Hello all you interweb heartbubbles of desire, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the official dating advice column of The New Donk Times.
This week, we’re going to be talking about handling the hard questions in a relationship. When your partner is struggling with an addiction that’s out of their control, how long can you continue to support them? At what point are you just enabling their addictions? And when do you reach the point where you have to accept that you have to save yourself first?
It’s time to dig in for some radical self-care.
Let’s do this.
First, just want to thank you for all that you do and have written. You provide solid advice and even though I’ve generally not been in similar situations, I’ve gotten a good read and had some introspection from your articles. That’s the only reason I even feel remotely okay about giving this a shot.
I have been dating my current girlfriend just over one year now. We met on a dating site, but things generally moved very fast. Two months into our relationship, and on Christmas night no less, my girlfriend was diagnosed with stage one cervical cancer. It was detected very early and was treatable with a procedure and a little bit of chemo. She moved in about a month and half after the diagnosis, as we were originally about 2 hours apart with me making frequent trips to see her. The cancer definitely sped things up.
I am not normally a fast moving person with relationships, but what can I say... I love the girl.
I’ve always considered myself to be “good” at relationships. Far from being a serial monogamist, I’ve only been in 3 serious relationships in my 32 years and fewer flings or other not-serious things. I value communication, do my best to be very open and honest about things and put a priority on the ‘us’. I hold my temper to make sure that when I speak, it’s not out of anger or bitterness but to always benefit and reach a positive outcome. I consider myself understanding and forgiving and patient, knowing things aren’t going to fix themselves overnight and without work and effort.
Our relationship is great. Except for one glaring problem that threatens everything. She’s an alcoholic.
I didn’t realize it immediately. One day, just after her diagnosis, I picked up on it as she had - and I don’t blame her - got pretty drunk. When I visited, the same conversation happened 6 or 7 times as she kept going in a circle. All things considered, I paid little note of it at the time.
Fast forward, and I see more of it. We go out for our first Valentine’s and she gets trashed at a bar, stumbling through the place, slurred words, unable to stand.
Another night of heavy drinking for her results in some rather harsh and nasty comments and a fight that I bite my tongue through. We talk about it in the morning, she’s apologetic, but doesn’t remember the details but says she’ll do better.
There are two or three more of these, each time we talk in the morning and I bring up the problem of her drinking. She says it’s better than what she used to do. It’s better than what she could be doing. She admits to being an alcoholic. Promises to work on it.
One night she comes home drunk. Falls more than once. Trips going up the stairs. Falls off the toilet. Falls off the bed. Wets the bed.
We talk in the morning. It’s more productive. She works on it more, trying to balance alcohol without it just taking over. Her job is bad - bartender. But she tries. Still usually a drink after work on the house. Sometimes at 2pm.
She gets a better job. She’s happier. I start a new schedule, working early mornings at 5 AM. We’re each in the food industry. She closes.
Fast forward, she keeps working on it. Yet, after work her habit is to stop at the 711 and pick up 2 or 3 19-22oz beers. They’ll be gone that night. If she’s having a bad day, a ‘tall boy’ is the solution. 10am? Sure.
I’ve pointed all this out - she just wants a beer or two to relax, yet the bad memories of the past fights keep coming back and then the more present issue: at least twice a month she wets the bed. Originally she blamed it on the cancer and the procedure - I understood. I accepted it somehow. But the more it went on the more it became clear that it’s related to drinking. It’s... hard to talk about, to not embarrass her about it when I know she wakes up equally frustrated as I do.
When drinking, she snores hard, frequently waking me up and making it very hard to go back to sleep, even after I go to the couch. This affects my work in the morning, and as a tipped employee it can be noticeable. And then I can’t even nap when I get home because the bed has piss in it. If I were bringing in two or three times the amount of money she does it wouldn’t be as much of an issue but I’m essentially supporting us right now. I don’t even know how much she spends on beer for herself a month.
She says it’s not as bad as months ago when it lead to fights and her stumbling and falling around. But less than a month ago she, at 1am, was out walking in a not good part a neighborhood that is already riddled with crime and drugs. She saw no problem with this when she was drunk and was offended when I came and found her.
