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by E W
Counselor/Therapist

Usually people are on best behavior when dating, but what do we do if we really like the other person, but as time goes on, alcohol or other substance use appears to be a potential problem?  How does one determine if over-reacting to normal behavior is the problem, or if the behavior of alcohol abuse is the problem?

In the beginning of a dating relationship, there might be a glass of wine with dinner, or a beer at a sporting event. If things seem to be working out, spending more time together, hanging out with friends, family and longer visits may bring to light differences in attitudes about alcohol use. You both might feel that occasional indulgences are fine, regular moderate use is OK, or even that continuing college-age binge drinking is perfectly normal, but what happens when the people in a relationship do not agree? Do you:

  • Drop the relationship?
  • Put up with potential alcoholism?
  • Love 'unconditionally' despite costs of alcohol abuse?

Ideally, persons entering serious, long-term committed relationships know who they are, who they want to be, and are aware of their values and beliefs - but realistically, our brains continue ethical and moral reasoning development into our 20s and 30s, and many of us are still trying to figure out who we are and what we want beyond those years as well. Our attitudes about substance use and abuse may be firm deal-breaking rules, but they may also change as the years go on, becoming broader or more rigid. Either way, these can be important issues to consider when dating and as relationships progress to marriage, and possibly children.

Don't Ignore Red Flags

If there are already disagreements in the relationship surrounding alcohol or substance use, consider this a warning flag. Whether these issues are 'differences of opinion' or problems with practical consequences such as job loss, traffic tickets, or financial difficulties, these probably will not magically disappear nor should one person go on with the hope of 'changing' someone else.  A person may feel the other is 'over-reacting' while the other may feel the subject is not being taken seriously enough. Issues of substance use can influence the success or failure of relationships, marriages, families, and individuals in life and therefore need to be appropriately addressed.

If there is abuse of any kind, please stop the relationship immediately and seek help. No risk of injury to self or others should be considered acceptable.

Working Things Out

Relationship support groups, pastoral counseling, reading self-help books together, or other methods may help you gain clarity. Understanding the full potential impact of disagreement regarding the use of substances is vital.

  • What if you want to move in together? If one partner is unable to meet their financial commitments due to substance abuse, that may impact the relationship.
  • If marriage and family are future considerations, then discussions may center on child-rearing – do both parties want to raise children in a home where substances are used?
  • What if use crosses the line to substance abuse? What if one partner feels it is OK to supervise children while 'buzzed' but the other does not?

These are serious issues. Even if children are never anticipated, if the joy in a relationship comes from spending time together, but one partner is frequently unavailable – emotionally, intellectually or physically – due to substance use, then it is a serious issue.

Consider Seeking Couples Therapy

Couples therapy is not just for married persons – and it is definitely okay to want to address issues of substance use and potential substance abuse prior to marriage or other long term commitments.

Licensed professional counselors can provide a neutral third party, plus educational background and experience, and can help in assessing the potential for substance abuse and addiction. Counseling can also help both parties learn basic relationship negotiating skills, communication skills, and help with working toward future growth.

Unconditional Love?

What of the unconditional love argument? Perhaps one person has argued that if one truly loves another, that love is unconditional.

Unconditional love does not mean accepting unconditional relationships or unconditional living situations. It is possible to love someone, but not find it acceptable to continue in a relationship – if the boundaries are unhealthy, if the views on the use of substances are not compatible, or if there are other issues that are not negotiable.

Unconditional love is never the same as unconditional acceptance of behaviors.

The Bottom Line

Attitudes, beliefs, and actual use of alcohol and other substances are important matters in any relationship, and deserve an appropriate amount of attention. Don't 'let it go' out of a hope for future change, or be made to feel that one person's concerns are any less valid than any other's. In mature, healthy relationships, concerns are validated, addressed, and hopefully resolved to foster deepening love, commitment, and future growth.  

About the author E W:
From Victim Advocacy with survivors of abuse and violence, case management with senior citizens and their families, counseling with at-risk youth and their families, to therapy with adults fighting addiction - bereavement, depression, relationship issues, parenting issues, divorce, blended families, disability, career changes, life changes, my professional experience has encountered it all (so to speak). Fitness, health, coping with chronic illness, aging parents, raising children, job loss, job stress,.... and the list goes on!
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Page last updated May 19, 2014

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