Dear Sober Dad,
How can I tell if I still love my wife?
—XXX S, Moline, Illinois
Dear Sober Dad,
My wife and I met and got married when I was still drinking. I don’t feel we have that much in common now that I’m sober. She was never much of a drinker, so it’s not about that. We have two kids. Now what?
—Barry J, Tempe, Arizona
Dear XXX and Barry,
I’m answering your questions jointly because they are so deeply related.
I’d like to take you back to my 11th grade English class, where Mr. Jameson had us read the novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The lesson of the book, he taught us, was that in a relationship, it doesn’t always happen that two people love each other the same amount at any one time.
That’s how it is in marriage— things go up and down. What I hear the two of you asking is a deeper question, though. The question is you wonder whether you still have feelings for your wife, and if you don’t, should you stay with her? And since this is a blog about parenting, my assumption is that both of you have children, and therefore the question is much more announced.
So let’s go back to basics. We’re really talking about expectations— what our society has trained us to expect from marriage, and what alcoholism and addiction trains us to expect from other people.
[The All-World?] by college XXX, and author Terry Gorski says that addicts often have no idea what love is. In fact, some of the most successful relationships an adult child of an alcoholic sees growing up is the love affair between his alcoholic parent and the bottle. XXX Gorski concludes, alcoholics expect their love interests to blow their mind on demand, just like cocaine.
And may well be how the relationship begins, and even continues for a few years, certainly before the advent of children. That’s because our partners may be similarly deluded about what love is. One thing it is not, however, is “blow my mind (or any other part of me) on demand.”
So when we say, “I’m questioning whether I have feelings for my wife,” what we’re really saying is, “Our relationship has moved into a mature phase which is more about the activities of adulthood than about instant pleasure. I miss the good old days.”
You see where I’m going here. Relationships evolve, if they’re successful. If they’re unsuccessful, they stay stuck. Everything in nature is either growing or dying, so why should it be any different with relationships between two people?
One of the things you sometimes hear from women when they are complaining, often bitterly and usually correctly, about a relationship that went south is, “You didn’t want to do the work.”
This comment tends to surprise men, who did not realize that “work” was part of relationships. We men typically think that relationships are what you do when you’re not at work. Or, if you’re a thrill seeker, they’re what you do doing work hours with a coworker. In prior generations, wiser people told us, “don’t fish off the company pier,” or, more succinctly, “don’t f&?! where you eat.”
Yes, fellas, there is work in relationships, and the work involves us growing up. We have to move beyond that stage of “blow my mind or there’s the door.” We don’t want to, because it’s often not that hard to find someone else who will give us that sort of thrill-a-minute relationship bond, so why do we have to do all this work? But if you’re going to be a real adult, you don’t cut and run because your wife or partner is not living up to a measure of relationships that is about as useful as a broken yard stick. And before you start going to her to tell her everything you want differently, it’s best if we first examine our own assumptions and expectations.
False expectations number one about marriage: Marriage will make you happy.
Um, no. No, it won’t, because no thing can make you happy, except for one thing, and that thing would be you. You can choose to be happy and you can choose to be unhappy, but happiness is a choice. It is not a function of external circumstances. This is why the book says, “job or no job, wife or no wife,” when talking about physical sobriety. It can be talking about happiness, as well. There’s an old timer who lived in a single room occupancy hotel in Boston when I was newly sober. I’m sure he might have wished for more material things, but he didn’t have them, and he didn’t mind. “If you’re happy within,” he told me, “you can be happy without.”
This is not an economic philosophy for married men— we have mouths to feed, people to shelter, and so on. But it’s a pretty good recipe for happiness overall.
Marriage was not constructed to make you happy. Marriage does exist, however, for your growth.
As I’ve written elsewhere, marriage is the arena for a level of spiritual and [social?] growth unavailable everywhere else. And I don’t mean Hollywood-style marriage, where it’s just a series of dates dignified with the term “marriage.” I mean real, no exit clause, in-it-for-the-long-haul marriage. Till death do you part? Sure, why not? If you’re looking to marriage to make you happy, you’re still caught up in the incorrect notion that anything outside you, whether it’s a Rolex, a Lambo, a big house, or a European vacation, will “make you happy.”
So stopping looking at marriage to do what it’s not constructed to do. It is constructed to allow you to grow, to provide you with someone to love, cherish, care for, do for, and provide for, and it provides the best environment in which to raise children.
I don’t care whether the partners are straight or gay. I’ve never seen anything that suggests that children do better in environments other than where you find two parents living with them under the same roof.
Second false assumption about marriage: “Marriage is where I go to get my needs met.”
If you’re lucky, you get food on the table and your socks in the sock drawer. But as for your needs, what exactly are they?
One of the most compelling speakers I’ve ever heard said the following in an AA meeting at the Marina Center, circa 1993:
“Alcoholics are the world’s greatest con artists. That’s because we can even con ourselves. And the greatest con we run on ourselves is that our wants are actually our needs.
“Our needs are a day of sobriety, enough money in our pockets so that if we died tonight, we had enough money for the day, our rent or mortgage paid for the month so we have somewhere to sleep tonight, and that’s it.
“Everything else, from love to sex to bank accounts to a car is a want.
“We con ourselves into believing that our wants are truly our needs, when in fact that’s not the case.”
In other words, the Beatles were wrong. All you need is not love. All you need is, well, what the speaker just said. Everything else is a want, and again, going back to the Boston old timer, if you’re happy within, you can be happy without.
You don’t need marriage to meet your true needs— sobriety, money in your pocket for the day, a place to sleep tonight. If you’re talking about a desire to be needed, or sex, or a white picket fence, you’re talking about a want or a desire. Not a need.
So stop looking to your marriage to fulfill “needs” that aren’t needs, but are actually just desires disguised as needs.
To continue what the Marina Center speaker said, “We get so caught up in these desires that we convince ourselves that we cannot be happy until they’re all met. And that’s the saddest con of all.”
Number three: My wife will treat me great.
Sometimes she will and sometimes she won’t. Your wife is a human being, and human beings vary in terms of mood, attitude, and just about everything else, every single day. She does, and you do. Do you treat her great every day? Aren’t you the guy who drinks milk straight out the carton? Or leaves his socks adjacent to the hamper, but not quite in it, Michael Jordan? Or leaves his bowl in the sink, likely expecting her to clean it for you?
Is that love?
Sounds like bondage, and I don’t mean the fun kind.
I could go on, but I think you get my point. Rather than assessing whether you still love your wife, ask yourself whether your assumptions and expectations about what love and marriage mean really hold water.
If they don’t, maybe get a new set of assumptions and expectations before you throw your marriage overboard. You’ll be in the minority, but you’ll be in the happy minority.