When we’ve talked, I’ve told her how it makes me feel - how it makes me worry, not just when she’s out drinking with friends - but for her legitimate health and safety. I’ve done my best to not be a hypocrite - I love a good drink and would say that I drink above average. I may on occasion drink a beer right after work at 1 or 2pm, so when she does it I end up not saying anything because I don’t want to be a hypocritical jackass. I have both a higher tolerance and a disdain for ever getting drunk.
What I do know is that her drinking puts me off. It turns me off, and the numerous sleepless nights and the worries and stresses associated with it have beaten me down. When she starts day drinking I usually end up not saying anything and just defaulting to a defensive mode where I distance myself. We have talked about that and I’ve been working on my reaction to her drinking. But this last month has hit me very emotionally hard with a death in the family and I’ve been having my own struggles.
With her drinking so much I can’t even find it in me to talk to her about my shit let alone her shit, and now there is a noticeable distance forming. I was going to push to talk with her last night but ... Lo and behold, 11:30pm she gets home from work and at 11:31 she has a beer. 3am she comes to bed. Before 5 it’s wet for the 4th time this month.
I don’t know how to communicate to her that she is poisoning both herself and everything in her life. The worst part is that she thinks she’s doing better. But I don’t understand how 60oz of beer 4 or 5 times a week is better. There’s just no fighting now.
I love her. When she’s sober and inspired she shines in a rare and beautiful way. But when she drinks it’s like some mimic has taken her place. I’m angered, tired, frustrated, worried and just not sure how to proceed. I’m afraid that I’m just going to end up doing something bitter or spiteful or mean out of just being so tired and stressed upon her cracking a beer open before I talk to her about it. I don’t want to be bitter towards her. I don’t want this relationship to end because of an addiction. And I don’t want to wake up in her piss anymore.
Alright, it’s time for some hard truths, GP. Your relationship isn’t great. Your relationship is, quite frankly, going down hill at a breakneck pace and the only question that’s left is whether someone’s going to hit the emergency brakes or it’s going to go careening into a wall… and whether you’re going to be there when it does.
You set yourself up for dating on nightmare mode difficulty, GP, even before the alcohol came into play. Being in a relationship with someone while they’re dealing with a potentially life-threatening illness, even when it’s been caught early, is going to test even the strongest relationships. But this cropped up when you two had just barely started dating… and that’s where the trouble began. Relationships that begin in dramatic situations are rarely the most stable, and yours began in one of the most dramatic situations possible.
As a result: you and your sweetie rushed through things into commitment and… well, quite frankly, under different circumstances I think this relationship might never have happened at all. If the cancer diagnosis hadn’t cropped up, I suspect that you would’ve discovered her alcoholism far sooner. And if you had? Well, something tells me the result would’ve been hey, peace out cub scout, have a nice life, call me after you get sober.
But you didn’t. And to be quite honest, I think the “my girlfriend had cancer” issue is part of why you’re sticking around, in its way.
At first, it’s an understandable thing: she’s going through an insanely difficult time and yeah, I’d probably drink too. I’ve got several friends who dealt with cancer diagnoses in the last few years and there’s not a one of them I’d begrudge a liquid opportunity to just not think about it for a while.
But then, as you said, you can’t pretend it’s cancer any more. It’s a different disease entirely. But you helped nurse her through cancer. There’s almost certainly that part of you that thinks you can help her through this too. But here’s the thing: you can’t. You aren’t qualified to help her, not in the way she needs. You’re not an addiction specialist. You’re not trained in counseling or recovery assistance. And, to be perfectly blunt, she doesn’t want to get help yet.
I’m not the biggest fan of Alcoholics Anonymous for a multitude of reasons, but there’s one thing that they say that I (kind of) agree with: you can’t force someone to get help before they’re ready. I don’t think she needs to hit rock bottom (and I’d think regularly-drunk-to-the-point-of-incontinence would be near as dammit) but I definitely don’t think she’s ready to admit that this is a problem she needs to deal with.
