dear, happen to be angry as hell at your partner. With good reason, but it doesn’t even matter why. You just are. Period. Some nights, your head might broadcast a loop of anger-fueled whys: Why are they doing this, and why do they seem blind to the way it impacts the life you’re building together? Why aren’t they as committed to their health as you are to yours? Don’t they know how your past trauma is triggered by their actions? It’s unfair!
But as long as you continue judging your own anger, hiding it beneath qualifications — it’s not my partner’s fault, they’re a good person, I’m just being overly cautious, etc. etc.— it’s not going to come out. And as I’m sure you know by now, Conflicted, when a feeling stays inside of you, it will continue growing. Your anger attached to your partner’s habit is swelling to the size of your entire inner world, like a balloon inflating inside of your rib cage. It must be difficult to breathe in there.
Let the anger out. Do it wherever you feel safe — in your therapist’s office, or to a friend. Because the only real control you have in this situation is the degree to which you allow your own feelings to come to the surface.
I know that you’re afraid of your partner’s reaction to a potential confrontation. I know you are waiting for them to bring it up, preferably at a time when you will be able to express yourself and your partner will be receptive to this expression.
But the bad news is that there is no such time, or such place. This waiting period is an excuse, and it is preventing you from saying what is true out loud. I imagine it’s also creating that dreaded “wedge” between you and your partner. Unless they are a doorknob, your partner has likely already noticed that you are bothered by their drinking. It’s hard to monitor someone’s behavior without them noticing and, no offense, you likely aren’t that stealthy.
By waiting to admit how you feel, you are not protecting your partner from feeling judged. You are protecting yourself from appearing judgmental. This difference is important.
You are a wise and educated soul, dear. You know your partner will likely not change their habits until they decide for themselves that they need to save their own life. You cannot convince them to do it. Any energy you spend willing them to change is wasted energy.
I would encourage you instead to use your energy on something you can impact — yourself. As I mentioned above, it’s time to stop counting your partner’s drinks. You have the proof you need. Instead, ask yourself if you are willing, when the time comes, to wait for your partner to recognize the gravity of their own problem. How long are you prepared to wait? Only you know the answer to this.
Also, I encourage you to look into the resources you have available to you. Can your family member who has been sober for ten years provide some insight? Can you attend an al-anon meeting to connect with other people in your situation?
Whatever you do, please do not let shame and fear prevent you from getting help. When you’re tempted to shrink inside the comfort of your own problem, force yourself to do the opposite. Reach for somebody.
And when you do decide to confront your partner, it will likely be messy. They might get mad at you. You’ll probably come across as “judgmental.” But here’s the big beautiful difficult-to-see truth: as long as you know you’re being honest, nobody else’s reaction matters. Your partner’s (and anybody else in your life’s) response is not your problem. Your responsibility ends with letting your feelings out. This conversation, or argument, will be the start of a much needed change in your own life.
Admit that the rage is there. Let it out. Talk to your partner. And be prepared for what you will do for yourself if they remain unwilling to look at this problem.
Good luck, dear.