Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: I’ve been seeing someone for a few months. He’s a great guy who is super caring, cute, and intelligent, but he has a very addictive personality and frequently abuses substances — particularly alcohol. Whenever I’m with him he is almost always under the influence. It makes me feel like I can’t connect with him the way I want to because he’s either distracted or not entirely himself. I want to talk to him about it, but since we’re not “serious,” I don’t feel like it’s my place. However, if he continues this behavior, I don’t think I want to pursue a relationship with him further. What should I do?
A: The questions you have about your new date’s substance use are familiar to anybody who is sorting through concerns about the negative consequences substance misuse brings into the relationship. Let’s break this down into a couple of things to consider.
First, as you describe your observations, I would say there are very good reasons to be concerned. While you can see some positive qualities, clearly you also notice that in the short time since you met there are indications that his alcohol use and use of other substances are a problem. Don’t ignore those internal alarms. It is not normal to show up under the influence every time. Given the current track record, the chance of this behavior continuing to be a problem is high and fairly predictable.
While research doesn’t support the idea of an addictive personality, people who demonstrate problematic substance use may need professional help to better understand and deal with their use. A therapist or counselor with an addiction treatment background can provide an assessment to determine the nature and severity of the use problem, and whether there is evidence of a substance use disorder or of an addiction that makes the person a good candidate for treatment.
Should you continue in the relationship? All the indicators so far point to a very high-risk situation. This is not a moral or judgmental reaction to alcohol and substance use. There is a pattern established early in this relationship that will most likely continue, no matter how cute, charming, or intelligent your date is. While it would be inappropriate to attempt a diagnosis, it’s not too early to say there is a substance use problem of some type that needs to be sorted out. That isn’t something you can control or help him with. Trying to develop a relationship at this point most likely will not go well.
It’s a common myth that people with substance problems are unemployed and drinking out of a brown bag under a bridge. The fact is that substance problems and addiction can occur in any person, regardless of social status or anything else we may think insulates any group of people from having an alcohol or other drug problem. Another common misunderstanding is that addiction is a moral failing or simply a bad choice the person is making. If there is an actual addiction, partners or potential partners may mistakenly think that if they show enough love, concern, and support, then the person will change and won’t need to continue to drink or use as much. Addictive disorders are defined in part as an inability to stop, regardless of negative consequences. The science of addiction points to genetics and to changes in the brain that occur to explain the “Why can’t this person just stop!?” question that burns in the hearts of those concerned. The good news is that addictive disorders are treatable and even preventable. The best hope for change occurs with assessment and appropriate treatment, if needed.
You are wondering what, if anything, you might say to him. You can express concern about the substance use without criticism and without trying to fix him or control the situation. An effective way to start any difficult conversation is to include three parts: 1) Share your perception of what you see or have noticed. 2) Express how you feel about that. 3) State what you would like or hope for.
For example, you could phone him and tell him where you are at. Try calling earlier in the day before he may start drinking. You could start on a positive note: 1) “I think that you are super cute, caring, and intelligent. However, I have noticed that you have been under the influence the times we have been together.” 2) “I’m not comfortable with how that feels for me and how that is getting in the way of communication and getting to know you. I am also concerned for you.” 3) “I have decided to stop seeing you and I encourage you to talk to somebody to figure out what is going on in your relationship with substances.”
Anticipate a defensive response or promises to change. Think back to my first point. The indicators are that there is good evidence that there is a serious substance use issue that needs assessment. You can not provide that or determine what is going on with him. Also, you can’t rely on promises or his best intentions if there is a moderate to severe substance use disorder driving this problem.
Best wishes with managing this uncomfortable situation. Also, know that whether he decides right now to do something or not about his substance use, you will have been a part of important feedback and may be part of the story in terms of changes he might make in the future.
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