Tell Me About It: Is this pattern of drinking a worry for the future?
PROBLEM: My partner’s parents are both alcohol dependent. My partner doesn’t drink that often but when he does, he drinks to excess and I find myself getting worried and wanting to go out less.
He can’t say no to another drink once he’s out with friends or family; this is partly because they operate “rounds” of drinks when they’re out together, and going to the pub is usually the only time they see each other. When it’s just us, we’ll have a couple of drinks out and we rarely drink at home.
Is his drinking behaviour around family/friends something I should be worried about for the future? I’m afraid he will become alcohol dependent during his retirement.
ADVICE: There are a number of issues here: alcohol, your partner’s family, fear of future behaviours, and retirement. The culture of alcohol seems to be in your partner’s family but perhaps not in yours?
You say his parents are both alive, but you are worried about retirement, so my guess is that they are getting on in years and their drinking has not had too devastating an effect on them – at least not yet. You say that when your partner is out, he cannot say no to another drink but when he is with you he does not seem to need to keep drinking. Yet, you are worried he will turn into his parents once the pressure of work is off.
There is no doubt that our family histories and traditions around alcohol can play a huge part in our own relationship with drinking patterns but it does seem as though your partner has established a very different pattern in his own home and in your life together. This is not to say he has mastered these patterns, but I wonder if his reticence with you is a part of his attempt to create a different home life for himself.
Is he aware of your concerns and I wonder if your conversations around these issues are productive or avoidant?
The difficulty here is that someone who wants to protect their poor drinking habits will block conversations about it – but so would someone who feels that they do not have any problem and that you are being too rigid and constrained. I wonder if you would like to discuss this with a professional in the first incidence so that you feel more solid in your interpretation of whether this is a difficulty or not. Or, even better, if the two of you could find it possible to go together for some help with this.
This is a big step, but it would demonstrate that both of you are willing to be open and curious about what is happening, what the impact of family of origin has and what kind of future you both want to build together. Of course your partner might see this as over the top but it seems that you are full of fear about your future and you can seek his support with this genuine concern.
When we live with someone, we also take on board their family and there is no other time in the year that puts more pressure on this relationship than Christmas with all the festive drinks and traditions it (usually) comes with. The danger is that you are now on high alert for excessive drinking and this tension in you may transfer to your partner and his family.
Can you agree in advance with your partner what the boundaries are for you when you are with his family?
For example, could you agree to spending a couple of evenings with his family where your partner drives so that you do not have to worry. But then, he may also spend time with them on his own if he wishes. Your partner’s family and friends may feel very judged by you and there is a danger you will get left out of social occasions and miss out on that community of connection he has.
This might be a crux in your relationship if he feels he has to choose between you and this community. It may well be real in that the drinking is something too big to get past, but before you reach this conclusion you could look at making changes in social engagements.
Could you organise meeting friends or family for hikes, picnics, walks by the sea and coffee?
Involve your partner in being creative about how your social life can be less centred around alcohol – the more fun you make it, the better the chance of success.
You are worried about retirement and you should know that one of the best indicators of future behaviour is past or current behaviour. This means that you are going to be good at fear and worry and he will be good at being constrained at home but unconstrained in the pub. This is an opportunity for you both to look at what you would each like your retirement to look like and to seek each other’s help to put changes in place now so that this might be achieved in your future.
As you can see, all of the changes suggested here involve honest and real conversation with your partner and allowing him full participation in what your joint future looks like.
This will require courage on your part as the outcome of these conversations is not guaranteed but you will have done your best to give the relationship a real chance of thriving.