I’m sober, he’s a drinker, and it’s damaging our relationship

A man drinks a pint of beer
It can be tricky to navigate an established relationship if your drinking patterns become out of kilter - PA

To Chris*, it’s a deserved bottle of beer after a long day at work – but when his wife, Leanne*, catches sight of it, her shoulders draw together in annoyance. She’s spent the past two hours helping their children with their homework and getting them through bath time; when Chris, picking up on her irritation, offers to pour her a glass of wine, she shakes her head and returns to reading their three-year-old a story.

Chris and Leanne, like many couples, fell in love over cocktails and bottles of wine but now in their early 40s and parents to three children, their drinking habits are out of kilter. Chris drinks more or less the same as he always did, rewarding himself with beers after work, large glasses of red at the weekends and as much as is available when he’s at a wedding or on a rare night out with his friends.

Meanwhile Leanne, much to Chris’s disappointment, has become a cautious drinker. Even when they’re out for dinner in her favourite pub, the brakes slam on after one and a half glasses; she dreads the insomnia and hangovers that come from overindulgence and likes to feel she’s living healthily now she’s a mother. She can’t understand why the first thing Chris does when he walks in after work is to crack open a beer. “It’s not a deal breaker, I still love him but I wish we were on the same page,” she says. “Our differing relationship with alcohol has given us distinct personas in our marriage – the responsible one (me) and the fun one (him). I’m always the designated driver as not drinking ruins his evening whereas I’m not bothered; I’m always the timekeeper, the one who has to tell our hosts we’re leaving even if he’s the one with the early start. He’ll comically roll his eyes and tell our friends ‘sorry, I’m being dragged away’. I literally want to punch him.”

While Chris is adamant that he doesn’t drink excessively – “no more than a beer and a glass and a half of wine each night and a little more if I’m out” – Leanne believes he’d be happier and more productive if he reined it in. He’d also be healthier; the more he drinks, the more he snores; he looks pale and suffers from high cholesterol and psoriasis, both of which are thought to be exacerbated by drinking alcohol. He’s been treated for gout twice. He claims to want to get fit, Leanne says, to start doing weights and take up tennis again, but that first cold bottle of lager relegates him to the sofa and reading the news on his mobile phone. “He gets so grumpy when I bring up his drinking habits; he genuinely believes that he’s abstemious compared to most men his age and that I’m practically teetotal when I can tell you, I’m definitely not – I enjoy a glass of wine as much as the next person. I end up having a glass almost every night – he’s opened a bottle, so why wouldn’t I?”

Dr Oscar D’Agnone, a psychiatrist specialising in addiction and alcohol-related problems at the Oad Clinic (theoadclinic.com), claims that mismatched drinking habits are a common cause of friction within relationships. Couples experience the same potential drinking windows every day – the after-work beer, the glass of wine over dinner, a glass of red with a film – and it’s a repeated behaviour pattern. If one half suddenly wants to abstain or feels the other is drinking too much, it leads to problems, he says. “Whichever partner it is who raises the flag, the chances are the other is in denial and feels forced into a defensive position.” Indeed Chris says he finds Leanne unfairly judgmental, and believes she would have more fun if she let her hair down – a suggestion that is met by the response: “Yes but someone needs to be the grown-up.”

Yet according to D’Agnone, it’s a mistake for someone in Leanne’s position to take on the role of “mother”. He finds that patients can end up drinking more in this situation, in a teenager-style rebellion. Drinking issues can be wrapped up with control issues; either control of your partner or self-control. Leanne’s sanctimonious insistence on driving back from nights out won’t be helping matters, either. Better, he says, for her to raise her concerns about Chris’s drinking habits as a partner, an equal, explaining how it is affecting her and potentially the children and how concerned she is about his health. While Chris maintains that alcohol doesn’t have a negative effect on him – he did Stoptober, a month without alcohol, for charity a few years ago and it didn’t make him feel any better, he says –  D’Agnone maintains that excessive alcohol consumption will always have an impact. “It’s an alien substance you’re putting into your body; if you’re sitting at a desk all day feeling stressed and then you drink to relax, you’re not living a healthy life.” He suggests that together couples should look at alternative ways of relaxing: sport, dinners out without alcohol, the cinema, active holidays. “If you’re using alcohol as a tranquilliser, it’s a good idea to look for a different way of relaxing,” he says.

He also suggests agreeing boundaries rather than policing each other’s drinking habits. “Boundaries are the first step of a cycle of change; they spark precontemplation [the stage of not yet acknowledging that there is a problem behaviour that needs to be changed] and are particularly helpful if the other person is in denial,” he says.

Typical boundaries might include “no drinking during the working week” or “never being the last at a party” or “taking it in turns to drive”. If boundaries are broken, there should be consequences, he adds, namely an initial discussion with a therapist or doctor. “It’s much easier for a person to see they need help if they’re not able to keep within agreed parameters,” he says.

While Leanne and Chris’s drinking mismatch might seem like a common gripe, a clichéd mums’ WhatsApp group moan, it’s always worth tackling relationship niggles sooner rather than later – particularly when they involve drinking, D’Agnone insists. “Don’t wait for a specific incident, sit down and have the conversation now,” he says. “Often the problem is based on habits you formed together as a couple; it’s about coming up with a new, more positive way of relaxing together.”

*Names in this article have been changed 

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