Inevitability of an Alcoholic Divorce

Sheri and Matt - StuckDo 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?

To read more about our alcoholic marriage, and all we’ve learned about salvaging our relationship, please download our FREE ebook:

Read Our Spouse’s Guide to Alcoholism Recovery

Back in the Pit of Alcohol-Induced Depression
November 8, 2018
The Stark Contrast Between Alcoholism and Sobriety
June 26, 2019
The Fight for Independence
July 3, 2019
27 Comments
  • Reply
    ML
    August 14, 2019 at 6:13 am

    We pick partners that reflect and evidence the very trauma we need to resolve. Your wife picked you to resolve her childhood trauma borne of witnessing her parents’ marriage and, more specifically, her alcoholic father. This is beautifully and patiently explained in the book, “Getting the Love You Want”. This book’s authors founded the very successful couples counseling known as Imago Therapy. I am a promoter of neither the book nor the therapy. The book, however, is critical to understanding why we all select our partners, and will continue picking certain “types”: until we resolve our issues from the past. In my mind, your wife picked you for a perfectly logical reason. I believe the two of you will make it – truly.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 14, 2019 at 6:26 am

      Thanks for the good wishes, and thanks for the book suggestion. We’ll check it out!

  • Reply
    Brian Chenault
    August 14, 2019 at 8:05 am

    Matt,

    As always, your openness and honesty are remarkable and inspiring.
    Thank you for this post. I’m wishing you and your family the best as you
    navigate through these challenges.

    Brian

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 14, 2019 at 8:09 am

      I’ve gotten pretty used to baring my soul, but this one was quite a bit harder than usual to publish. Thanks for your support, Brian!

  • Reply
    Nancy
    August 14, 2019 at 8:40 am

    Spot on again. So eloquently described. I remember my ex husband saying “if I never took another drink for the rest of my life, you still wouldn’t trust me.” To which I replied, “you’re so right!” It was the moment I decided the marriage was over. He perfectly clarified for me what I had not realized. He was, as usual trying to deflect responsibility from him to me. And he was right.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 14, 2019 at 10:39 am

      Amazing how many of us out there have such similar stories. Thanks for helping people see we are not alone!

  • Reply
    Nancy
    August 14, 2019 at 8:42 am

    I do want to add Matt that I pray you and Sherry get through this. You are trying so hard. My ex never did even try to get sober. And that’s why I knew it was over.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 14, 2019 at 10:40 am

      Thank you, Nancy, for your support and prayers!

  • Reply
    Pam
    August 14, 2019 at 11:41 am

    Hi Matt,
    Have enjoyed reading your posts and certainly empathize with your current situation. One comment you made troubles me. “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.”
    In my experience feeling ashamed of one’s diagnosis is not a requirement of making amends to those whom one has harmed. Having received amends made by a loved one, I can assure you that it was a very powerful and positive experience on both sides, requiring no shame.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 14, 2019 at 12:05 pm

      Hi Pam. Thank you for reading and thank you for your comment. You write about a very complex issue for me. I feel strongly about the power of making amends with the people to whom I am responsible. I have apologized endlessly to my wife, and I have had multiple conversations including amends with my kids.

      But I am most concerned about the stigma of shame that clings to the disease of alcoholism. It it my opinion that apologizing to the people on the periphery only perpetuates the stigma. I would prefer to help people see alcoholism as a disease, and, thus, forgive the transgressions of the afflicted without an apology.

      I agree with you that the power of amends for the giver and receiver is important and healing in the closest of relationships. Thanks again for your feedback.

  • Reply
    Liz
    August 14, 2019 at 8:02 pm

    Matt. I’m an alcoholic 3years sober I congratulate you. I live with my boyfriend who is 2 years sober because of health reasons. I go to meetings both AA and Al non because it’s a family disease. My boyfriend goes to none. He brings up the past a lot gets upset easily and I’ve decided to move out. I want to grow and learn. I make my program my own. Take what I need and leave the rest. I wish you two all the best. Thanks for sharing. You help me alot

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 14, 2019 at 9:30 pm

      What an interesting perspective, Liz. Thank you, and congratulations on your three years.

      I think my wife has all along considered herself to be in recovery. Like you say, it is a family disease. But I think she is realizing now that she needs to put more time and energy into recovering actively. Thanks for reinforcing that.

  • Reply
    Jane Bucknam
    August 15, 2019 at 9:12 am

    Hi Matt.. Going to Al-Anon meetings weekly for 25 years helped me tremendously. Knowing you’re not alone and hearing people’s stories unites you with them on an emotional and spiritual level. Perhaps Sheri would find hope and answers in meetings if she has not tried them yet. I’m thinking of you both and sending best wishes for the highest and greatest good for each of you. Take good care!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 15, 2019 at 11:36 am

      Feeling not alone is so, so important, Aunt Jane. Thanks for the suggestion and the love.

  • Reply
    Nikki
    April 20, 2020 at 7:54 pm

    Honestly, your courage in sharing this is such a gift to those who stumble upon it (like I did). Thank you for your courage and your words.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      April 20, 2020 at 8:32 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Nikki! I’ve got an update to our marital situation coming out in an article on Elephant Journal tomorrow. I hope you get a chance to read it. Thanks again!

  • Reply
    Stephanie
    June 25, 2020 at 6:32 am

    My husband is a high-functioning alcoholic. We have have a precious 3 year old daughter who was born premature and is a walking miracle. Time and time again, BIG problems have happened when he has been drunk: found wandering on the side of the road with one shoe and no glasses at 2am, saying and calling me horrible things he would never say sober to me, and just in the past 3 weeks, he and I were nearly in a car crash (squealing tires in attempts to save crashing into a pole and then not soaring into the woods on the other side), and tripping at the pool, while holding our daughter nearly sending them both into the pavement.

