He has always been a drinker. He went to a large state school where the culture was “drink, pass out, drink some more, stagger to class, watch football.” Not the healthiest, by far, but most people seem to grow out of this phase. Not him. He used alcohol to cope with his grief and general depression. In the years since, he has gone for periods of time — like a month — without drinking or smoking because he knows it is an unhealthy habit, but he’s never stops for good. I will often come home from work or an exercise class late and find him sitting on the porch drinking a six-pack. Unfortunately, that six-pack will continue into whatever alcohol is left in the house: sherry, wine, vodka, anything. This happens almost every other day. He is always very remorseful the next day, but I’m tired of hearing “Sorry.”
We have talked about marriage, but I have told him that he must deal with his depression/drinking/smoking before I think we’re ready. He makes progress, then regresses. A few months ago, during a progress period, we went looking at rings. I know he is serious about marrying me and loves me very much, which makes this so hard. I love him and we are compatible in many other ways, but I no longer have the energy to help him, and I fear I’m only enabling his behavior. I have thought about staying at a friend’s for a little while as a separation so maybe he will hit his “rock bottom” and seek some change. What do I do about the BIG issue? His depression? I think sometimes I focus on the alcohol too much and not enough on that. I just feel defeated. — Defeated by His Drinking
Four and a half years is a long time to invest in a relationship, and I totally understand the dilemma you find yourself in now. You’re at a crossroads where it’s definitely time to choose a direction for the relationship to move. It has to move. If it doesn’t, you’ll be stuck in this limbo land for the foreseeable future, and before you know it, another two, three, four years will have passed and you’ll no longer be in your 20s, but sitting squarely in your 30s where the decision to MOA will be even more emotionally loaded. Let me ask you this: Do you want a life-long parter? Would you like to have kids one day, maybe? If so, you need to be honest with yourself — and your boyfriend — and decide just how much more time you’re willing to invest in a relationship that may have no future. This is never pleasant to hear, but the truth is you’re running out of time. Your years to find a partner with whom you can have biological children — if that’s something you want — are numbered. Each month you spend with a man who has to make big changes in order for him to be husband — and potentially, father — material, is another month lost if those changes never happen.
Now, here’s another hard truth: you can’t make the changes for your boyfriend. You can’t force him to make them or talk him into making them or wish them hard enough to happen. He has to want to change for himself. He has to seek help because he’s ready. You can’t manufacture a “rock bottom” for him in hopes that he will finally drag himself into enough light to see what’s at stake and what he needs to do to avoid losing you and losing the future you’ve dreamed of having with him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. If love and hope alone could save the people we care most about, we’d all have a lot fewer problems, wouldn’t we? But the world doesn’t work that way.
I wish I had a better solution for you. I wish I had words to make this easier. But his is a battle you can’t fight for him. He has to fight it on his own … and for himself. And it isn’t fair to you or to him for you to stand on the sidelines waiting to see whether he’ll win. If you were already married and this depression and alcoholism were fairly new, my advice would be different. But you aren’t married and it sounds like the entire duration of your relationship has been lived under the cover of these issues. They precede you, and they will succeed you. And because your relationship has always had this third presence, you don’t really even know what a relationship between just the two of you, without the constant company of alcohol and depression, would be like. How can you entertain the idea of marriage when, in over four years, you’ve never experienced what a relationship between just the two of you is like?
I think you know what needs to happen. As to what sort of role you should play in your boyfriend’s life, I’d recommend it be a very limited one. I’d suggest you begin unraveling your ties and start creating a life very separate from him. Give him — and yourself — the physical and psychic space necessary to create your own lives independent of each other, and trust that if he is the one meant for you, this new space will allow him to fight the battle that needs to be fought before you can be together again. And if he isn’t meant for you, you’ll have your own space to fill with things and people that bring you joy and that will, hopefully, lead you to the future you dream of having.