Doctor’s Note: We’re going to be doing things a bit differently and feature both of today’s letters ahead of my response, for reasons that’ll be clear in a moment. So without further ado…
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I married my husband one year ago and we have been together for 6+ years. In the past year, his drinking has gotten worse than it’s ever been and he admits that he is an alcoholic, but that he has no desire to make any changes to his drinking. He drinks in excess daily and when I get home from work, he usually hands me the dog and takes off for the evening to go golfing. He comes home drunk and continues drinking, so I tend to avoid him as conversations with him when he’s in that state are not constructive.
We have started going to marriage counseling, but it is apparent that we have two different priorities in life – his is to have fun and golf and mine is to continue growing in my career and start a family.
Do you believe that there is any way to rectify this wedge between us, or is it better to go our separate ways so that neither of us feels like we are putting our goals aside?
Is It Time To Go?
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have been dating my boyfriend for 2 years and he spends a lot of time working – he has two jobs. Since I go to bed earlier, we have no time during the week. On weekends he likes to go to his moms and play video games with his nephew. He leaves at 5 pm and comes home at 2 am. It’s not the time I object to, it’s the imbalance since this happens Friday AND Saturday night some weekends. Am I wasting my time here? Due to my issues with pregnancy, I do not want another child and he does so he says I can’t object to time with the closest thing he has to a child since I won’t have a child with him…
Time Share Partner
DEAR IS IT TIME TO GO AND TIME SHARE PARTNER: OK, TTG and TSP, you’re probably wondering why I’m doing things a little differently in today’s column. The ultimate answer to both of these is very simple: these relationships are functionally over and it’s time to move out and move on. But rather than answer each letter individually – where I’d be repeating a lot of the same advice – I want to address the bigger underlying issue with both of these relationships.
So here’s the thing: in both cases, you’re looking at a series of red flags and warning signs that ultimately lead to the same place: your partners have checked out of the relationship. And it seems as though they’ve done so a while ago. I think both of you understand this, and both of you are fundamentally asking for the same thing: you’re asking for permission to do what you know you already need to do, while still hoping that I’m going to give you a different answer.
If you’ll both forgive a very awkward metaphor, this is a lot like when your beloved dog is reaching the end of its life. The decision on when it’s time to let them go is always hard and there can be a lot of second guessing and hoping that maybe it’s not time, yet. But there’s “it’s not time yet” and then there’s putting things off because you know how much it’s going to hurt to finally make that decision. And so you look for reasons to hope, to put things off a little longer – he wagged his tail today! She took some bites of hot dog when you hand-fed it to her! – but you know the end is coming and it’s going to come down to you making the necessary but painful decision.
In both of these cases, you’re not just looking at the end of a relationship – a marriage, in one case – but also the end of the dreams of the life you could have with them. That’s hard to let go of, for a lot of very understandable reasons. All of you, presumably, went into this relationship with a goal of building something together. But over time, what you hoped to build together bifurcated, and you had your vision of what you wanted to build and they had their vision. And it seems, in both cases, your partners’ visions changed to be less of building something together and more of a life that they lead and you just happen to be a part of it. Less of a partnership and more of a supporting role, where he’s the central figure and everyone else’s desires come second.
In both cases, the self-centeredness is the problem. It’s not inherently bad to have priorities, even ones that you may rate above other peoples’. You can have things in your life that you feel are more important than your partner does. However, you still also have a responsibility to the relationship itself, and your priorities have to factor that in, if you want to make that relationship work. In both cases, that self-centeredness that have strained the relationship to the point where it’s no longer a partnership.
In your case, TTP, it’s understandable that time is a scarce resource, seeing as your partner works two jobs. That’s going to put a severe strain on anyone’s ability to maintain a balance between work and your relationship. However, your partner is choosing to forgo his time with you to spend time with his nephew, under the rubric that “this is the only child he’s going to have”. That’s telling, to my mind. On the one hand, being an uncle who’s engaged with his nieces and nephews is great. On the other, he’s doing so in a way that deprioritizes his relationship with you, and in a manner that feels punitive. His saying that you can’t get upset about it because you won’t have a child with him feels as though this is, in part, about punishing you for your choice – as though complications from pregnancy or having complex feelings about the matter mean nothing.
Meanwhile in your case, ITTG, his behavior isn’t just self-centered but also potentially dangerous, to you, himself and to others. If he’s coming home drunk, I’d be incredibly worried about how he’s getting home, and what’s likely to happen if this continues in this manner.