    Over the past 6 years, I have heard countless times that he will get better, he will change. And time and time again I have threatened to leave. At what point, am I being negligent as a mother in not leaving for the safety of our daughter? He’s a good man and a wonderful father, when sober. But when is enough enough? Am I being irresponsible by waiting for something to happen again or worse, to our daughter to leave?

    I don’t have any trust at this point on anything he says because it never sticks. But to break up the “family” and have our daughter going home to home is just so sad. I know deep down what I should and need to do, but the pleading and begging for another chance makes me need confirmation that leaving is, in fact, not only good, but necessary.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 25, 2020 at 7:17 am

      I’m so sorry for your situation, Stephanie. Alcohol is a diabolical poison, and it has put your family in such a terrible predicament. I can’t tell you if it is time to stay or time to go. No one can. I can tell you this, though: If you don’t follow your intuition and do what your instincts are telling you to do, you’ll likely regret it for your whole life. You are the sober one. You are the momma. Your instincts are healthy and pure. Your husbands instincts have been poisoned, and until he finds longterm sobriety, he can’t know right from wrong in many ways.

      We have a program called Echoes of Recovery for the loved ones of alcoholics. There are lots of loving, compassionate people going through the same things who can understand and offer their guidance and experience, too. I urge you to check it out, and enroll if you think we might be a fit. I wish the very best of luck to you, Stephanie!

      https://thestigma.org/echoes-of-recovery/

  • Reply
    Ann
    July 21, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    Hi Matt,
    I am struggling with the identical scenario you discuss here and can definitely identify with your wife and your story as well because my husband is recently sober but can’t understand why I no longer want to stay in the marriage. Is there any for me to have an opportunity to Discuss some of my issues with your wife? I am looking for support.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 21, 2020 at 5:46 pm

      Hi Ann! I’m so sorry for your struggles. Dealing with an alcoholic marriage is so hard. That’s why we’ve created the Echoes of Recovery group for connection and support for the loved ones of alcoholics. We encourage you to check it out. Part of the process, before you make any sort of commitment, is a 30 minute video call with Sheri and me. I recommend that you start the enrollment process, if you like what you see, and you’ll definitely get a chance to talk to Sheri whether you ultimately join our group or not. We hope to hear from you, Ann!

  • Reply
    Ann
    July 21, 2020 at 5:50 pm

    Thanks so much f or getting back to me. How do I schedule the call to become part of the support group?

  • Reply
    Lindsay
    October 16, 2020 at 3:45 am

    This morning I am sitting here in shock after my husband last night (he’s 10 months sober) announced after 11 years that he doesn’t want to be in this anymore. I’ve been searching for some logic to help me cope and your post has really helped. You’re right, there is so much resentment and frustration. I thought him being sober would fix so much but all it did was unearth everything the drink covered up. I still want to make it work, I still love him, but he appears to have woken up from a slumber and decided he wants a brand new start. Part of me understands the other part is furious that after everything I’ve done to support him through this that he now decides to walk.

    Anyway, this is still very raw but thank you for offering a perspective I could relate to.

    Thanks

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      October 16, 2020 at 9:18 am

      I’m so sorry, Lindsay! We have other resources for you, and we truly do want to help. I hope you look into our new book, soberevolution: Evolve into Sobriety and Recovery Your Alcoholic Marriage.
      https://soberandunashamed.com/books/

      Regardless of how the marriage goes, maybe our Echoes of Recovery program can help you recover.
      https://thestigma.org/echoes-of-recovery/

      You’ve got a long road ahead of you. Don’t try to do it alone.

  • Reply
    Jennifer
    November 19, 2020 at 11:08 am

    Hi everyone,
    I’m going through a breakup (divorce) that really resonates with Matt’s post and some of the comments here. My husband of 2 years was about 1 year sober from alcohol, which he quit only after I gave a choice of alcohol or me. I hated to give an ultimatum, but there really was no other option. At that point he was high functioning, but laughed off past inpatient rehab stints and refused to go to AA or join support groups. After alcohol, it quickly turned into a cannabis addiction. I was relieved that it was safer substance, but didn’t fully grasp how an addict can turn anything into an addiction. It quickly became a problem, both in terms of money and quality of our relationship. Because the new substance of choice wasn’t alcohol, he didn’t consider it a true addiction. But seeing him go without it was like watching a train wreck. He never actually treated his addiction. He just moved to a different substance while all of the wounds and patterns of behavior from earlier were still there. He exhibited the same signs as alcohol: “I’ll just use it after 4 PM” or “only this form of it,” but obviously that never works. I came across the term “dry drunk” – someone who doesn’t drink, but hasn’t treated their addiction, and it fits exactly. Now I’m coming to understand how the erosion of trust from an alcohol addiction doesn’t disappear when the alcohol is gone. The addict needs to be willing to and want to change, and the spouse cannot be their only support. It became dysfunctional and we both resented the other: I resented him for not taking addiction seriously, and he resented me for taking it so seriously.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      November 19, 2020 at 11:41 am

      Thank you for sharing part of your story, Jennifer. There is healing available for you, too. I hope you’ll check out our Echoes of Recovery program for the loved ones of alcoholic. Thanks for reading!

      https://thestigma.org/echoes-of-recovery/

      • Reply
        Jennifer
        November 19, 2020 at 11:45 am

        Thank you, Matt! I just made an inquiry submission re: the program. I’m so glad I came across this post.

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