But then again… neither are you. It’s admirable that you care so much for her. It says a lot about you as a person that you’ve held on this long. But it’s an inescapable fact that she’s not your girlfriend, she’s your anchor and she’s dragging you down with her.
Now, I get it. You love her and when she’s sober, things are great. But not only is she almost never sober from what you’re telling me, but you’re so busy dealing with her messes that your own life is falling apart. You’re the only thing keeping the two of you afloat financially right now; how long can you maintain that with the way things are going?
How many more sleepless nights, how much more unprocessed emotional stress, how many more weeks of not being able to deal with the death in your family can you make it through before you lose that last finger-grip that’s holding everything together? Because that day is coming.
There’s a reason why we’re told to adjust our own oxygen masks before helping others with theirs.
Don’t get me wrong: I know damn good and well how hard it is to acknowledge that your relationship is fucked. I know you don’t want to be the guy who left his Girlfriend With Cancer, his Girlfriend With the Alcohol Problem. You want to hold on to the belief that you can beat this, that you can pull her to sobriety and bring back that amazing, shining woman you catch glimpses of. But you can’t. Only she can do that. And she. Does. Not. Want. To.
She’s sinking, man. And she’s going to take her with you if you don’t let go.
I know. I know already that you don’t want to hear this and that you’re not going to let go yet. I know you’re going to try again. And if you’re going to do that, then you can make it an ultimatum. You can tell her that if she doesn’t go to rehab or get into addiction counseling that you’re breaking up. And she may very well go. For a while.
And then she’s going to be “recovered”. Until the first drink again because hey, she’s got this under control. And then the second because come on, she’s had a bad day. And then the third because well she’s a bartender, she’s got to, you know? And then you’re going to wake up in a bed full of piss again.
Find a support group for spouses and loved ones of alcoholics, because you’re going to need that support. You’re going to need people who can tell you that you can’t be responsible for someone else’s sobriety and recovery.
But I’m not going to sugar-coat it. You need to get out. You can’t save her, dude. What you need to do right now is save yourself. And who knows. Maybe knowing that her drinking drove you away will be the kick in the ass that she needs to get sober.
This doesn’t have to be forever. You can circle back around when she reaches her one year or two year sobriety anniversary. But right now? You need to get the fuck out. To quote the sage: you may love her, yeah. But you need to love you more.
Good luck. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.
Hello Mr. O’Malley,
I really enjoy your love advice and it has helped me through a bunch of heartache. I also have been to one of your seminars in Austin and you were amazing. If I come across a puzzling problem in my relationship I usually turn to your advice and it helps a great deal.
Recently though I have hit a wall with my current boyfriend. We have been dating for two years and things have been going great, he is a very ambitious, supportive and we make a good team. But earlier this year he had to experience the trauma of one of his siblings passing away in a tragic way. Understandably he became distant and tried as I might I could not comfort him. He told me that there wasn’t any way I could understand him and he was right, what could I do?
Any kind of positive talks from me only made him upset, so I left him alone for a while. Not long after he became close with a former “friend” (they used to mess around before we dated) and they started hanging out quite a bit. I don’t have a problem with him hanging with his female friends and I’m usually involved, but he would seem to go out of his way to exclude me when they hung out which isn’t like him, and it rubbed me the wrong way.
When I confronted him about it he admitted that she had a similar incident happen recently and he feels that she can actually relate to him. He doesn’t tell me about their meetings because he knows I’ll be uncomfortable. Hearing this felt awful.
I feel the problem is me and my insecurities ,which I am working through,are getting the better of me, she gives him comfort where I have failed. He says he loves me and loves her also but only as a friend and that he can be trusted. He now lets me know if they are hanging out when I ask but still sketchy things happen from time to time. The grieving process is a long painful journey and I can’t imagine what he is going through, but I am afraid of something more than a friendship blossoming between them. I love him but is there nothing more I can do? Or am I hurting our relationship by looking way too much into their intentions?
-Anxious and Uncertain
One of the things that nobody tells you about death is how much it fucks with the living. When someone you love dies, it completely upends your life in ways you never expected. Things that were important to you are suddenly meaningless and things that you neglected become the most important thing in your world. I’ve had two relationships self-destruct because my girlfriend had a death in the family that made her reprioritize how badly she wanted to be in a relationship at that moment.
