Tag Archives: my father’s drinking

The Trouble with Alcohol: She Likes To Drink, I Don’t

whole-drinkingcouple

A couple walks into a bar. The woman says, “Saphire Martini, dry.” The man says, “Club soda with lime, please.” [What’s the punch line?] Bartender says, “Funny, when you came in here, I thought you guys were together.”

My girlfriend likes a glass of wine while cooking dinner together. Is she an alcoholic?

I will admit right now I have a problem with alcohol. At times my life was out of control and alcohol was the problem. Of course, I wasn’t the one drinking, it was my dad. My entire family was held hostage by my father’s drinking, his anger, and his resentment. My brother too, eight years older than me, did quite a stint as an alcoholic. I’ve seen the ravages of drinking, and I’ve veered away from drinking in my life. Not because I’m afraid of having a problem, but because I’ve learned to distrust that buzzy feeling.

I realized I was tripping because of MY reaction to her drinking rather than her drinking.

It’s not that my girlfriend has a drinking problem. She likes to drink. She will admit that she’d like to drink less. And she will also tell me that her drinking is more of a habit than an addiction, and that she used to drink out of boredom or loneliness. All of this I believe to be true.

Today, however, she’s not lonely or bored. She’s saying to me that she’s happier and more confident in our relationship than she can remember being at any time in her past. And still she drinks. So… There’s something else at play here. It is my problem with drinkers? Is it her wanting to drink less and still having a couple of glasses of wine a night?

For a while I was worried about this disconnect between us. She drinks, she knows tons of wines she likes, she has some sort of romance with martinis and talks knowledgeably and sometimes longingly about drinking. This was beginning to trip me out.

Then I realized I was tripping because of MY reaction to her drinking rather than her drinking. It was my drinking problem that was causing my own fear and doubt to enter the relationship. So I talked about it. She listened. She didn’t get defensive. I didn’t try to fix or change her. I didn’t ask her to stop drinking.

I did want to understand more about what made her drink even when she was with me. Habit? Maybe, but that’s not a good reason. Loneliness or fear? Maybe when she was living in a different house half the time. But when we are together she couldn’t be lonely. So I started understanding something about her and about me. She liked to drink. And I was afraid of drinking, hers or my own. So, I was the one with the problem. Kinda.

A week ago I started re-reading some of my posts about the relationship I was looking for. And sure enough my girlfriend hits all of the WINNING traits out of the park. But there was this, in something I wrote titled Seven Signs of a Healthy Post-Split Relationship.

Alcohol or tv are not constant sources of entertainment or escape.

Okay, so that triggered my worried mind again. I was reading some of my dating after divorce material, comparing how amazing and awesome this woman was and along came this zinger. Um, oh, yeah, the drinking thing.

But I have learned not to jump to conclusions and especially not to pay too close attention to what I wrote before I met her. I also said I’d never date a woman who was not a mother. I have since taken “never” out of my vocabulary. I had to. She is amazing, and the fact that she had not given birth to children had nothing to do with our love for one another, nor her ability to adore and love my children.

It was MY fear of alcohol that was causing me trouble. And it was my hyper-vigilance against drinking that was creating the issue.

So I didn’t stew on the topic, I simply told her about the post. (She is well aware of all of my writing, so that wasn’t a surprise.)

“So I was reading back over some of my writing from a year or two ago, where I was trying to outline exactly the kind of relationship I wanted, and I came over this funny thing…”

I told her about my fear of drinking, more specifically, her drinking. “And I was amazed how perfect you are, but this objection keeps popping up in my mind. I wanted to talk about it.”

“Sure,” she said, without a hint of frustration.

“Over margaritas, of course!”

“Of course,” she joked. “Let me change clothes and we can go.”

That was a few months ago, and she’s still drinking. I’m even drinking a bit. Partially to join her, partially to allow myself to learn from her about all of her travels, wine parings, and knowledge of alcohol. She really is sort of an amateur-expert.

At the same time I had to confront my own fears, and own them. It was MY fear of alcohol that was causing me trouble. And it was my hyper-vigilance against drinking that was creating the issue. So we kept dating, she kept drinking, and I kept talking and writing about it.

This was a big reveal to me: Everyone who drinks is not an alcoholic.

