Q: Seven years ago, at age 24, I lost my first husband in a car accident. He was driving under the influence. We had two small children.
Three years ago, I remarried. My children adore my new husband, and we now have a baby together.
My problem is that my husband is an alcoholic, as he was when we met, but I fell in love with him despite his drinking.
I know it is wrong to ask him to change now, but I am truly unhappy in our relationship and his drinking habits. He has driven drunk with my children although I have repeatedly asked him not to.
He does not want to quit drinking and says I am the one with the problem, so counseling is out of the question. Also, he lies about his drinking.
How do I keep my family safe without hurting my children and breaking their hearts (and mine) all over again? I do love this man — as do my kids — but I am not happy, and I’m afraid I can’t live the rest of my life this way.
A: There are two things to consider here. First and foremost, of course, is the safety of your children.
This part is simple: You must never let them in a vehicle with this man driving. Asking him to stop drinking and driving with them is not enough.
He won’t do it, so you must. Do whatever it takes: Drive them yourself, have a friend or relative drive, hire a taxi, take the bus, go by foot. There is no acceptable reason for letting your children in a car with an alcoholic at the wheel.
Which brings up a broader point: At the risk of appearing unsympathetic, it appears that something is drawing you toward alcoholic men. I suspect it’s the same unconscious issue that’s keeping you from taking clear action to keep the children safe.
You have married men, both of whom were drunk drivers. You didn't learn a lesson the first time. You need to figure out why you are connecting with this kind of destructive man and letting him act in ways that threaten your children’s lives. If your marriage ends — which would not be surprising, either because your husband dies or you can’t stand to stay in this situation — you don’t want a third husband to fit the same mold.
Maybe you feel you deserve to be treated badly. Maybe you want to save a man who so clearly needs help. Maybe you fear the loss of love and approval if you assert yourself. Maybe you are repeating a relationship that you had with an alcoholic parent.
You need to figure out what unconscious conflict is driving you to seek out and stay with alcoholic men.
You say you can’t ask your husband to change now, because you knew about his drinking when you met. If you were talking about something trivial (he dresses badly, say, or tells dumb jokes) I would agree. But this is not on the same scale. This is not an annoying habit — it is a disease that destroys lives. You are abdicating your responsibility as a parent to say it is too late to protect your children.
Though you say the children would be heartbroken at the loss of another father, this is a specious argument. If he is driving drunk, it’s fairly certain they will lose their father sooner or later, either to death, illness or prison. He might even take them down with him, in which case the point is moot.
It’s fine to want stability for the children, but if you dissolve your partnership with this man, that doesn’t mean he can’t still be part of their lives. They lost their father to death, but divorce is not death. Besides, there are many things worse for children than divorce, including being maimed or killed by a drunk driver.
In addition, although the kids adore your husband now, this could well change. Alcoholics are often volatile, irrational and violent. You already hint that your husband is a difficult man — he won’t admit to his problem, he lies, he accuses you. By remaining silent and enabling him to be a role model for the children, you increase the likelihood they will struggle with their own alcohol problems when they grow up.
Your husband is the only one who can seek treatment. You can’t do it for him. Alcoholism, though difficult to tackle, is a treatable disease for those who are committed to getting help.
But there are things you can do: You can refuse to let the kids drive with him, and you can decide whether to remain with him.
Can you live with the situation as it is? What if it worsens? Can you keep the kids safe if you stay with your husband? At some point, the pendulum might swing, and you might decide it is no longer worth it to you to tolerate the destructive behavior of this particular man, and of this type of man.
Here’s another point to think about: By driving drunk, your husband is breaking the law and endangering the lives of innocent bystanders (including, of course, your children). I am not a lawyer or an ethicist, and cannot advise you in these areas, but you, as his wife, should grapple with this idea, and consider taking more forceful action in light of the fact that your husband is committing a crime.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Don’t let your children in a car with a drunk driver, and don’t repeat patterns of behavior that put them at risk.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.