sober questioning

‘When Will I Know If It’s Time to Leave My Alcoholic Partner?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Ana,

I’m struggling with a partner who has displayed and admitted to alcoholic tendencies. I’m wary of saying “he is an alcoholic” because I don’t feel equipped to make that diagnosis. But I know our toughest moments and arguments have occurred when he’s been drinking to the point of drunkenness, which happens frequently. 

In these moments he feels like a different person — quick to temper and to escalate an argument. I think this may sit at the intersection of substance abuse and anger issues, but the result is feeling like I’m with two different people — the one I love and enjoy being around and the one I find myself shrinking to in an effort not to set him off.

I’m feeling at a bit of an impasse as to how to handle it. I want to ask “When do I know it’s time to leave?” but I know I’m the only one who can answer that. Are there considerations or questions I should be asking myself to help me make that decision? 

Any thoughts or advice are greatly appreciated,

Dear Not-Yet-Departed,

First, sincere congratulations on the work you’ve already done: You understand that the diagnosis of an alcoholic isn’t yours to make, and you know you’re the only one who can really decide when it’s time to leave. In my experience as an alcoholic, and as a loved one of someone abusing alcohol, those were rather hard-won realizations.

From the perspective of the alcoholic, I know that, for me, what felt like abandonment and hurtful confrontations in my relationships — by the way, what those felt like and what those were are somewhat different things, but more on that in a minute — were crucial components in my decision to turn to recovery. I had to experience the consequences of my actions: the lies I’d told and the responsibilities I’d neglected, the times that my blown deadline meant someone else’s career getting dinged or my blown promise had broken someone else’s heart. The more that people around me minimized the impact I had on them, the easier it was to convince myself that I could manage my drinking. And when people stopped putting up with me, I had to reckon with the costs of what I’d done and what I was willing to lose.

However, I need to be honest about the full spectrum of emotional fallout that came with those boundaries being drawn: I couldn’t help feeling isolated and helpless, which in part drove my depression and suicidal ideations. Of course, whether or not those feelings were really caused by other people’s actions is hard to say. Is it abandonment when the person drowning refuses to grab the rope they’ve been thrown? Is it hurtful to tell someone when you’ve been hurt?

Of course “tough love” is a tough sell, understandably so. After all, addiction is a mental illness and medical issue — doesn’t that make restricting relationships with an active alcoholic cruel? Shouldn’t we do all we can to support someone in crisis? Isn’t it good and right to make sacrifices for someone who is unwell but wants to get better?

Wanting to err on the side of empathy is why your question is so much harder to answer when I think of it from where you are and where I’ve been. As I said, I’ve been the alcoholic and the loved one of an alcoholic. I have stayed in a relationship with someone whose behavior was erratic and often hurtful — twice — because I feared what would happen to them if I left.

I left, both times, once I started to fear what would happen to me if I stayed.

I feared what might happen if I kept giving in to that same impulse you mention in your letter — the impulse to shrink myself in order to just keep things moving along. I was willing to give a lot to a relationship, but what could I give to anyone if I basically disappeared?

I wish I could reconstruct the exact path and criteria that got me to those crossroads, but I can only tell you what helped: Staying connected to the people who supported me. Not isolating or hiding what was going on allowed my friends to keep me honest about what I was going through. They gave me a form of tough love, too, I suppose, by refusing to let me romanticize the situation. I remember exactly where I was the first time a friend told me it’d be okay to leave: “I just want you to hear it out loud. Someone needs to be the first person to say it.”

There was a lot that came between that moment and actually leaving; I don’t know if I could have skipped any of it. In the end, the decision to walk away from a relationship with an alcoholic is very much like an alcoholic’s decision to embrace recovery: It’s different for everyone, no one can force it and, realistically, you may have to make it more than once.

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‘When Will I Know It’s Time to Leave My Alcoholic Partner?’