Okay, so I was letting go of that idea as I was observing our relationship and interactions around alcohol. She and I exchanged some jovial banter about her drinking and I sipped the Pinot and smiled. And over time I began to see what was bothering ME about her drinking. So I told her about my theory. Here it is.

The Third Glass (Making the choice consciously.)

It’s the third glass of wine that determines if we are going to have an evening together or if you are going to head off into some other place where I can’t really reach you or relate to you. One glass to cook, one glass with dinner… and then a choice.

Towards Me (No more wine means let’s be together tonight.”

If she is happy and content, I can’t see why she would need that next glass of wine to feel happy or secure. If she knows and experiences my love as true and present, she wouldn’t want to turn away from those feelings by dipping further into the wine. And here is my own wounded boy’s idea: if she loved me she wouldn’t drink until she was intoxicated.

Away From Me (Yes please, pour me another, means I’ve had a rough day, I’m feeling tired, I’d rather go to bed early.)

It’s that third glass, metaphorically that signals an intention to move away from our closeness and conversation into some altered state. Perhaps there is a numbness or release in the intoxication for her. But unwinding with a glass of wine is different when the third glass is poured and consumed and the words begin to blend together just a bit, and her jovial attitude shifts ever so slightly towards aloof and distant.

Again, this is my reaction and my emotional response to her drinking that next glass of wine. If she chooses to drink more, I tell her, it feels like you are leaving me in some ways. I can’t share at the same level. I don’t want to get lovey dovey. And the real communication between us has to be put on hold until the morning. That’s how it feels to me, the sober one. I can’t say how it feels for you. Perhaps I am too focused, too obsessive about not drinking, and the third glass let’s you unplug not only from your stressful day, but also from my intensity and earnestness.

What I really wanted to make sure I told her, as I was discovering all this stuff about me and my reaction to drinking in general, was that I didn’t need her to stop drinking. I didn’t even need her to limit her drinking to two glasses. What I wanted from her was to observe when she made that decision *away* from our closeness and into a less approachable state.

Several things I believe to be true about dealing with someone who is buzzed. (I define this as tipsy, slurring a bit, but mostly lucid. Not drunk, but intoxicated, or impaired. In this case, by choice.)

  1. Don’t take on any serious subjects with them.
  2. Don’t talk about their drinking until the next day when they are sober. Trying to talk to someone who is drunk about drinking is a no-win situation.
  3. Make sure they are safe and comfortable. And in my case, put her to bed, lovingly, and go about my evening routine without her.
  4. Sex can be okay with a buzzed person, but if you’re not both a bit hazy it can make for some awkward moments. And for the most part, when she’s had the third glass and I have not, my desire for sex with her diminishes a bit.

So now we’ve had this talk. I’ve made up this concept of the Third Glass and she says, “I think a lot of people will really understand what you are talking about.”

When she has the third glass of wine, in my mind she is turning away from the relationship and into some self-imposed isolation or altered state.

As we move forward, I am clear with her about my limits for me. I might have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner, but that’s about it, unless we go out for margaritas. And for her the choices are a bit more complex. I’m sure I’ve caused her some stress around this, but it has to be out in the open and discussed.

When she has the third glass of wine, in my mind she is turning away from the relationship and into some self-imposed isolation or altered state. I have to let go of the outcome, and let go of my expectations, or speak up if I have a problem. [Again, please note, this is *my* frame around her drinking, not hers.] When she asks for a glass of water after dinner she is signaling that she wants to remain close for the rest of the evening. Both choices are fine. If I don’t attach my own stigma to the choice, I can allow her to take either path without guilt or shame. I can let go of my baggage and allow her to be exactly who she wants to be.

If she drinks the third glass I begin looking for what I’m going to do that evening when she’s fallen asleep. If she asks for water, my mind enters into a different set of fantasies that involve her participation. The real joy is that we’ve had this discussion. I even said I would run this post by her before I published it, so she could edit or give feedback. The last thing I want is to damage our relationship by exposing too much or causing her pain.

Last night, as I was cleaning up the dishes I looked at her with a sly grin as I held the cork above the bottle in an unspoken question. “Yes,” she said, “Put the cork in the bottle and get me a glass of water.” What that said to me was, “I’m here, I’m happy, and what are we going to do together tonight?”

