"The night Jack drove home totally drunk from an office party was the last straw," said Claudia, 44, a youthful-looking mother of two. "I don't want to be a widow and I don't want our kids to be fatherless. But even if Jack doesn't have an accident, he could lose his driver's license. He runs his own insurance agency, and there's no public transportation to his office. How would he manage if he couldn't drive?
"What infuriates me most is Jack's attitude. He thinks I'm making a big deal out of nothing. It's true, as he likes to point out, that he doesn't drink every day. But he's a binger. He never outgrew the college tradition of staying sober all week long, then getting wasted on the weekend. But that doesn't make the situation any less dangerous.
"It's no surprise that Jack tunes me out about his drinking he tunes me out about everything. He doesn't have a clue about the normal give-and-take that happens between people who love each other. I trace the problem back to his childhood. He's the younger of two boys, and his parents have always favored their older son, Bobby, a neurosurgeon who makes loads of money. Whenever the family gets together, my in-laws brag nonstop about Bobby. It's always 'Bobby this' and 'Bobby that.' It's enough to make me want to throw up! Look, Jack does all right! They should be proud of him, too. But I can tell that he's the also-ran in his parents' eyes. I'm an only child and my parents doted on me, so I can only guess how much their attitude must hurt Jack.
"I suppose I should be grateful that Jack works hard and brings home good money, but it upsets me that he's so uninvolved with me and the kids. I feel so alone. What's weird is that he was extremely sweet and attentive when we first got together. I met Jack through a friend when we were both in our mid 20s. He was funny and made me feel pretty and smart. Yes, he'd throw back one drink after another whenever we went out on weekends, but we lived in the city then and took the subway home, so I never gave it much thought. Because everything else about him was perfect, I overlooked the obvious.
"Jack and I love the water and a year after our wedding we bought our waterfront dream house. Our son, Tim, was born just after our third anniversary, and Susie came along two years later. By then, Jack's business was doing well enough that I was able to quit my office job to be a full-time mom for 10 years (I only went back to work part-time recently).
"But that's when Jack started working long hours and becoming remote. I'd try to get him to talk in the evenings, but he'd just shrug and turn on the TV.
"That was also when his drinking escalated. We'd have beach parties every weekend in the summer, and Jack would get totally hammered. He's a 'happy drunk' and he'd make an idiot of himself in front of the kids and our guests — telling stupid jokes, flirting with other guys' wives, singing off-key, and generally embarrassing himself.
"The other guys drank a lot, too, but Jack was the worst. When the guests would start leaving, he'd always try to convince them to stay, regardless of the hour. He'd keep drinking even after everybody else had left. I hate the fact that the kids see their father behaving this way, and I worry that they'll eventually follow his example.
"The first warning bells went off at a reunion with Jack's college friends. They kept cracking up about the stupid stuff they used to do when they were drunk, like run around the rugby field naked in a snowstorm. Needless to say, they were pretty well oiled when they did all this hilarious reminiscing.
"The next day at brunch, I voiced my concerns to Jack, but he just laughed and told me not to worry. He said that he liked to have a good time but knew his limits and would never be irresponsible.
"I met his mom and dad soon after that. Like my parents, they are purely social drinkers, people who indulge in a cocktail or a glass of wine every now and then. I took that as a good sign. I figured our role models were similar and that he would evolve into the same kind of moderate drinker I consider myself to be. I have a glass of wine with dinner once or twice a week, and I'll drink a couple of beers at parties. That's it.
"I tried several times to talk to him about it, but he'd call me a spoilsport. He'd say there was no problem because he was in his own home and didn't have to drive. He'd also point out that nobody else seemed to care, that everyone kept coming back to our parties. And that was true — the beach is a big draw for our friends, and the other guys are party boys, too. Everybody seems to accept all this drinking as normal. Everybody but me, that is.
