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New York Times / Life - Entertain

Love the Club, Hate the Cocaine (and the Lies)

After her husband breaks his promise to abstain from drugs, a reader grapples with the fate of her relationship.

Heidi Younger

The “Dear Sugars” podcast is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at dearsugars@nytimes.com. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).

Dear Sugars,

My husband and I have been together for 10 years and married for two. Early in our relationship, he used cocaine casually, and I told him I didn’t want him to use it. It was a nonnegotiable. He accepted that and we were O.K., but recently that’s changed. I’ve caught him using it three times in the past six months. Each time, he’s lied to me about it.

He thinks I’m narrow-minded. He says I’ve turned into a cop. Most of his friends do cocaine frequently, and they don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. To him, I’m a party pooper. I think it’s reasonable to ask him to stop doing something that hurts our marriage and potentially his health. I love clubbing with him! I can go to clubs all night and not do drugs — and so can he, or at least he could in the past.

I’m 35 and at a crossroads. I know he’s not an addict, but I’m still scared and I’m drained by our fights. I love him deeply, but I don’t trust him, and I’m not sure I can start a family with someone I don’t trust. Am I being unreasonable? Is there hope for us?

Snowblue

Cheryl Strayed: You say you “know” your husband isn’t an addict, Snowblue, but you describe a pattern of behavior typical of addicts. Your husband promises he won’t use cocaine but does, even though doing so threatens to ruin his relationship with you. He lies to you, and when you discover his deceit, he justifies his drug use by diminishing its harm. Then he twists the story so you’re the one in the wrong (the party pooper, the cop). Every person reading your words who has loved or does love an addict is nodding his/her head and saying, “Yep. That happened to me too.” It’s because breaking promises and lying and playing down the consequences of drug use and covering up lies with inane excuses and rationalizing it with distorted thinking is what addicts do. These behaviors are symptoms of the disease. Whether your husband is an addict or simply in a destructive relationship with cocaine that could lead to addiction is beside the point. You’re acting like a person caught in a web of the sort an addict weaves. Wondering if you’re being unreasonable even though you know you are not, giving your husband second and third chances after he’s lied about using drugs — these are deeply familiar dynamics found in relationships in which one partner is an addict and the other is struggling with loving one.

Steve Almond: The most telling sentence in your letter is this one: “I’m 35 and at a crossroads.” It travels to the heart of your dilemma: If you listen to your instincts, you’re likely to upend your life. This is the reason you’re able to discount all the obvious signs of addict behavior Cheryl cites. You’ve spent a decade with this man. You’re clearly thinking about having children with him. Which brings us to this: “I love him deeply, but I don’t trust him, and I’m not sure I can start a family with someone I don’t trust.” Take a long look at that last clause, Snowblue. Are you really “not sure”? One way of reframing this letter (a scary but necessary way) would be like so: I no longer trust the man with whom I planned to have kids. The next question then becomes: How can I begin to rebuild that trust? Unfortunately, you’re not the one who can do that work. It’s up to your husband.

CS: Please go to a Nar-Anon or Al-Anon meeting. Do this even if the thought of going mortifies you. It mortifies most people who walk into that room for the first time, and then they’re so glad they went. The people you meet there will be both comforting and enlightening to you as you navigate through this difficult time.

SA: They will also provide you with many stories of what happens when someone chooses to ignore their mistrust of a partner with a drug or alcohol problem. Some of those stories, I suspect, will involve children. Some of them will come from children. You may need to hear these stories to fully grasp the danger of starting a family with a man who lies and manipulates when it comes to his drug use.

CS: You do not have control over whether your husband uses cocaine. I know that seems like a hard thing to believe, but it’s true. No matter how much he loves you, he will stop using cocaine only if and when he chooses to. He has made this clear to you at least three times already — and probably more often that that (unless you believe that you happened to have busted him every time he broke your agreement). The thing you do have control over is your own life and, in particular, the choices you make in relation to him. The people you meet at Nar-Anon and Al-Anon can help clarify what your boundaries are with your husband and also how you can hold them with a greater sense of peace.

SA: Part of seizing control of your life resides in focusing on your desires. It sounds like you still enjoy clubbing. But my hunch is that, at 35, you’re thinking less about partying all night and more about kids. Does your husband share that desire? Is he willing to confront the behaviors that have eroded your trust? Whatever else may be in doubt, please be clear on this: you deserve to have children with a partner whom you love and trust.

CS: You ask if there’s hope for you and your husband. There are divergent ways to think about what hope means. Is it that your husband will stop using cocaine so you can continue building the life you’ve built together or is it that you will be strong enough to decide you want a life that’s free of deception and manipulation, even if it means leaving the man you love? They are both my hope for you, Snowblue — one or the other. Both are beautiful. Only one of them is up to you.

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