"My Husband's Drinking Is Ruining Our Marriage"

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The Counselor's Turn

Drinking is Hurting the Marriage

"During a private session, I told Jack that the fact that he drinks only at parties and can stay away from alcohol for long periods does not mean he's not an alcoholic," said the counselor. "Many alcoholics can restrict their drinking to certain days or even times. But whether he can technically be defined as an alcoholic is irrelevant (though his risky behavior the night he drove home drunk did signal a change for the worse in his drinking pattern). The pressing issue, I told him, was not a medical diagnosis but that his drinking was hurting his marriage.

"This was an epiphany for Jack. He sat there for a moment in stunned silence. Then he said, 'So you're saying that it doesn't matter in my case whether or not I'm actually an alcoholic. What matters is that my drinking upsets Claudia.'

"'Exactly,' I answered. Since I know from experience that most drinkers resist the term alcoholic, the key to my intervention style is to avoid characterizing the drinking as bad and simply emphasize the fact that it is jeopardizing the drinker's well-being.

"I also explained to Jack that alcoholism tends to run in families (something he had alluded to himself), but no one knows how much is nature and how much nurture. His behavior could be a model that launches his children on a destructive path as they get older, even if they have no genetic tendency to substance abuse. He had heard this from Claudia, of course, but hearing it from me made a strong impression. 'I actually wouldn't want the kids to drink as much as I do,' he conceded.

"I'm Willing to Change"

"'Here again,' I said, 'the issue is how your drinking affects those you love.' From there, we explored Jack's complaint that Claudia demanded too much attention. I told him that her view was that he was tuning her out, with the result that she was lonely and hurt. We discussed his childhood, and Jack spontaneously told me that he had always felt he could never compete with Bobby, his older brother, on whom his parents focused all their attention. Consequently, Jack grew up to express few opinions and to expect very little affection. In a private session with Claudia, we talked about Jack's feeling that her being a doted-upon only child meant that she needs an inordinate amount of attention. Whether or not that was true, her desire for lots of interaction was clearly at odds with Jack's lack of experience in relating openly and lovingly.

"Then, in a joint session, I asked Jack whether he loved his wife and kids. 'They mean everything to me!' he said without a second's hesitation. Claudia was startled because Jack so seldom verbalized his love for her. At that point I asked Jack if he remembered what we had talked about during his private session. 'Yes,' he said. 'What it boils down to is that if I want to save my marriage, I have to stop being a party boy. It doesn't matter whether I'm technically an alcoholic; all that matters is that my drinking upsets my wife and sets a bad example for my kids.' Then he looked at Claudia and said, 'I love you so much. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to change.'

"Claudia's eyes filled as Jack reached for her hand. 'I love you, too,' she said. 'We'll get through this together.'

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, continued


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