For the whole of my twenties and a good deal of my thirties I never had a romantic relationship that didn’t begin fueled by the artificial courage of alcohol. There’s every possibility that I’d never had a one up until I stopped drinking in my mid-thirties… Let’s be honest it’s far easier to navigate the marshy uncertainty of a new relationship after a couple of drinks to calm the nerves. Getting to know a prospective partner a lot less scary after a few glasses of wine. It really does go back to my previous post about friendship and how conversations are just a little less initially contrived when you’re not feeling quite as self conscious and inhibited.
The thing is that a drinking problem does nothing for creating and maintaining healthy romantic relationships. I never really had boyfriends in high school, preferring to spend my afternoons and weekends focused on my show jumping. Of course there were high school crushes and short-lived dalliances, but nothing that could be considered a serious commitment. Being at an all-girls’ school also meant that the opportunities to meet guys were far less frequent and it never really bothered me that I didn’t have a boyfriend. After leaving school and starting university there were a couple of brief assignations and one short-lived relationship, but nothing of any depth really. And then there came my first proper 20-something relationship…
In my first few years at university I drank heavily. The reasons we drink are as varied as the types of people we are and I’d never really done any introspection on why I drank. I know now that there are many reasons, one of them being that when I was even slightly intoxicated I was not scared to express myself, especially emotionally. If I wanted to let my interest be known it was far easier to do it after a couple of drinks than stone-cold sober. Being emotionally-closed and worrying about rejection is a deep-seated fear in me and something I am working on daily to overcome. My coach assures me that I am not the only person in the world that suffers from this constant need for approval, positive assurance and the belief that being vulnerable makes me weak and needy. But this was not something that concerned me during my drinking years. I’d simply say how I felt and if I was rebuffed I’d deal with it in the cloudy places of dulled senses and get over it, slightly numbed to the reality that I’d been rejected.
But my first real relationship did nothing to assuage these fears once it gathered some momentum. The first man I truly loved was cold and manipulative, emotionally abusive and just plain mean. So all the fears in me were magnified by this early relationship and became far more destructive than they were before we dated. My parents were unhappily married for many years and I was desperately looking for someone to love me. It was a difficult relationship and I cannot blame him for everything since my drinking was an issue, but every weakness I had with regard to myself and my idea of what a relationship should be grew out of all proportion during the two years we dated. He’d tell me things like “If I don’t love you nobody will!” and “If you were thinner I’d love you more.” I lost all sense of myself during the couple of years we dated, believing that I was lucky to be with him and that I wasn’t really worthy of great love in my life. I saw my friends less and less as time wore on, my self confidence and self respect withered away and I drank more and more. He’d question my choice of outfits and friends, and I became one of those young women who would retort with “But you don’t know what it’s like when it’s just the two of us.”
Our final months together were filled with raging, venomous arguments that normally took place late at night after we’d both been drinking. And we’d wake up in the morning not really sure what had started them. We broke up after a terrible fight over him not being prepared to attend his surprise birthday party because he was playing golf that day. And when he did arrive a home video in which I was smoking on a trip away with friends led him to ask me, “If I cannot trust you not to smoke, how can I trust you not to be with other men?” We only saw each other once after that and the argument ending with his parting words, “When you read my death notice in the paper tomorrow let it forever be on your conscience.” He’s alive and well, married with children I believe, but those words scarred me for a long time and my hands are trembling over the keyboard now.
There were a couple of relationships after him during my drinking years, one of which was an engagement, but the reasons for that are very sad and it never worked out. It’s been more than ten years since I told a man that I loved him. Being sober and “relationship unfit” (my coach’s words which I completely agree with) is really tough. There’s no choice of “Dutch Courage” when it comes to picking up the phone or sending the message in the early stages. There’s no false bravado and there’s no hiding behind the excuse of “I had a couple too many drinks”. It’s raw, real and scary starting a new relationship when you’ve never done it with all your mental faculties about you before. The one thing I do know is that there will never be fights and arguments initiated by me because so many things seem so inconsequential when you haven’t been drinking all night. And I don’t for one moment believe that our real selves come out when we drink. We become less inhibited and more outspoken, but I cannot subscribe to the belief that the argumentative, aggressive people that hard drinkers become after a few too many are who we truly are. So I’m a much calmer person who knows that of there are disagreements to be had and conflicts to resolve it is far healthier and more productive to have these difficult conversations without a drink in hand. But I do feel emotionally vulnerable and am working very hard on trusting, not being needy, staying calm and finding peace…relationship skills that I never developed while I was drinking, but that are pivotal parts of any mature, grown-up relationship.
‘Til next time