Woe Is Me! “Can I Insist My Boyfriend Quits Alcohol?”
Woe Is Me! is a series in which The Swaddle team indulges your pity party with advice you’ll probably ignore.
My boyfriend and I have been together for five years. He’s a heavy drinker — which was fine when we were young, but now he’s in his 30s and I’m worried about his health. I’ve asked him to quit alcohol but he refuses. Is this a dealbreaker?
— Sober and Alone?
DR: This seems tricky, and I’m sorry you’re having to navigate through it. As for whether it’s a dealbreaker, I don’t think we can decide that for you — to each their own (dealbreakers), right? This may sound harsh, but unfortunately, only you can decide whether the (physical and mental) cost of dealing with his drinking is greater than the love, or joy, or the emotional connect you derive from your relationship with him.
While you have communicated that you want him to quit drinking, have you explained to him why this is something that bothers you so much? Heavy drinking can heavily jeopardize his health, and therefore, your partnership in the long-term. So, in case a partnership is something the two of you intend to pursue at all, you can, perhaps, make your case to him, arguing how his drinking shows a lack of care towards you, and your future together. At the same time, you can also ask him if there are any reasons why he’s so reliant on alcohol — is there anything at work, or even otherwise, that he’s trying to drink away instead of dealing with? An open, calm conversation that inspires him to lay his soul bare to you, instead of an angry one that prompts him to get his defenses up, might work wonders in this situation. If you want to actively work on this, couples’ therapy is also something you could consider pursuing.
But at the end of the day, we can’t mould the people we love to suit our specific tastes — but what we can certainly do, is try to offer them sound advice, and let them make their decisions keeping our advice in mind. And based on what he ultimately chooses, maybe, you can make up your mind too.
KB: Does your boyfriend fly into drunken violent rages, and become physically or verbally abusive? Does he drink to the point of being incapacitated, being a danger to himself (or others)? Is he so hungover that he’s at risk of losing his job? Is his mental health affected by his drinking? I’m asking because your definition of “heavy drinking” and its effects may be different from his. If the answer to any of the questions above is “yes,” then certainly, this drinking is a serious issue and possibly a dealbreaker if your boyfriend refuses to stop or get help.
However, if he just likes to party a little harder than you do, and drink more frequently than you do, then I suggest you get off your teetotaling high horse. One of the pleasures of being an adult is that we all get to choose for ourselves what unhealthy indulgences we will allow ourselves. Do you never eat junk food? Do exercise (cardio and strength training) every single day? Please. We all have the things we do — that we know perfectly well are bad for us — but that give us pleasure and help us enjoy life. If this is a ‘vice’ he enjoys, with no other significant detriment other than your disapproval, you should get over it.
SM: It’s not just about his health, but about what your insistence that he should quit, or his persistence despite your repeated requests (whichever way you look at it), really means. In my experience, with small issues which bother us and persist for a long period of time, whether it’s with friends, families or romantic partners, there’s always a larger underlying problem at play. And that underlying problem is what you should try and unpack. Bring it up with him, talk through how you both feel about it, and then decide if it’s a dealbreaker for you.
AS: I think your concern is well placed, for obvious reasons. Alcohol-related medical issues can really hit you out of nowhere, and it’s crucial to be careful. My suggestion would be not to ask your partner to quit entirely or at once, because for the person who’s at the receiving end of this, the change may be too much too fast, and they could also feel resentful that you’re trying to control their choices. Try to find a way that you can take this one step at a time. The most important conversation, in my opinion, would be to tell him why it’s important that he take care of his health and that his health affects you too. I would also recommend that you visit a doctor or specialist, who can help you understand how much alcohol consumption is okay for the body, based on your partner’s overall health, and then you can plan a change accordingly.
Ultimately, I don’t think any serious lifestyle choice can be forced upon someone, unless they commit to it themselves — and that may take a while. To your question of whether this is a dealbreaker — in truth, you’re the best judge, and I don’t know enough to comment. Maybe ask yourself: Is the drinking affecting other parts of your relationship? Has it become an addiction? How much time and effort are you willing to put into this to help? Answering these questions can help you figure out how to proceed.
ADT: Beyond the drinking, I’m wondering if you want your partner to ‘grow up’ overall, considering how we all have this very specific idea of what your 30s should look like in direct contrast with your 20s. I get where that comes from — a transition between the decades has to mean something, right? Or we’re all stuck in this endless loop of permanent, person-child behavior that the 20s glorify. The idea of being the constant life of the party at say, 75, sounds lovely in theory and artful vintage photos, but the toll it’s bound to take on you and everyone around you, is obvious and exhausting to think about. I’m guessing you might be at a transition point that he’s not interested in crossing over with you. Or maybe, the transition point in question means something completely different for him.
Now you know that you can’t control what your partner does with his health and life. Think about it this way — do your partner’s drinking habits directly affect your life? Do you want to pull out your hair and scream because he’s waking you up at 4am to open the door after a night of partying? Do you despise the constant smell of booze on his breath each morning? Does he embarass you in public because he’s inebriated? If he’s doing none of these things, I’d suggest you focus on your own transition into maturity and leave his drinking habits alone. If he does do some, or all, or more such things, it’s time to have a serious conversation with him about how those habits affect your peace of mind. If he’s not interested in changing, five years is truly not much of a sacrifice to get up and move on from.
RP: The short answer is “No.” It’s not up to you to make life choices for your boyfriend like whether or not he should drink. You feeling like it was fine when you were young but isn’t now is a decision you are making and can’t really force on someone else. If it’s a dealbreaker is up to you. Do you not want to stay with him because of how he is when he drinks or the fact that he’s refusing your advice? That is your choice to make.
Your boyfriend should be the one to decide for himself what is healthy and what isn’t and what he wants to include in his life (like alcohol). The pressure from you for him not to and the unsolicited advice won’t change that. The one thing I would discuss with him is if you see alcohol leading to destructive behaviors. Does it alter how he behaves with you or approaches his life in general? If you believe he’s not making good decisions or you think there’s an underlying reason why he drinks that’s being ignored, I think it’s perfectly rational for you as his partner to show him that.
But beyond that is not your decision nor will the coercion help your partner to make better decisions. The best thing you can do together is model the healthy behaviors you are hoping he will take on, demonstrate your support, if you choose to stay, of him no matter the choices he makes, and give him the space to decide what’s healthy for him. That will be more powerful than any ultimatum.