Afterword: And the amazing thing is after I read this to her we were closer and even more ready to have the discussion in the moment about drinking, hers AND mine. (grin)

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

back to Dating After Divorce

The “Third Glass” series:

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image: yes or no?, gideon, creative commons usage

We Have So Few Chances to Feel Loved

WHOLE-redshoe

This is about my family of origin, and my willingness to try and out-grow, out-love, out-inspire, some deep wounding in the other person. I don’t look for the wounded person, but when I find them, I should run like hell. I need a whole person for my whole person.

I don’t know what I need. I don’t know what kind of woman, or what a healthy relationship really looks like. I mean, I’ve read books. I’ve imagined. I’ve written posts and poetry about it until I’ve created my own surreal ideal. But I am clear, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

And since my divorce, I’ve had ONE connection. A few relationships, but one connection that lifted all of my hopes and ideas. And from this wonderful infusion of energy and hope I constructed pyramids and offerings to the gods of love. Because there was something, some little glimmer, that really turned me on about this woman.

I guess I can say this now, because it’s gone. Her fears and objections have finally won out over my optimism, regeneration, and attempts to repair the breakups that kept happening. Okay, so that was a clue that something was not right between us. And the further I launched into “being okay” with her constantly not being okay, the more I moved away from my core truth. The flow has to go both ways.

I must’ve learned in my family of origin, as a little boy, how to repair and attempt resuscitation for bad relationships.

And how did I get fooled into thinking a woman, who had done very little “work” on herself post-divorce, was going to heal in my light of love. What a crock. The work ahead for her, is for herself alone. And unfortunately, now we both get to move on alone, and heal without the rubbing and joy that our “relationship” was causing. The joy was apparent in both of us. The chemistry was hot. The sex… Well, I’ll use discretion and not talk about that.

Coming out of a failed marriage, both partners often feel damaged and depressed. In my case, I was certain that I would never love again. Of course, that was my depression talking, but when you are Sad, you can get pretty dark. So there’s this concept, from a divorce recovery class I took, called the Healing Relationship.

I was determined not to be this woman’s healing relationship. And I worked hard to make myself as flexible as possible. To recede when she needed space. To not share the poems and inspirations I was feeling about her, so that she wouldn’t get freaked out.

But you see, the freak out was the problem. And I was not going to be able to fix it, no matter what I did, or how well I behaved. There would simply be another freak out, regardless of how it started, and we would hit the rocks.

During my failing marriage, I got very good at listening for the sirens of destruction (I had done something wrong) and looking for escape or some heroic journey to fix the problem. Both in my marriage and in this relationship, that was not the right approach. But I didn’t want to accept the warning signs I was being hit over the head with. I didn’t want to accept defeat in my marriage, and in some microcosm of the same role-relationship, I didn’t want to accept that this woman, who I was “crazy about” was going to toss me out because she was afraid.

Again, it was more than her fear. It was everything.

She was hungry for affection and love. But she recoiled from what she needed soon after she began getting it. She was overly protective of her son, but that’s what single moms do. She was/is still deeply angry at her ex, and is continuously upset by the dickish-ex he has become. And for sure, he is a dick, both to her, and their son. He has no excuse.

On the other hand, she has no excuse either. And actually, I have no excuse. I have no excuse for continuing a relationship that I could see was full of “holy shit, what’s wrong now” moments. But the chemistry was on. And I had not felt chemistry for a long, long time. I might be addicted to hot chemistry, or sex, but not getting either for years and years was a harsh form of torture, for someone like me who thrives on touch.

And we touched, but she pushed me off sometimes. And she told me constantly how we would eventually break up, and she mused occasionally about what it would be that would finally do it.

I must’ve learned in my family of origin, as a little boy, how to repair and attempt resuscitation for bad relationships. I tried and tried to keep my parents together. I excelled at school. I excelled in football and tennis. I was a childhood magician. I worked hard as the mascot or hero child to keep everyone happy. And when my parents split for the first time, because of my dad’s drinking, I was the one who brought them back together.

I had moments of hope, “wow, this is amazing, she is amazing, we could be amazing.” And then the red flag, more like a red bazooka would blow a hole in my theory of love in the time of recovery.

