August 4, 2023

Black Ice in a Relationship

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Oh So Many Ways!

Sometimes, once in a while, it’s nice to think that you’ve got it ‘all figured out’; that nothing else could possibly surprise you. And then, of course, something comes along and does just that. And, oddly enough, or at least you think it’s odd, you find yourself lying flat on your back thinking to yourself, “what the hell just happened? Where did that come from?” In working with couples, who have sought us out from all walks of life and all phases of relationships, we’re here to remind you that those moments aren’t all that surprising when you get over the shock of it all. There are the obvious ones such as relationship betrayals and family dynamics that go sideways while you weren’t paying attention.

And then there are the sneaky ones, the emotional equivalent of black ice; you hear the warning, you know it’s real but you don’t really believe it until you’re sliding down towards that inevitable crash landing on the sidewalk, looking up at sky and wondering why you’re still clutching your thermal teacup. In relationships this can, and often does, look like behaviors that we are well aware of suddenly taking on a life of their own. In their growing presence in our lives, they also take up more and more space in the relationship. To be specific I’m referring to substance use issues, shopping or gambling issues, video gaming or just about anything that started off as something that was no big deal but has now become a rather massive deal. 

One of the pieces that makes these issues so troublesome is how they start; they begin innocently and oftentimes for couples, as something you’ve done together. You may have spent a great deal of the early months or years of your relationship going to social gatherings where alcohol was common (and I’m focusing on alcohol only as a place marker for any other behavior that gets to be problematic). And, for the most part, the behavior is seen as being normal, not something to be ashamed of or of having an impact on the bigger relationship as a whole. Perhaps there were a few times where one of you got a little sloppy or when it was a bit over the line, but hey, everyone does that once in a while, right? It’s what we’d like to tell ourselves but, no, it’s not what ‘everyone’ does. And, if one’s behavior is causing negative consequences and they continue to engage in it, then that’s really not OK. 

As you already know, being in a relationship takes work, commitment and a willingness to accept your partner for where they are. That doesn’t mean we can’t make changes ourselves in how we, individually, behave and the choices we make, but part of being in a relationship is ensuring that our partner is ready and able to support our shifts. Here’s an easy example: if one person in a relationship decides they want to start eating a vegan diet, they also need to ensure that the foods in the house are still meeting the needs of their partner. To expect that our partner would be 100% on board with such a decision is unfair to them and to the relationship.

When I’m talking about behaviors such as drinking and gambling, I’m talking about lifestyle choices that creep from being fun and casual to incredibly destructive, if given the room to grow that way. This is what I often see in our practices, where one half of the couple is angry and upset and the other surprised and defensive. How did this happen?

It’s actually pretty simple; the person who is the ‘drinker’ has allowed their relationship with alcohol to become the priority rather than their relationship with their beloved. The drinker (or gamer, gambler, shopper) will have slipped onto the slippery slope of rationalizations, excuses, hiding, sneaking and flat-out lying all to protect the relationship with – fill in the blank with the destructive behavior here.

The non-drinker is left first to wonder if it’s their imagination, “It can’t really be that, can it?” which moves at some point to, “I am not sure what to do here and don’t know how to manage this.” I’ve seen couples wake up to the reality of what’s going on over the course of just a few sessions and others who have been living this way for years before they seek out support and guidance. 

I’d like you to be equipped to make decisions about what you’re seeing and how you want to respond (note, I didn’t say, ‘react’). Here are some good guidelines to get you started:

  1. Pay attention to how you’re feeling about what’s being said and the actions your partner is taking. Your feelings are a great starting point. 
  2. Note if  your partner’s words and actions match; if they don’t, pay attention to their actions, not their words.
  3. If you can, approach a conversation about the subject from the point of view of how these behaviors are impacting the relationship ~ seeing the relationship as its own being that needs to be attended to.
  4. Get yourself support from a self help group, a therapist or a peer who may have been where you are now.
  5. Set boundaries to keep yourself, and your children if there are any, safe. That means not getting in the car if the drinker is under the influence or moving money into a separate account if gambling or shopping is the issue. This might also apply to any pets in the home as they can often be targets of poor behavior.
  6. Whatever the issue is, you don’t need to talk about it until you’re blue in the face. Say what you need to stay, hold your boundaries and keep moving forward. You can talk about it when it’s appropriate but you don’t need to mention it in the same breath as, “the dry cleaner called to say your clothes are ready for pick up.” 
  7. Allow your partner to feel the natural consequences of their decisions. If they are late for work because they are too hungover to get up on time, that’s their problem; you don’t need to cover for them or wake them up. (Yes, if the job is lost that could be your problem too; the covering up is only going to extend the conditions you’re living in.) If they drove the car home in a blackout and left it on the front lawn, you can simply leave it there. This doesn’t mean not taking care of yourself but it does mean that each time you clean up the mess for your partner they won’t feel the pain they are causing themselves, you and the relationship.
  8. If your partner’s behaviors are dangerous toward you then the reality is you need to get out. Get yourself someplace safe so you can think and decide what to do next but staying is not OK. You are too valuable. 

Do these sound harsh or too hard to carry out? They sure can feel that way and that isn’t an infrequent complaint I hear. Here’s the thing ~ you can do what you need to do, when you’re ready. You can because you’re worth it and because your partner, and the relationship, might well be worth fighting for. You might also decide that the damage done is more than you’re willing or able to repair, in which case, getting out might be the best decision for you.

I started this by suggesting that surprises happen in life and that we often aren’t sure how to navigate them. But where’s what I also know; you’ve got more skills than you likely realize. And, best part yet, they’re just skills so if you need help learning them, that’s possible too. We can’t always prepare for the shock and hurt of betrayals and loss of trust but you are more than capable of being mindful of what might come of some behaviors and how to address them; I hope this piece will help get you started. 

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