Agony with No Ecstasy

By Margaret Ann Fetting 12/14/16

A couple’s differing attitudes toward alcohol use lead to an ultimatum- “It’s either the wine or me.”

Man drinking on bed while woman in background is angry.
Choose one.

It is not uncommon for partners to have different relationships with and attitudes toward drugs and alcohol. This divergence of opinion regarding the role that the relaxing or intoxicating properties of substances should play in the daily life of a couple is often a source of stress and conflict. Here, Dr. Margaret Ann Fetting, the author of Perspectives on Substance Use, Disorders, and Addiction focuses on a case in which the relational challenges that exist between partners with different types of attachment to alcohol becomes a significant barrier to conflict resolution….Richard Juman, PsyD

Edward and Diane married in their late 50s. Both had married and divorced. Neither had children. Both were committed professionals and devoted to health and physical fitness. Edward grew up in a home with perfectionistic standards—his mother particularly was not attuned or responsive to his shifting affects. Without this empathic attunement, Edward was unable to experience, know, and verbalize his feelings, thus unable to develop the capacity to integrate affect into the organization of his self experience.

Without this integrative and reflective capacity, it was not surprising to learn that during his 30s and 40s, Edward periodically drank alcohol to excess. He became concerned and voluntarily sought treatment. He worked vigorously in his recovery, but periodically wondered if someday he would return to moderate drinking. He was eight years sober when he met Diane, a lifelong abstainer of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Diane could be described as a voluntary non-user, one of the 16 clinical sketches that describe people who early on and voluntarily, for a variety of reasons, make a decision not to include alcohol or drugs in their lives.

Edward and Diane felt particularly well-suited, courted, married, and continued to keep up their active lifestyle. Edward also began traveling more for work and was on the road at least one week out of the month. It was during this period of his life that Edward called me for psychotherapy with a request: “I’ve been sober for eight years, and would like to explore, in a therapeutically responsible way, a return to drinking. I feel very interested in my life and relationship, and believe I would not jeopardize the balance in my life. I want to re-introduce alcohol, but I want to have some accountability.”

When we met in my office, Edward informed me that Diane was frightened by his desires, but respected his willingness to explore his wish to slow down in his life, and take time to relax with an occasional glass of wine. Edward said that her fear is that “we will no longer be on the same page.” Edward shared with me that Diane, in general, was afraid of losing control, which was the primary reason she never tried drugs or alcohol. He said, “She seemed loath to consider addiction or excessive substance use as a learning disorder”

“She tends to be compulsive in her work, her hobbies, and with her friends. She is on the go all day, moving from one activity to the next without pause, and finally collapses into bed every night. I am sad that she seems fearful of quiet self-reflection time. I long to share more intimate time together.”

Edward began his experiment drinking very occasionally and with moderation. In about the third month, he overindulged at dinner in a restaurant, and displayed some anger that frightened Diane. The experience etched deeply in her mind, and she began fearing Edward’s use of alcohol. Three months later, exhausted from a week-long business trip across three states, Edward drank to excess again and was physically unsteady on his feet and expressed some anger to Diane. He was remorseful, embarrassed, and regretful. He openly acknowledged his poor choices. He identified with the clinical profile of a misuser. Misusers occasionally overindulge. “Misusers are not afraid to acknowledge their mishaps and talk about their drinking anxieties. They prefer to address these, not hide them. They are not ashamed of overdoing it; it feels normal. Misusers want to learn from experience and have the ability to reverse infrequent but bothersome behavior.” Diane, on the other hand, considered Edward a regular misuser. “A regular misuser is an individual who repeatedly and recklessly misuses substances, suggesting the motivations for using are becoming more psychologically complex.” Arriving at a shared understanding of risk and pleasure requires endurance, love, patience, and open minds. As Maia Szalavitz asks, “Whose values should determine how much risk is acceptable?”

