Dr. Edward Wilson
It’s a common, if quiet, complaint heard over lunch, or at breaks in meetings, at the Chamber of Commerce mixer, or the League of Women Voters retreat. “My husband finally quit drinking, attends AA, and life is certainly calmer, but… ” The “buts” are varied, but essentially come down to the fact that while one’s spouse is no longer actively drinking little else has changed.
An unfortunate side-effect of AA and other 12-Step based programs is that while they may help a man stop drinking, they actually encourage him to maintain, and even expand, his focus on alcohol. So he continues to neglect his family and remain emotionally distant from his wife and she doesn’t even get to complain about it because he is “working his program.” For her, precious little has changed.
“I really am glad he isn’t drinking,” one said. “I don’t miss the late night worrying, the calls for bail or a ride home. I don”t miss wondering about our debts, credit rating, or whether he’s going to get fired. But he’s still got his head in a bottle and we don’t even fight anymore. There seems to be so much less of him. I probably sound selfish and ungrateful, but I miss him.”
It’s a common and heart-breaking story. Another failure of the American system of alcohol treatment – a system that even when it works merely substitutes one form of alcohol obsession for another.
Looked at logically it’s easy to see what happens. Instead of avoiding problems by hanging out at bars with drinking buddies, your husband now spends it at 12-Step Meetings with, well, drinking buddies. Instead of confiding to his bartender, now he shares his innermost thoughts with his “Sponsor.” Where he used to excuse any behavior with “I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing,” now it’s “I’m working my program.”
Not worrying about whether or not he’s going to make it home becomes small compensation for still not having a husband in any meaningful sense. But you dare not complain lest you send him back to actively drinking again. He’s still captive to alcohol and you’re still being blackmailed into keeping quiet about it.
Not exactly major progress if you want a real relationship.
The implied, but no less real, threats aren’t subtle. “Don’t complain or you’ll be responsible for him relapsing.” It’s nonsense but it’s hard to ignore when everyone from Dear Abby to the minister is saying it. They also tell you to be grateful and that it’s the only way. Of course that’s ideocy too.
There are a few voices of reason but they are usually drowned out by the cacophony of 12-Step honking. Here are a few thoughts to consider when you have once again been neglected, or shut out, by yet another demand of “The Program.”
Your husband’s alcohol abuse, active or passive, is his problem and responsibility. You didn’t cause it and you can’t fix it.
If he prefers his relationship with alcohol to one with you, well, okay, but he doesn’t get to complain when you decide you’d prefer one with someone else – someone capable of real intimacy with you, not with a bottle or a program.
If he really wants to kick the 12-Step habit and leave alcohol behind, and keep you, it is certainly possible and probably a lot more fun than sitting in drafty smoke filled basements drinking bad coffee.
You might want to start by taking equal time. For every meeting he attends, you go to a class, a workout, a bar, whatever appeals. If he objects, note that you are only “working your program.” Please create one more interesting than his. God knows you’ve earned it.
You are understandably dissatisfied and that isn’t going to change until you do. Maybe it’s selfish to want a complete life instead of one spent sharing him with his obsession but, if that is so, so be it. Don’t continue to be intimidated by his 12-Step nonsense. You have a right to a complete life whether he wants one or not.
Dr. Edward Wilson has been developing and providing alternative alcohol counseling, including moderation, since 1990. He is the co-founder and Clinical Director of Your Empowering Solutions, Inc, located in southern California.Learn more about Y.E.S. at: