DEAR CAROLYN: My girlfriend and I are in our mid-20s and have been dating for four years. We love each other deeply and generally communicate well, but one issue that has come up repeatedly is alcohol consumption. Many of the day-to-day social events we participate in involve casual drinking. While we both try to be cognizant of our consumption for health/wellness reasons, we tend to get into petty fights when we’ve had a couple of drinks, and my girlfriend often feels I judge her for how much she drinks.
I’ll confess, I do to a certain extent, but she has a history of “incidents” when drinking. It’s nothing involving driving or endangering others, more behavior that puts her at risk. She is really resistant to any specific techniques to keep drinking in check — for example, she bristles at the idea of being asked to count her drinks.
This has become enough of an issue and we’re struggling to talk about it productively, so I’ve suggested sessions with a couple’s therapist. She’s reluctant but willing to go, but I wanted to see if you had any good resources for talking about alcohol in a relationship, like mutually agreed upon limits, strategies for going into events that involve drinking, etc.?
It seems like everything out there is centered around a dichotomy of alcoholism vs. “normal” drinking, and I’m trying to find something more in the middle, which I think exists more than people talk about.
— Dealing With Alcohol
DEAR DEALING WITH ALCOHOL: It does exist, but it also doesn’t matter that it does. Not here, not for you two — because you think your girlfriend drinks too much and she has no interest in drinking less.
So you’ve reached a point of decisions, not definitions.
Going to couple’s therapy is such a decision, and I hope you follow through with it. Being honest with your girlfriend would be another, that you do think her drinking has become a problem. No hedging, no “mutually agreed upon,” no “strategies,” no “Let’s hold hands and count our drinks together!” Just, “I am not OK with this.”
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If you’re judging her then admit that, too, although I hope you aren’t; that would imply alcohol abuse is a character flaw when it’s more complicated than that. Plus, if you do see her as having character issues, then the therapy and other drinking-abatement efforts are disingenuous.
Accordingly, here’s another decision: Are you in or out? Unless your girlfriend has an epiphany — and realizes that if you have to count it’s too many and if you can’t count it’s dangerous — you have only the reality she’s giving you. It includes an impenetrable boundary: The one who wants the drinking curtailed and the one who does the heavy drinking are not the same person.
You can only operate on your side of the boundary, and only stall for so long as the straight talk and therapy options play out. Add Al-Anon to that list, too, please. As it will tell you, eventually you face the choice between staying with your girlfriend on the current terms, or leaving because you can’t accept them. That’s it. I hope you both wake up before it comes to that.
“Tell Me About It” is by Carolyn Hax. Send your questions to email@example.com or fax 202-334-5669.