As I changed the channel on the television, I noticed the, “recently watched programs,” splayed across the bottom of the screen.
Our cable provider was kind enough to keep track of the last 10 shows anyone in my family had watched on any of our three televisions, and displayed them for all of us to see.
Six of the ten were episodes of “Game of Thrones.” We had four children including two teenagers in the house, and GOT was full of sex and nudity. I was mad at myself for not putting parental blocks on our system, and I went on the hunt for the kid who was helping himself to eyeballs full of exposure.
But I was looking in the wrong place. It was my wife who had been binge-watching the world’s most popular TV phenomenon of the time.
I was livid. I showed her the top 10 list at the bottom of the screen, and showed her how easy it would be for any of our four impressionable little cherubs to be distorted by the “filth” she was watching. All they had to do was click on one of the last watched, and their innocent little brains would be flooded with unrealistically-perfect boobs, and medieval thrusting and lurching. How could she put our kids at such a risk?
The truth is, I was mad for a different reason. I was three months sober after 25 years of heavy drinking and 10 years as an active alcoholic. The damage my addiction had done to our marriage was massive, and my wife had no interest in having sex with me. The thought of her watching others have sex, even if in the most socially acceptable, enthusiastically anticipated way possible (do you remember how popular “Game of Thrones” was a couple of years ago?) was still painful for me. It was bad enough that she had no interest in me. But, that she had interest in others, even just on a viral TV show, was more than I could handle. Finding her semi-secret indulgence was like she had ripped my heart from my chest and blown it up with her remote control.
Looking back, I can see how misplaced my anger was. I was jealous—plain and simple. Sure, the ease with which our kids could find sex and nudity was a matter with which any responsible parents should deal, but the level to which I immediately elevated the disagreement was way, way over-the-top.
We stayed up all night fighting. At first, my wife apologized for her carelessness. But when my attacks did not relent, she went to familiar territory and prepared for battle. You see, the wife of an alcoholic is all too familiar with irrationality. She had been in countless (hundreds, probably) arguments with me where the reaction and anger reached far beyond the topic in dispute. You know the kind I’m talking about. Fights where the punishment is atrociously misfit for the crime.
So there we were, three months into my permanent sobriety and losing an entire night of sleep hurling insults back and forth, and pulling resentments of the past into this discussion of the present. Love was nowhere to be found. The kind of vile hatred in our bedroom that night is nothing like the ambivalence of a disagreement with a stranger. To be that mean to each other, an awful lot of pain has to have flowed under the bridge. Only love that has been abused can create those kinds of vicious and relentless attacks.
I’ve never shared this story before because it brings a new angle to the shame of my addiction. I am used to being openly embarrassed about things I did and said when drunk. But admitting to chastising my wife, a fully grown adult with a powerful mind of her own, for watching arguably the most popular grown-up television show of the decade, while I was completely sober, brings me a new kind of shame.
Welcome to my post-alcoholic marriage.
Early sobriety for a married couple is like living on thin ice. The trust on which the love was originally built has long since been dispatched by the lies and denials of active alcoholism. What’s left is a seething and bubbling cauldron of resentment just waiting for cracks in the civility to pull the couple back down into desperately bitter disagreement and conflict.
What is so insidious about recovery from addiction is that the selfishness continues in early sobriety. In many ways, in fact, selfishness becomes necessary for personal survival. But that same self-preserving selfishness makes recovering the relationship seem utterly impossible.
I was in the fight of my life. I had to fend off cravings for the thing that had become the cornerstone of my life for two-and-a-half decades. That is no small feat. At the same time, I was trying to heal my neurotransmitter function and teach my subconscious mind a new, life-sustaining pattern. I had to pour everything I had into my sobriety. It was my only hope.
