Tell Me About It: He no longer drinks but I feel if I’m not vigilant he’ll go back to his old ways
PROBLEM: My husband and I have been married for 12 years and have three children. He is a thoughtful partner, and a loving father. But he’s an alcoholic and for years he didn’t have a proper job (he “worked freelance” but rarely seemed to actually do any work or earn money).
I was exhausted from trying to manage his drinking. I was stuck in a very stressful job because it was the only thing keeping a roof over our heads. And I had nobody to talk to because I kept it all a secret out of loyalty. Finally, 15 months ago, I broke. I gave up on him and I gave up all my dreams for our future together. When he saw I was prepared to leave, he decided to change. He gave up drink, went to therapy, and got a stable job. He’s turned himself around and he is committed to our marriage.
But I’m conflicted. Intellectually, I want the marriage to work. I want to forgive him, and to trust and respect him again. But I’m terrified that if I’m not vigilant, he’ll go back to his old ways. If he does, I don’t think I could survive it.
ADVICE: Your response is very understandable – after 12 years of struggling you only have 15 months of effort on his behalf to put against all that disappointment. However, being on alert all the time will drain you and you might find that your own mental and physical health will begin to suffer. The consequences of living with an alcoholic are many but one guaranteed effect is that you become watchful, wary and prepared for the unpredictable. This is akin to a trauma response and you now believe that if you give up this position, disaster might result.
As the change in your husband’s behaviour only happened as a direct result of your attempt to leave, it is likely that you have associated your behaviour with his recovery. This could mean that you are operating from the idea that if you step down your threat of zero tolerance that his behaviour will revert to his previous state. The stakes are very high here – three children and your family are the possible victims of a relapse. Yet, we know that the road to recovery is often via relapses and returns to sobriety. It would seem that both you and your husband need to be involved in the planning and management of all the stages of recovery but this time you should not be alone in this.
Silence is often the biggest contributor to the maintenance of any ongoing type of difficulty, abuse or suffering in a family and this is definitely something you can change in your own approach. The more people that know of your situation (telling your family and friends) the less vigilant and monitoring you will need to be as others will take up positions in the early warning system.
If an early alert to a possible relapse is raised, then help can be sought when things are not so serious and the possibility for the lapse to be overcome is high. This will mean that you develop trust in your wider community to support your family and you feel freer to actively speak openly. I assume you also have professionals involved in your husband’s recovery and it might be worthwhile to request an occasional invite to one of his sessions so that you can request help for your own fears and doubts. This would mean that you are not an outsider in your husband’s self-development and you gain professional support for your position.
However, just as you want your husband to take full charge of his own recovery, you also need to take charge of your own emotional state and at the moment it seems to be precarious.
You need to accept that while your husband is taking on the challenges of his life, you are now faced with unravelling years of being on edge yourself. You had the courage to make the decision of leaving your husband once when life became unbearable and you may have learned that you waited too long for this action. Your fear that you won’t cope is probably somewhat due to your depletion and exhaustion from worry and fear.
In order to let this go, you need to practice faith in your intelligence to see what is happening (when it is happening and not in anticipation) and have faith in your ability to take the appropriate action. Use the support and guidance of both your families, plus the professionals involved, so that you will not feel so alone in any future decisions.
Self-compassion and understanding is now required for you so that you can step down your alert system and begin your own recovery from the years of vigilance.