"Then, last December, Jack decided to throw an office Christmas party for his staff at a restaurant near his office. At 2 p.m. that day, I phoned and voice mail picked up. I panicked because it meant the entire office was already out partying. I tried Jack's cell phone but got only voice mail there, too. Hours went by; he never returned my calls. I was freaking out. I didn't know which restaurant they'd gone to, so I had no way to find out if he was okay.
"He finally called at around 9 p.m. His speech was seriously slurred, and a party was clearly going on in the background. I spoke very calmly and begged him to take a cab home. He promised me he would.
"When I went to bed at midnight, Jack still wasn't home. I tried his cell; no answer. I tossed and turned and eventually dozed off. When I heard car wheels crunch in the driveway, I woke up with a start. It was 3 a.m. Looking out the window, I saw Jack's car pulling into the garage, with him behind the wheel. He staggered in and collapsed on the bed. My first reaction was, Thank God he's alive! But an instant later I was livid. How could he be so reckless?
"The next day, I laid down the law. I told him he had jeopardized not only his life but the lives of everyone else on the road and his kids' future. I said we had to get help. He gave me his maddening little shrug, then said he'd see a shrink if I insisted but that I was exaggerating the problem. Talk about denial! But at least he's willing to try counseling. I just hope he loves me and the kids enough to stop this dangerous habit."
"Claudia is blowing this issue way out of proportion," said Jack, a friendly man of 46. "True, driving home from that party after I'd had a few too many showed poor judgment. But I didn't have an accident, I didn't get arrested, so can't we please just drop it? I told Claudia it would never happen again. Now she's harping more than ever about how much I drink at our beach parties. Please — I'm on my own property with no need to drive. I work hard for our lifestyle. I deserve to have a few beers with my friends.
"Claudia has seized on this idea that I might be an alcoholic because she recently started a part-time job as a receptionist in a doctor's office, and her boss has been in Alcoholics Anonymous for years. But I am not an alcoholic. I almost never drink during the week and once when I was on painkillers I didn't touch alcohol for two weeks. I never feel a 'need' to drink. Also, there's no history of alcoholism in my family, and I've heard that it's usually genetic.
"Drinking for me is purely social; I do it to have fun. We all used to binge on weekends in college, and I guess that's still my pattern. That's just the way my generation approaches alcohol. I never get mean; I just enjoy myself. How is that setting a bad example for the kids?
"I wish Claudia would get off my case. She's turned into a first-class nag, and not just about my alcohol consumption, either. Much of the problem stems from the fact that she's spoiled. She has always been the center of her parents' attention, and she expects the same treatment from me. But I can't give Claudia that much attention. I come home exhausted, and she starts in on how I need to spend quality time with her and the kids.
"Before kids, all I heard was that she wanted to be able to stay home with them. Now she gripes about being lonely. This new part-time job helps some, but she still seems to need more than I can give.
"Maybe that's one reason I look forward to a few drinks. It gives me a chance to forget about how our life is turning out. I thought if I was a good provider, Claudia would be happy. But she's not, and it's killing me. I love her, but I feel that she doesn't love me the way she used to. I hope counseling will help."
The Counselor's Turn
"During a private session, I told Jack that the fact that he drinks only at parties and can stay away from alcohol for long periods does not mean he's not an alcoholic," said the counselor. "Many alcoholics can restrict their drinking to certain days or even times. But whether he can technically be defined as an alcoholic is irrelevant (though his risky behavior the night he drove home drunk did signal a change for the worse in his drinking pattern). The pressing issue, I told him, was not a medical diagnosis but that his drinking was hurting his marriage.
"This was an epiphany for Jack. He sat there for a moment in stunned silence. Then he said, 'So you're saying that it doesn't matter in my case whether or not I'm actually an alcoholic. What matters is that my drinking upsets Claudia.'
"'Exactly,' I answered. Since I know from experience that most drinkers resist the term alcoholic, the key to my intervention style is to avoid characterizing the drinking as bad and simply emphasize the fact that it is jeopardizing the drinker's well-being.