At the same time, my wife could only hope and pray that I’d make it this time around (after so many relapses in the past). She felt for me no intimacy, no trust, no confidence in my ability to find sobriety, and no sympathy for the destruction I brought to our relationship. The only love that she could still muster for me was as a father and provider, and some faint hope that the man I once was might still be in there somewhere, under all the twisted debris of my addiction. That she held onto any hope and love at all was quite simply a testament to her strength and faith.
So I was in the fight of my life. When I most needed the love and support of my wife, she was most unavailable, and for good reasons. She had to protect herself. She had to stay defensive and distant. She’d been down this road before, and she knew it was no place for vulnerability or trust.
The first step to alcoholism recovery in marriage is necessarily selfish. I had to fight like hell for my sobriety, and my wife couldn’t help. She just couldn’t. That’s just not how it works.
She came across as cold and mean. “I quit drinking for you, Sheri! What more do you want from me?” I shouted on many occasions. Why couldn’t she wrap her arms around me and tell me she was proud of me? Why didn’t she roll over to my side of the bed and tell me to keep fighting? Why did she watch “Game of Thrones” like everything was fine and we had a normal, healthy marriage? Why wasn’t she fighting as hard as I was?
I thought she was a cold b*tch, and I told her so on that night as we argued about her taste in television programming, and on other occasions. Thoughts like that were dangerous for me in early sobriety. Maybe she’s always been this cold and unloving. Maybe I’m not actually an alcoholic. Do I maybe use booze to find comfort in my most uncomfortable marriage? Maybe it’s all her fault!
Alcoholism is so hard to diagnose and defeat because it is a counterintuitive disease. Alcohol temporarily relieves the anxiety alcohol causes. Booze medicates the depression that drinking brings into our lives. Alcohol lowers inhibitions making uncomfortable conversations more comfortable, then booze makes us say things we will later regret.
And in my marriage, my drinking turned us both into people who couldn’t stand to be with each other. Sobriety didn’t change us back. At least not at first. In fact, sobriety jaded us and added to the piles of resentment for a long time.
I knew how much pain my drinking had caused my wife. I knew it on a conscious and distant level. But it was not until I realized her pain continued into my sobriety, and she was not responsible for my sobriety, that I began to understand her pain. Looking back now, I realize how lucky I am that she stayed and endured the trauma of recovery.
She didn’t owe me anything when I needed a shoulder on which to cry and lean. She had already given me everything she had, and I had trashed her love and trust. The well was dry. When I wanted her to support me in early sobriety, she had nothing left to give.
I was selfish in active addiction, and I was equally selfish in early recovery. I say it all the time—sobriety doesn’t fix anything. Abstaining from alcohol didn’t immediately make me less selfish. Only the gift of time and unimaginable patience revealed the truth that was right in front of my face all along.
I needed to talk less and listen more. I needed to ask for less and give more. I needed to trade my anger in for compassion, and I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and start being sorry for the pain I had inflicted on the woman I loved most in the world. It wasn’t about her. It never was. It was about me. Selfish me.
It is widely known in the recovery community that abstinence from our addictive substance or activity is not enough. Alcoholics who quit drinking but don’t work on their behavior are called dry drunks. We have to work. And the work that’s required to save our relationships depends on the reflection and understanding of time and perspective.
It’s not them, it’s us. My wife might have been angry, but only because my selfish drinking made her that way. Recovery isn’t about making a few subtle changes here and there. It’s about a transformation back into the innocent person we were before we poisoned every aspect of our lives. And in order for our spouses to make the transformation they deserve, we’ve got to give them the room—the room to be mad and untrusting and resentful and overly cautious.
And we’ve got to let them watch “Game of Thrones: and hold a grudge. That’s on us, not on them. It doesn’t matter whose mouth the vile words come from—we put the pain there. We’ve got to let it come out if we ever hope to heal.
Sheri and I are healing. We are three years into our marriage recovery, and I’m confident we are going to make it.
If you’d like to learn more about how we saved our post-alcoholic marriage, please read our free ebook, He’s Sober. Now What? A Spouse’s Guide to Alcoholism Recovery.