Grief is a motherfucker too. You will find yourself thinking and feeling the most fucked up thoughts in the lead up to someone dying and in the aftermath. You will get unbelievably pissed at people for the most innocuous and innocent of reasons. You will get fed up with the condolences, the “I’m so sorries”, the “you’re in my prayers” and “sending healing thoughts your way”. You will yell at people who really just want to try to comfort you but they can’t because we as a culture are so uncomfortable with death that we hide it away and don’t know how to handle it.
Here’s what’s going on with your boyfriend: he’s grieving. And there really is no roadmap for grief because nobody will ever be honest with you about just how much it’s going to fuck you over. Nobody warns you that you that the only truly honest moment about grief comes from a 20 year old television show about goddamn vampires. He’s frustrated and he’s angry with God and the universe and there is literally nowhere for his anger to go right now because there’s nothing to be done about it but let it pass in it’s own time. And as soon as he thinks he’s feeling ok, the loss of his sibling is going to hit him like a hammer and it’s all going to start over again.
And as much as you want to comfort him, you can’t. Not because of anything you’re doing wrong, but because there is no comfort to be had here. There’s just commiseration at how fucking unfair it is. And that’s where his ex-fuckbuddy comes in. She’s been there. She knows just how much this sucks and how he can’t really express how he’s feeling because how the in pluperfect hell are you supposed to tell your girlfriend about all the fucked up thoughts and emotions you’re feeling right now when you don’t fully understand them and you feel like the worst person in the world?
So yeah. He’s spending time with her because they’ve got this shared trauma and right now, he needs someone who gets it. There’s something akin to comfort to be had there, that knowledge of just how unfair the universe is now that it has this hole in it where their loved one used to be.
You can’t prevent him from developing feelings for someone - even if grief wasn’t a factor right now - but trying to monitor and regulate his relationships? That’s going to be a great way to blow up the relationship while you’re trying to save it.
If you love your boyfriend and you trust him, then you need to trust him. It sounds like he’s been pretty up and up with you, especially after you told him your concerns.
Just as importantly: be there. You may not have the same understanding he’s looking for but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be there for him. Be the person he can go to without needing to say anything because I can tell you from experience: there will be many, many times when the last thing he wants is more words.
He’s going to need someone who can just hold him and who he can finally just let it all out when he’s ready. He’s going to need someone who can listen when all that grief comes pouring out of him and who, without saying a word, can wrap him in her arms until the sobbing stops.
That’s what you can do for him right now. Good luck.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
Long time follower of your column here. You’re the love expert in my book, so maybe you can help me figure out my non-existent love life.
You see, I’m a girl and ever since I was a kid, I figured I was gay. As a 6-year-old, I loved to be dressed as a boy, I was a tomboy and I wanted to hold hands with girls and hang out with the other guys. At that age, you might file it under ‘just a tomboy phase’ and I certainly didn’t think much of it as a young person because I didn’t understand the technicalities of being gay back then and it certainly didn’t affect my life, what with being in school and stuff.
As I got older, I realized I was physically attracted to girls. I am ok looking, I’d say, so whenever I got some sort of attention from guys, I felt repulsed and a bit offended. I always figured I’d be interested in a guy if he was incredibly good looking and incredibly interesting. Super shallow stuff, I know.
But in the meantime, I kept ogling girls in secret. My mother has low-key commented that being gay is not something she’d be absolutely fine with but she’d understand. My father, though, would absolutely hate it with a deep passion. So I’ve been “in the closet” my entire life.
I’m entering my 30s now and I’ve never kissed, dated or interacted with another human being in a romantic way. Mostly because I’m insecure as to what I want and how it would affect my life and mostly my family. I do get lonely from time to time but I think as of today, I am perfectly comfortable being alone and I’m used to it to the point where I NEED to be by myself at least for a few hours of the day to feel ok.
Here’s my dilemma though: As of late, I have trouble differentiating between attraction and friendship with girls. I hate to ruin the way I interact with a friend because I can’t tell the difference.