And in both cases, their chosen priorities come at the expense of your relationships and their time with you. They’re saying that time with you – and the responsibilities that come with a relationship (such as taking care of the dog) – are less important than pursuing the thing that makes them happy in the moment, whether that’s gaming, golf or drinking.
I do want to point out that I’m not necessarily equating what your partners are doing as equally bad or distressing, nor am I saying “this is worse and therefore the bigger issue.” Ranking which is worse often leads to an unintentional (or unspoken) attitude of “which is why you shouldn’t complain about your problem, look at what this other person is dealing with!” Someone else’s pain or trauma – even if it’s of a greater magnitude than yours – doesn’t change the fact that you’re also in pain. It doesn’t make yours less important to you, nor does it affect your life less. A partner acting more like the other person is just the supporting role in their story is going to suck, period. The difference of degree is somewhat academic when the end result is ultimately going to be the same.
That having been said: TTG, your husband’s blithe admission of being an alcoholic, but not feeling like he needs to do anything about, it is really worrying. I know that there’re some who say that when someone’s a functional alcoholic, the key is to focus on the “functional” part, not the “alcoholic”, but that disregard is troubling to me. It’s the sort of thing that one hears before right before things get much worse.
Now, one thing that’s worth mentioning is that couples growing apart doesn’t necessarily mean anyone did anything wrong. Sometimes what’s right for you for a period of time isn’t going to be right for you a year, two years, ten years on. But there’s “we grew apart” and then there’s “I checked out and I’m functionally no longer in a partnership”. The latter tends to happen when a relationship has ended, but nobody has left yet.
In your case, ITTG, your husband’s willingness to go to marital counseling can be a good sign… but it can also be a reason why you’re delaying the inevitable. The act of going to marriage counseling isn’t inherently a good sign or an indication that there’s a chance to fix this relationship. Marriage counseling, like any form of counseling, requires more than just being there, physically. You don’t fix things via osmosis or the magic of just sitting on the couch and making all the right noises. If your husband isn’t actually making any changes or doing any of the things that the counselor suggests, then all that is happening is that you’re paying money to put off the decision you need to make.
In yours, TSP, it feels like your partner is making things clear that children are more important to him than any other issue. It seems as though that, to him, your “refusing” to have one with him means that he’s justified in ignoring or neglecting you and you’re not “allowed” to feel hurt by it. Leaving aside who gets to arbitrate what you are or aren’t “allowed” to do, you do feel hurt by his choices. He’s telling you that you matter less, because you don’t want to have a child with him. Telling you that you aren’t “allowed” to object is also a red flag to my mind. It feels like the first (or most recent) step in a series of steps that ultimately build an increasingly narrow box around what you’re “allowed” to feel or have an opinion on.
With both of your relationships, it’s safe to say that your goals and interests have already split past the point where these can be rectified. In both cases, I’d need to see some very sincere and good-faith effort at changing their behavior and the way they treat you and the relationship. The treating the relationship is important in no small part because it’s something you work on together. Couples (or throuples or quads or…) can have separate lives, separate goals or distinct interests, but they also have their relationship – a thing that’s ideally bigger than the sum of its parts. When only one of you is putting in the effort to build and maintain it… well, as I said, it’s no longer a partnership.
So what do you do? Well… honestly, I think at this point, it’s time to wind things down. ITTG, in some ways, you’re lucky. Sometimes going to a marriage counselor is less about how to fix the marriage and more about how to wrap it up. It sounds to me like, if your husband isn’t actually putting in the work, then it’s time to start shifting the conversation to how you’ll end this marriage as equitably and amicably as possible.
For you, TSP, it’s slightly less complicated. At two years and without legal entanglements, it’s hopefully going to be easier to end things. If you haven’t co-mingled your finances and you’re not both on the lease, then things should be significantly simpler on a logistical level. On an emotional level… well, it’s still going to be hard. Leaving a partner of many years usually is.
In addition, I think it may be good for both of you to take stock of the relationship and see if you can pinpoint where the final split happened – where your relationship quit being a partnership and became two people awkwardly sharing space and time together. I don’t suggest this to say “see, you should’ve gotten out before now”, but so you can have a better idea when and how you reached the point of no return. Having this insight will make it easier for you to watch for red flags or divisions in your future relationships – and hopefully those will mean you’ll be able to avoid having to make similar decisions in the future.
Good luck. To both of you.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org