When I was 19, I fell in love hard and fast with someone I thought was my forever person. Then, before my eyes, he developed an aggressive addiction to alcohol that continued to worsen over the course of our five-year relationship, causing tremendous pain for both of us. Here’s what I wish I’d known.
Alcoholism is a disease, not a choice. When you’re having problems in your relationship because of your partner’s alcohol use, it can be easy to slip into the mindset of feeling like they’re making a conscious choice not to get sober. We all want to believe that the power of love is enough to overcome these kinds of hardships. The truth is, if an alcoholic was capable of turning their addiction on and off at whim, they would. Nobody wants to be stuck in a cycle of addiction, ruining their relationships and hurting themselves. Alcoholism is a painful disease, and your partner’s inability to stop drinking has absolutely nothing to do with you or how much they love you and want to take care of you.
The alcohol will always come first until they’re 100% sober. Alcoholics are first and foremost in a relationship with the alcohol. Bad alcoholics are often consumed day and night by their battle with drinking and withdrawing. There were several times during my relationship when my ex would actively choose to drink himself into a stupor instead of spending time with me. When he finally did choose to get sober for short periods of time, he was consumed by the process of withdrawing and managing his sobriety. Then he would relapse, and our lives became about his relapse, and all the pain that caused the both of us.
You can’t love someone into recovery. I spent years fighting against this one. I thought that if I just loved him enough, took care of him enough, and stood by him, that eventually I could fix all of his problems and we could be happy again. What I learned through this painful process is that no amount of love was going to save him—he had to save himself. This took an extreme emotional toll on me, but it also took an emotional toll on him. He knew that he was letting me down, and that caused him to feel terrible about himself, which furthered his drive to drink to numb the pain of feeling inadequate and not being able to control his addiction.
The alcohol is usually a band-aid for a much deeper issue. My ex drank because he felt inadequate, and the alcohol made him feel powerful, free of the anxiety and insecurity that held him back from being his most authentic self. He felt inadequate for lots of reasons, most of which stemmed back to his childhood. When you’re in a relationship with an alcoholic, you’re likely in a relationship with a person who’s managing some level of emotional trauma through substance use.
You’ll always live with the fear of relapse. If your partner’s alcoholism is as bad as my ex’s (think a fifth of vodka before 5 p.m. every day), you should be aware that even when they’re in recovery, the fear of relapse will always be there. Relapses can be terrifying for loved ones of alcoholics because they are usually unexpected, happening just when you thought you were in the clear, and they’re often very emotionally tumultuous and painful. In my case, when my ex would relapse, he’d literally disconnect from the world and I wouldn’t see or even hear from him for several days.
It can be very easy to become isolated from your loved ones. My ex’s alcoholism got so bad that it pretty much became a full-time job taking care of him. I consider myself a pretty strong, independent woman, so realizing that I was pouring so much of myself into a relationship just to take care of someone who couldn’t love me back was deeply painful and shameful for me. Plus, alcoholics can often be very emotionally powerful people and master manipulators, convincing you that your relationship with them is the most important thing in the world and that nobody can break the bond you share. My relationship with an alcoholic caused me to cut myself off from my friends and family, from the support systems I would’ve usually turned to. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of this relationship that I realized I hadn’t shared any of my experiences with my loved ones.
Being in a relationship shouldn’t mean you become a full-time caretaker. Obviously, if you’re married and your spouse becomes very ill, it’s understandable if you adopt some level of a care-taking role. But when it comes to being in a relationship with an alcoholic, you need to remember that it is not your responsibility. Nowhere in the list of partnership duties does it say “you must throw your whole life away to help them manage their addiction.” Being in a relationship means that you do equal parts caretaking and being taken care of. If a person is unable to give you what you need because they’re in the throes of an addiction, you need to decide if you are able to sustain doing all the giving and none of the receiving.
They might not be able to love you like you deserve to be loved. It’s important to remember that a person with an addiction to alcohol might not be able to be in a healthy relationship with another person until they manage their relationship with alcohol and do the personal work required to recover. The recovery process is personally taxing and requires the addict’s attention to be 100% on themselves at all times so that they can give themselves the time and care required to heal, which leaves very little space for taking care of someone else’s needs.
Your growth and well-being matters just as much as theirs. I wish someone had told me during this whole ordeal that I matter just as much as he does. I spent so much of my own energy investing in his growth and well-being that I forgot to invest in my own. At the end of the day, the longest relationship you will ever have is the one you have with yourself. It’s important to cultivate that relationship and work on your life with just as much if not more ferocity as you do with the person you’re in a relationship with.
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