Guys? I see them as equals and while, hate to admit it, I would love to get laid, I’m not sure if be comfortable with a guy because I’ve never ever been attracted to one! And how would it work with a girl? I mean, I know HOW but I’m not sure if that’s the route I want to take?
I’m very confused, if you haven’t gathered, and I don’t know what to do. This causes me to go into depressive moods every now and then but I’ve learned to live with them. I guess I do need help but I don’t know what kind of help if be looking for. Help me, please?
No Love, No life
On occasion, I’ll get a question that isn’t quite in my wheelhouse and I like to get advice from some friends of mine. In this case, I reached out to my friend and actual doctor, coach and psychologist Dr. Liz Powell of Sex-Positive Psych.
Here’s what she had to say:
It seems like there are a couple distinct issues here - insecurity/costs of being closeted and how to do dating/read signals. As to the former, it sounds like part of what might have been getting in the way of you dating, NLNL, is that part of you knows that serious dating will likely lead to a situation where you either a) pull the classic “she’s my roommate and best friend” trick or b) come clean and possibly have a big family blow up.
Being in the closet is really really taxing on the brain and heart because in essence, it requires that you pretend to be someone you’re not. That’s unlikely to ever get easier and as long as the possible family blow up is in the back of your mind it’s going to make opening yourself up to someone and sharing your heart with them much much harder. I would ask you to consider what it is that’s leading you to continue being closeted at this point in your life. Are you reliant on your dad for financial support? Could his anger/upset with you lead to violence or serious harm? Is there something significant that makes coming out unsafe for you?
I’m asking these questions because I know how scary this kind of situation can be. I first came out as bisexual/queer when I was 17. I told my mother shortly after I started the process of coming out and she threw a big screaming crying fit and then, the next day, it was like nothing had happened. I came out to her several times over the next few years before it finally stuck. The time it stuck, my mom threatened to disown me AND to divorce my dad if he didn’t do the same. 13 years later, my mom wished me a happy pride when I marched in the parade with my then partner who was genderqueer and AFAB. All this to say that people change. Even people who throw big fits and ask you if you have sex with trees or animals. So is staying closeted worth the stress it’s causing you?
As to the latter portion of your question, of COURSE it’s easier to interact with guys - there’s nothing at risk there. You talk about how to figure out if someone is a friend or if they want to date you, and I have a really challenging thing to recommend: ask. The thing I’ve noticed in communities of queer women (or people socialized as women) is that lots of people want to date, but no one wants to make the first move. I’ve heard this referred to as “lesbian sheep syndrome,” based off of the fable that when actual literal sheep are lesbians, they just stand there presenting themselves to each other and expecting the other to mount them. I’ve been back on OKCupid a week and while every cisgender guy and masculine of center person I’ve talked to has asked me for a meetup, none of the women or femme of center folks have. None. And I haven’t asked them for a meetup. We’re just chatting and flirting and waiting for someone else to broach the subject.
If what you want is to date, at some point you’re going to have to let the person you want to date KNOW that you want to date them. In a way, that involves coming out, at least to them, because otherwise all the queer hotties you’re talking to will have no idea that you want to date them. Sometimes we can’t know whether we want to date someone or be their friend until we give the dating a shot, so I would recommend that you go the route of just asking someone out. In the worst case scenario, they say no, you thank them, and then you go back to hanging out. If they say yes, then you can go on some dates with them. It sounds like you already have some important self-knowledge about what you need in a relationship when it comes to space and alone time, so keep that in mind if/when dating becomes more serious, but right now, you’re just going on a date. I know that the joke is that a lesbian brings a U-Haul to her second date, but really your relationship can move at whatever pace and with whatever kinds of commitment and time fits for you.
So go out there! Take some chances!
There you go, NLNL. Best thing you can do when it comes to figuring out if someone’s into you and wants a date: take your shot and see.
Have you had a relationship with someone with an addiction? Have you helped a partner going through a major loss or trauma? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. We’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.
Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Writedoc@doctornerdlove.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.
Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blogPaging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.