I’m not making this up. That’s what I was told, by my alcoholic father. And when the “try” didn’t work and my mom left for Mexico with everyone but me and my dad, I again went into hyper-performance mode to try to make things better. But there was no fixing my dad. And over the next two years he fought to win me. I think it was more about the money than me, but he liked to tell me he was doing it for me. Of course, he was drunk when he was telling me this, but that didn’t keep it from registering deeply in my 7 year-old heart.

I can’t repair a broken person. No one can. And my first “love” post-divorce was no different. And even as I bucked against the breakups, and saw the signs that this was a deeply wounded person, I was addicted to the … What?

Was I enjoying the suffering? I don’t think so. Was it familiar? Very. Did the dramatic breakups feel familiar? Yep, right out of the last 4 years of my marriage.

But she would not be healed by me or anyone else. She would only recover from her anger and sadness about her divorce, by going through it, in some sort of therapeutic setting. And I was not that path. I didn’t fantasize that I was the healer, but I DID try to be big enough to contain her thrashing against the feelings towards and against me. These feelings were more about her and her ex than anything I brought to the relationship. It’s sad to see it happening. And I was soooooo connected to her physically. But of course, that’s my obsession.

Well, ultimately the book of poems wasn’t enough. Even with the crowning poem being direct plea to her, or protestation, or warning… it’s hard to tell sometimes. But the poems were definitely me expressing MY wants and HOPES regardless of what I was seeing in her actions.

In recovery of any kind it is not for us to fix each other. The support is so that we can find our own path to fixing ourselves. And as we find ourselves in relationships with unhealthy people, it’s is our responsibility to do what is best for our health. And trying to be supportive and loving is one of those things we can do. Trying to be loving enough to get them to change, well that’s the trap right there.

So I wanted to change her. No doubt about it. I could say it with a straight face, full-well knowing that I was nuts. I wanted to blow her wide open with stability and love poems and clarity of intention. But… As the story goes, every. single. time. there is no fixing the other person. And the more we work towards or wait for them to change, the further we get from our own integrity.

The chemistry, while essential to the growth of a real relationship, is only a small portion of what is required to develop a relationship. And that’s really what I want. I want a relationship.

At the core, it is my healing that is at stake with the break up of this relationship. I felt deeply for the first time since my divorce. I had moments of hope, “wow, this is amazing, she is amazing, we could be amazing.” And then the red flag, more like a red bazooka would blow a hole in my theory of love in the time of recovery.

For someone to be loved they have to love themselves. And that loving cannot come in the form of caring for another person (a child, for example) or by going through it while IN a relationship. No, in my understanding of recovery, in general, the recovery has to take place in the individual, regardless of the support or lack of support in their surroundings.

There was simply no way I could love this woman enough. She was not mine to fix. And I knew this. I still know this. But the pain of losing a “loving feeling” is also hard. I would’ve continued to heal, retry, reset, over and over to keep the physical connection. But I was covering up the disconnection that had nothing to do with me. And that disconnection is what was my own healing that still needed work. I wanted to be loved. I wanted things to be ecstatic. And I was willing to toss my own instincts and knowledge down the tube for a while, in order to feel or not feel this sense of being loved.

I don’t believe we have a soul mate. I believe we have connections. And for me, for a connection to occur there has to be chemistry. But the chemistry, while essential to the growth of a real relationship, is only a small portion of what is required to develop a relationship. And that’s really what I want. I want a relationship. I don’t want a recovery project. I don’t want to fix someone. I want them to come to me healthy, happy, energetic, and done with a good portion of their baggage.

Well, that’s not who struck my heart with a warm glow. But that’s who I now recover from myself, as I return to working my own issues out, again. I have to walk away from my own issues in this relationship, in hopes of being a whole and ready man when the next potential shows up.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

related posts:

references:

image: put your red shoe on, albert huffstutter, creative commons usage

Pause and Reset After Divorce

getting over divorceI have plenty of work to do, even three-years-out from my divorce, to reset myself, my priorities, my relationship to my children, and even my relationship to my ex. But before moving into yet another relationship, I am still trying to take stock of what happened, what I don’t want to happen again, and most importantly, what I do want to happen this next time.

I’ve recently started the path to full forgiveness of my ex-wife, but it’s not always an easy road. Still, even in disagreements, I try to see her as “doing her best.” And occasionally I will use those tired old wedding vows and transform them into a kind of mantra.

