Do you think couples know they are getting a divorce before they do? Like all things in an alcoholic marriage, aren’t they in denial until the truth is inevitable? Don’t they resist until the end is unavoidable? My wife and I are struggling mightily. But I think we’ll make it. Then again, I don’t know the answers to my own questions.
When I was an active alcoholic, I knew there were issues in my marriage. We fought a lot, and the arguments were vicious. For the longest time, I denied they were out of the ordinary for normal married couples. I couldn’t see my own ignorance. I was in denial. Denial is what we alcoholics do best.
When I first got sober, I expected my sobriety to fix everything. If alcoholism was the cause of all of our issues, sobriety had to be the cure. I was naive again. Sobriety, it turns out, doesn’t fix anything. Removing alcohol just lifts the veil of denial leaving all the problems exposed. Sobriety isn’t the solution. Sobriety allows the work to begin. I’ve written extensively about it. That’s not what this post is about. This post goes much deeper.
My wife, Sheri, is the product of two divorces in her formative years, while my parents are still married to this day. If you’ve never learned how dramatically our adult lives are informed by our childhoods, then you probably haven’t battled trauma, asked questions and listened carefully to the answers. They say opposites attract, and that seems true in our case, but we seem to mix like oil and vinegar. We can hold it together for a while, but we spend a lot of time in mystifying separation.
I am an optimist. I have learned to anticipate bumps in the road, and I’m not afraid of hard work, but I expect things to generally work out reasonably well. Sheri is a pessimist. She grew up seeing her mother’s heart broken and marriages dissolve twice, and Sheri felt like her own alcoholic father didn’t want her around. I used to think our opposite outlooks were cute – like Felix and Oscar. I also thought I could fix her pessimistic attitude. Maybe I could have had I been sober at the beginning. But instead, I added copious amounts of alcohol and solidified my wife’s distrust in men.
I never cheated on her. I didn’t destroy our finances and I was never arrested. I never lost a job, never got into a bar fight and we almost completely shielded our children. When I got sober, I thought I had avoided major calamity. I wasn’t afraid of the work of recovery, and I thought I was going to make it out of addiction unscathed.
My drinking was free from outward catastrophe. It turns out, however, what I did privately was much worse.
I apologized the morning after I got drunk and started angry arguments, but then I did it again a couple of weeks later. I tried to stop drinking on so many occasions. Twice I made it six months, and once I made it nine months sober. But every time until the last, I eventually started drinking again. I tried to solve my overdrinking problem on too many occasions to count. I came up with rules to limit my intake and keep me in line. I didn’t drink on weekdays, I stuck to beer and avoided hard liquor, I only allowed myself a certain preset quantity and I drank a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage. But rules are made to be broken, and while I followed the various plans enough of the time to give my wife hope, I got drunk and belligerent often enough to crush her soul.
I’ve often asked why the children of alcoholics so commonly marry alcoholics themselves, and I’ve consistently received one of two responses. Sometimes, the daughters of alcoholic fathers marry alcoholics because they have unfinished business and want to save their husbands in ways they weren’t able to save their fathers. My father-in-law died of cancer probably brought on by his excessive alcohol consumption. One of our very first dates was to his funeral. But I don’t think that’s why Sheri married me.
I think we are together today for the second reason children of alcoholics marry alcoholics. When she saw me get drunk and start alcohol-induced arguments while we were dating and engaged, it was behavior with which she was familiar. It looked normal. It didn’t scare her away as it probably should have. Children of alcoholics think alcoholism is normal. So they stay, They keep going like they’ve been trained to do their whole lives.
But now I’m sober. I have been for coming up on three years. I didn’t create in Sheri a fear of men, but I perpetuated it. I didn’t cause my wife’s inability to release resentments from the past, but I gave her plenty of memories to add to her list of the unforgivables.
I didn’t teach my wife to not trust men. But when she agreed to leave her family and the destructive memories behind, and start a new life in a new state with the man she was trying to find the strength and openness to love, I gave her reasons to not trust me, too.
So what exactly did I expect? I knew my fiance’s mother had been twice divorced, but there was no class in college about the impact of our childhoods on our adulthoods. I was offering a lasting commitment, and I thought that was enough. I knew my drinking caused pain and anger, but I never let my family down in tangible ways, so I thought time would heal our wounds.
But there is damage done that no amount of time or patience will fix.
We’ve talked to lots of therapists, and listened to advice about communication and empathy. We’ve read everything we can find about rebuilding trust and letting go of resentment.
Here’s the bottom line: When we get along for weeks at a time, our love for each other stops short of providing each other with reassurance and trust to make it over the inevitable bumps in the road. Any small infraction – any minor disagreement – and we are right back at the start as though my last drink was yesterday, and the wounds are gaping and completely unattended.
In the psychotherapy world, they talk of filling each other’s buckets so there is plenty of love in reserve to help us weather the inevitable storms encountered in a healthy relationship. We don’t do that. Our buckets have too many holes in them to hold water.
I need Sheri to trust me in demonstrative ways. I need her to relax around me and know that her vulnerability will be rewarded with tenderness and protection. I need her to accept my compliments and let my praise have a positive impact on her outlook. I need to matter to my wife. But my needs require Sheri to trust me. And that kind of complete and unconditional trust might not be possible. I might have fucked that up beyond repair.
I used to find Sheri’s independence very attractive. Now I see it for the barrier to intimacy that it is. When she met me, she didn’t trust men. When she got to know me, she learned not to trust me specifically. That’s left us with a tall hill to climb. And no matter what we try, without trust, we just keep sliding back down to the bottom.
Living at the bottom of this mountain of distrust has become unlivable.
Our twenty-second wedding anniversary is next month. I love Sheri more now than on the day she became my bride. She tells me she loves me, too, and I believe her. She is kind and generous. She is the best mother to our four children I’ve ever seen. She is a wonderful cook, she works hard at everything she does and she teaches our kids to love God and do the right thing always. She doesn’t have a materialistic bone in her body, and she weeps for the pain of the people suffering around her. Sheri is the best woman I’ve ever known in every imaginable way, and I adore her.
But she thinks she isn’t good enough as a mother, and nothing I say, nor the products of her efforts, can dissuade her. When tensions rise between us, she turns to resentments of the past and her belief that she doesn’t deserve happiness so fast that I don’t know how we get from point A to point B. There is no such thing as a minor disagreement. There is tenuous peace and there is deep, relentless pain.
This is the part of the post where I tell you how much better sobriety is than active addiction. This is the part where I’m realistic about the effort required, but explain that the reward is worthwhile. This is the part with the somber yet attainable happy ending. Usually, this is the part.
But I don’t know how our story will end. This pain gives me no temptation to drink again, and I know alcohol would be catastrophic to my marriage. On the other hand, I know the status quo is unsustainable. I know there is love and commitment, but hope is fading fast. If we don’t find the trust we’ve never known, I’m not sure how we can continue.
I believe we alcoholics are victims of our disease. I see no value in taking inventory of our drunken misdeeds, making amends and feeling ashamed of our diagnosis. But I do believe we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. I took an untrusting wife and proved to her that she was right. I did that. I own it.
The question is, can we ever find a way to heal the wounds of the past, or are we doomed to an untrusting future? Can we fix this, or is our marriage one last lingering alcoholic denial of the inevitable?