"I also explained to Jack that alcoholism tends to run in families (something he had alluded to himself), but no one knows how much is nature and how much nurture. His behavior could be a model that launches his children on a destructive path as they get older, even if they have no genetic tendency to substance abuse. He had heard this from Claudia, of course, but hearing it from me made a strong impression. 'I actually wouldn't want the kids to drink as much as I do,' he conceded.
"'Here again,' I said, 'the issue is how your drinking affects those you love.' From there, we explored Jack's complaint that Claudia demanded too much attention. I told him that her view was that he was tuning her out, with the result that she was lonely and hurt. We discussed his childhood, and Jack spontaneously told me that he had always felt he could never compete with Bobby, his older brother, on whom his parents focused all their attention. Consequently, Jack grew up to express few opinions and to expect very little affection. In a private session with Claudia, we talked about Jack's feeling that her being a doted-upon only child meant that she needs an inordinate amount of attention. Whether or not that was true, her desire for lots of interaction was clearly at odds with Jack's lack of experience in relating openly and lovingly.
"Then, in a joint session, I asked Jack whether he loved his wife and kids. 'They mean everything to me!' he said without a second's hesitation. Claudia was startled because Jack so seldom verbalized his love for her. At that point I asked Jack if he remembered what we had talked about during his private session. 'Yes,' he said. 'What it boils down to is that if I want to save my marriage, I have to stop being a party boy. It doesn't matter whether I'm technically an alcoholic; all that matters is that my drinking upsets my wife and sets a bad example for my kids.' Then he looked at Claudia and said, 'I love you so much. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to change.'
"Claudia's eyes filled as Jack reached for her hand. 'I love you, too,' she said. 'We'll get through this together.'
"After that, I asked Jack whether he felt he could control his drinking without quitting altogether. He said he would like to try. I suggested a three-month trial period where he could have no more than two drinks in any given day (the amount considered medically acceptable, and even beneficial, for men), with a drink consisting of 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or one shot of liquor. I also insisted that Jack promise never to drink and drive. If he proved unable to cut back on his own, the next step would be to join AA and stop drinking entirely.
"To help the couple overcome Jack's problem of tuning out and Claudia's push for attention, I had them set aside a minimum of 10 minutes every evening just to be together. At first, they simply cuddled in silence, but before long Jack began to use this private time as an opportunity to talk. Claudia was thrilled with this development, and so was Jack, since it meant he was finally opening up and getting the affection he'd needed all his life.
"Jack has in fact been able to control his drinking for two years now. On the basis of my extensive study of substance abuse and its treatment, I do not believe that Jack was physically or psychologically addicted to alcohol. [For a definition of alcoholism and a thorough description of its symptoms, go to the Web site of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) at www.niaaa.nih.gov.] An alcoholic, according to the NIAAA, will 'continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems.' In Jack's case, the desire to save his marriage was the motivation he needed to cut back. 'I just said, hey, starting today it's two drinks and no more,' he told me. 'I know that for a lot of people this approach would not be possible, but it has worked for me. And now that Claudia is no longer upset about my drinking and now that we've learned to communicate, our marriage is better than ever.'
"In addition to limiting himself to two drinks at the couple's summer beach parties, Jack has also kept his promise to alternate 'designated driver' duties on the nights he and Claudia go out. Better yet, on several occasions when he has had drinks with clients, he has taken a cab home. Claudia reports that the wives in their circle of friends express wonder and envy at Jack's turnaround. She had always believed that they were unconcerned about their husbands' binge drinking. As it turns out, they had simply lacked the nerve to confront them about it. Now, several are following Claudia's lead in pressing for change. 'These guys are middle-aged already,' observes Claudia. 'It's time they grew up. I'm sure glad Jack did!'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and on information from the files of Flo Rosof, PhD, the director of the Life Development Center, in Huntington, New York. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2005.