“To have and to hold blameless till death do you part.”

Or course the hold, after divorce, takes on new meaning, but the vow can remain unbroken, even in divorce. The seeds of what ripped us apart were there at the outset of our relationship. If I had been in a less damaged place from my previous marriage, I might have been able to identify them, “might” have been able to resist the magnetic pull I felt towards this beautiful high school classmate, and I might have made a different decision. But I didn’t.

While changing my past with my ex-wife is not possible. Gratitude and appreciation for our children is infinitely possible.

Part of my work in recovery from this divorce has been to take my own inventory and understand the emotional mechanics that were at play during my courtship and marriage to my last wife. And as I try and use that information to move forward with a new healthier relationship, next time, I can sometimes get caught up in the “if I’d have known…” what-ifs. And of course, the logical conclusion after I churn a bit on these tidbits, is BUT I HAVE THESE GREAT KIDS.

While changing my past with my ex-wife is not possible. Gratitude and appreciation for our children is infinitely possible. And the love of those children is the gateway to forgiving your ex. At least, it is for me.

Of all the emotions so far, anger has been the toughest for me to grapple with. Initially I was too complacent, compliant, depressed, hurt to really access my anger. It’s okay to be angry. It’s really okay to be angry. The anger can be an energy source for the work ahead. In my case, with a raging alcoholic father, my access to anger has always been difficult. And maybe in my marriage, my passivity, or lack of anger, allowed our relationship careen off into places that were not healthy.

In my family of origin my father’s anger dominated everything. His rage was legendary. There was no room in my father’s house for anyone else’s anger. We all learned to comply. We all sublimated our own anger and hurt at being dominated in such an unjust manner. But we shut up. No good ever came of getting angry back. We saw that demonstrated first hand by my oldest sister, who was a lightning rod, during the emerging sixties, for my father’s horrific tirades.

I learned that anger was bad. And after my father exited the scene around my 6th birthday I was raised by three women who had become skilled in the art of manipulation though indirect subversion. Even today, I suffer occasionally from not being able to access my anger about an injustice that I would like to stand up to, but don’t.

And this happened in my marriage. I didn’t stand up for my own essential needs. I avoided conflict to the point of lying about silly little things, that would later undermine my partner’s trust. (Example: getting a speeding ticket and not telling her or paying it.)

Fortunately, this pause has given me time to rediscover healthy anger. And my ex-wife, naturally, has given me opportunities to access it. Divorce might be cooperative and collaborative, but there are going to be frictions.

And one of the things I’m grateful for in this pause is my rediscovery of healthy anger.

And in the next relationship, if I can learn from this pause and reset, I will build healthier structures for communication and meeting my own needs as well as the needs of my partner.

And this is where my newly found anger skills are a double-edged sword. On the one side, I am standing up after divorce, for things I should have stood up for while still married. The converse edge is trying to understand how my anger is my own, and that she is not to blame for my disappointments or resentments.

To have and to hold blameless. It’s a big task.

But if I move into my next relationship before figuring it out, don’t you think I would soon begin repeating the same behaviors that got me divorced in the first place?

There are a number of lessons from Alcoholics Anonymous that I started learning when I began going to ACOA and Al-Anon meetings. The first was not taking another person’s inventory. We can only be responsible for our own actions and responses. If we begin to focus on the other person’s faults and problems we quickly find ourselves back at blame and shame, first of the other person, but ultimately of ourselves.

So in walking away from my marriage, I am continuing to learn, that this is MY SHIT. Whatever it is I’m dealing with at the moment, she is not the cause nor the cure of the situation. I am the only one who can take action on my behalf. So letting go of her requires me to let go of the blame I can still try and pin on her. Things like, it was her idea, it was her distrust, it was…

It was me.

That’s the only real answer. And in the next relationship, if I can learn from this pause and reset, I will build healthier structures for communication and meeting my own needs as well as the needs of my partner.

Another part of the AA program that I use almost daily, is the serenity prayer. Each line holds a key to our release from whatever it is that is keeping us unhappy. (For alcoholics it’s alcohol, for me it’s emotional depression.) And if we listen to each line as we say it to ourselves, we can allow the reset to happen in our lives.

God, grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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