The most temporarily effective thing my wife and I tried to help us get along during my alcoholism was simple: Be nice. I describe this plan as temporarily effective because while it created moments of peace in our house more successfully than anything else we tried for the ten years of my active addiction, it ultimately didn’t work. So it was the most effective ineffective path we went down to fix our marriage.
Here are the details. Before we said anything to each other, we were to run it through this filter: Is it nice? Yep, we banked our marriage on the childhood mantra, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Have you spotted the issue? If you have to think before you speak to your trusted ally and life partner, there’s a problem. Period. Temporarily successful relationship management that involves a communication filter is doomed because it is exhausting. If you are filtering what you say to your spouse, you are ignoring the problem. In our case, the problem was alcohol. If you are reading this, there’s a good chance your communication is jammed up by alcohol, too.
I’ve written extensively about the rules I put around my drinking to try to control that, which for me, was uncontrollable. At various times during my addiction, I only drank on the weekends or only drank beer or only drank a certain number of drinks or drank a glass of water between alcoholic beverages. I tried them all, and they were all about as helpful as a flat tire.
Similarly, the spouses of alcoholics employ rules for communication in an attempt to create a peaceful, harmonious marriage. My wife tried all of them, too. She didn’t tell me anything important when I was drinking or first thing in the morning or when I was stressed about work or at bedtime. That left her a window of about 15 minutes every other Saturday late morning to tell me everything important she could think of. At all other times, she either walked on eggshells, or risked my unpredictable reaction. It was quite a life we’d carved out for ourselves.
And now, as we’ve met hundreds of high-functioning alcoholics, and hundreds of spouses of alcoholics, we’ve learned that the rules of drinking, and the rules of communicating with a heavy drinker, are neither unique, nor proprietary intellectual property of our marriage. They are universalisms. They happen in the vast majority of alcoholic marriages.
I’d like to tell you that I understood that my drinking was making communication impossible while I was still drinking, and that’s why I got sober, but the truth is, I was oblivious. I knew we couldn’t get along, but that’s not why I stopped drinking. My sobriety was driven by my debilitating alcohol-induced depression and anxiety, and my wife’s emotional detachment from me. Our gnarly communication patterns didn’t contribute to my decision to stop drinking.
In fact, even when I was sober, I thought my wife was at least partially to blame for our marriage struggles. Yes, I was a drunk. Yes, sobriety was a requirement. But she was still a pessimistic nag who was neither warm, nor affectionate, so the gloom that stagnated our relationship was clearly still largely on her.
I thought it was her fault.
Even in my sobriety, she was quiet and reserved, she had little interest in what I was learning about alcoholism as part of my recovery, and she seemed to cringe when I touched her. I was an alcoholic, but she sometimes acted like a bitch. We both worried that we were doomed.
It wasn’t until years into my permanent sobriety that we learned the truth. Nothing that contributed to my sobriety or our relationship recovery was more important that when we both embraced this simple fact:
It’s not her fault.
None of it. Not her nagging. Not her lack of trusting. Not her coldness and lack of affection. Not her disinterest in my sobriety.
Just as I had to learn to blame the alcohol for my alcoholic behavior in order to shed the shame that kept me drinking, I had to learn to blame the alcohol for the changes it caused in my wife.
There is lots of talk in the recovery community about rewiring the brains of alcoholics in recovery, and about how that healing takes a lot of time. Well, we drinkers are not the only ones who have been permanently impacted by our drinking.
Our drinking changes the cognitive processing and emotions management of our spouses, too. They are not to blame. We are not to blame, either. The blame lives with the toxin that creates the changes in millions of people. We had to learn to blame the alcohol.
A measurable subset of the internet spent the better part of last week chastising Ben Affleck because in a recent interview, he blamed his alcoholism on his marriage problems. I have sympathy for Ben…not because he is right, but because he doesn’t understand what happened to him any better than most of us alcoholics or spouses of alcoholics. He thinks his wife’s demeanor caused him to drink. He doesn’t see that his drinking changed his wife. It is a universalism that doesn’t care about wealth, fame or Hollywood status. It isn’t Affleck’s fault. The only reason we are talking about his marriage at all is because his Hollywood status shines a spotlight on his every word, whether he understands what he is going through or not. It’s really not his fault. It is definitely not Jennifer Garner’s fault. Alcohol is the bad guy that the internet should be attacking.
“Your father was a raging alcoholic, so your perspective is skewed.” “You don’t drink much anymore, so I think you’re the one with a drinking problem.” “You don’t show me appreciation or affection for what I do for this family, so I drink to find the comfort you don’t provide.” These are all things I said to my wife because I didn’t understand the cause and effect equation that was staring me in the face. Alcohol is insidious like that. It creeps in slowly, making changes over years and decades with imperceivable delicacy so that the victims remain oblivious until it is too late. Just as I thought for a long time that alcohol was the solution to my depression and anxiety (and didn’t see that alcohol was the cause of my depression and anxiety), I thought alcohol was relieving the stress of being married to a naggy bitch. I could not see – even as the transformation happened before my own eyes – that my drinking was the sole cause of the naggy bitchiness.
I thought I needed to drink to tolerate my marriage. In truth, my drinking is what made my marriage intolerable.
Just as sobriety is the prerequisite that fixes nothing, understanding that it was not my wife’s fault was only the start of the solution. Rebuilding a marriage from the trauma and devastation of alcoholism is a very long trudge. There are no shortcuts. Relationship recovery requires trust building. There might be nothing more delicate in the human psyche than learning to re-trust someone who didn’t value the trust in the first place. It involves replacing bad incidents with good memories – one by one, with consistency, for months and years.
And that trust rebuilding process cannot begin until the shame and blame are cleansed from the marriage. It’s not her fault. Alcohol changes us – both of us. Until we fully believe that, there really is no relationship recovery path forward.
She’s not naggy. She’s not crazy. She’s not a bitch. She’s as in need of recovery and treatment as I am. Understanding that – accepting the unknown universalism of relationship recovery – that is the game-changer that saved our marriage.
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