She Said He Said: Stress driving young mother to drink
She Said He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff:
My wife works from home as a part-time freelancer and takes care of our 16-month-old son. Almost every night when I get home from work, she cracks open a bottle of wine and manages to polish it off by the time we finish dinner. I’ve let her know that I think she’s drinking too much, and she says if I had days like hers with the kid and work, I’d be drinking that much too. She swears that she doesn’t drink during the day and I believe her, but our marriage has suffered greatly from a lack of intimacy since our son was born and increased tension when she’s drinking. We saw a couple’s therapist twice, but none of the tools they suggested are working. Any ideas?
Signed, Beset by the Bottle
Lori and Jeff: We applaud you for trying the couples-counseling route, but none of that will work unless the substance use is concurrently addressed. We’ve both spent years in the addiction counseling world and know how substance abuse and dependence can destroy a relationship. That said, there are some things you can do to create a different dynamic in the marriage.
Lori: Substance abuse and addiction are most often family issues. When a partner is abusing alcohol, it’s easy to point the finger at them as the source of the problem. If you want a healthy marriage, you need to be willing to see what part you’re playing. Getting back into a place of connection and healthy habits means both of you have to examine the family culture you’ve co-created. In particular, focus on dynamics related to expressing feelings, holding safe space, validating each other’s experiences and asking for help. Be honest with yourselves about whether these qualities ever fully existed in the relationship and, if so, when they began to falter. If the timeline suggests a shift after your child was born, it may be worth checking in with a physician to rule out postpartum depression (PPD).
With a rule-out of PPD, the friction and disconnect in the relationship hints to her alcohol use being a symptom of a deeper illness of the marriage. You’ve identified what’s missing for you as a result of her use. But have you asked what’s missing for her? She may be drinking to cope with the stress of the day, but it’s also possible that alcohol is being used as her excuse to not have to connect with you. If she has felt invalidated, unseen or unloved in the relationship, drinking may be part of a protective wall she’s built to not have to be intimate and vulnerable with you.
Jeff: There are many differing opinions around the definitions of substance use, abuse and dependence. But at the end of the day, most addictive behaviors can be characterized as a progressive narrowing of the things in life that bring pleasure or numb pain. Once a specific coping substance or behavior has been chosen, it’s often very difficult to let it go and make a significant change.
It certainly would be helpful for your wife to find a therapist to better comprehend the nuances of using substances to manage her emotional pain, but you could also get more curious about why she is so unhappy. The harm reduction model begins with you making a commitment to not add any stress to your wife’s life while she develops a clearer understanding of her current relationship with alcohol. The next step is for you to remove some of that stress by reexamining the roles that you each play in both parenting and financially supporting the family. Were these roles agreed upon before your son was born, or did they develop by default? You may have to find ways to take some of the burden off of your wife’s shoulders until she can make some progress in changing her patterns of behavior. If nothing else, bring some compassion and kindness to your wife’s situation and don’t judge her for the choices she’s made.
Lori and Jeff: Substance abuse (and most forms of addiction) revolve around the desperate need to reduce pain. That pain often exists in the context of a larger system, in which all of the parts play a role. Take ownership of what you’re contributing, while also communicating your needs and boundaries.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.