By now, an interpersonal dynamic was settling into place—Diane dreaded Edward drinking in front of her, not only because “your mind is not as sharp when you drink, but also because you express anger.” Edward became increasingly irritated, feeling like the object of her scrutiny. Fear and distance between them increased. Diane was increasingly punitive, judgmental, and opinionated. Their exchanges were filled with hostile and accusatory glances. Edward grew resentful. Edward’s anxious worry increased his desire to seek comfort in alcohol, not always in moderation. 

He told me many times, “I’m trying to learn from my experiences, make better choices, but Diane’s anticipatory anxiety makes for a tense drinking experience. She continually told me, ‘When you drink, you are a different person.’” To which he replied, “Of course I am—I’m trying to relax and de-intensify.” Szalavitz cautions about only considering harms in these types of discussions. She would likely caution Diane to avoid dismissing Edward’s perceived benefits of enjoying wine as being a product of his delusions. Always fearful of losing control with alcohol and drugs, Diane did not understand relaxing this way, and it was hard for her to relate. Edward’s experiences with alcohol on a business trip were very different. He relaxed, enjoyed talking with others, self-regulation came intuitively, and he drank without incident.

In about month 7, Edward became very angry under the influence, so weary and resentful of Diane’s scrutiny, which he increasingly perceived were fearful projections of her own “disowned” anxieties. He shared, “I just wish she was more willing to reflect on the underlying fears and anxieties we both bring to these tense interactions without taking the moral high ground. She fears loss of control, and I am anxious about being judged as a bad boy.” He felt she had little or no appreciation for drinking as a learned skill. The next morning, Diane sent an email to Edward with an ultimatum: Either the wine or me. They were both worn out; they were both frightened, and increasingly pessimistic about arriving at a shared solution. As Szalavitz points out, we now know that punishment and stigmatizing and humiliation is not an effective way to encourage openness, evolution and mutual growth.

At the time of writing, it’s not clear about the future of this partnership. Edward asked Diane for some time to absorb the impact of the ultimatum. He acknowledged that their different views and appreciations of alcohol as a relaxant were very divergent at this point. He loved Diane and the relationship, and began to believe that his experiment and her responses were increasingly destructive to the relationship. “Neither of us have a good time when I have a glass of wine or two.” 

“You know, we just got going in the wrong direction in this experiment. And in all fairness to Diane, I understand how lonely it might feel to be with someone who is relaxing with a glass of wine while she is cold sober. While I feel very judged and don’t appreciate her moral high ground, I just don’t think drinking around her is going to work.” Edward went on to say, “I will likely continue to enjoy wine on a business trip, but I’m very much leaning to going back to being sober while in the company of my wife.” Edward’s biggest fear made itself known: “I wonder whether my return to drinking was an unconscious plea to Diane to look at the deeper unresolved issues between us.”

I respected Edward’s honesty in acknowledging excess and anger on several occasions. I also respected Edward’s desire to learn from experience and drink with temperance and moderation. Edward was not an alcoholic. Diane agreed. Rather, his misusing could reflect the 30% of drinkers in the U.S. population who are excessive users. This short-lived experiment seemed to traumatize both parties. Diane and Edward wanted to get back on a more peaceful path. They came from very different perspectives, but were loving and fortunate enough to arrive at some form of compromise.

Margaret Ann Fetting, PhD, is a clinician, educator, and writer in the field of substance use disorders and addiction. She has a long-term affiliation with the University of Southern California, and her private practice is located Santa Monica, California. Dr. Fetting is also a regular guest lecturer at the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies, and can be reached at [email protected].

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Margaret Ann Fetting, PhD, is a clinician, educator, and writer in the field of substance use disorders and addiction. She is the author of, Perspectives On Addiction. Dr Fetting has a long-term affiliation with the University of Southern California, and her private practice is located Santa Monica, California. Dr. Fetting is also a regular guest lecturer at the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies, and can be reached at [email protected].