Why I stayed in a damaging relationship with an alcoholic

Liz and her daughter on a trip to Venice in 2019

'I didn’t know about psychological manipulation, victim blaming, coercion or what to do if someone calmly threatens to smash your teeth out'

For the last six years, I have been in a relationship with an alcoholic. For at least the first three of those years, I had no idea he had this illness, and for almost all of it, all through the worst drinking years, the increasingly verbal, psychological and physical abuse, and into his eventual sobriety and all the new problems that brought – I have had no idea what to do.

I’m often asked how on earth I didn’t realise my partner was an alcoholic when I met him and we got together. And why, after it had become clear that he was, and that I was in a damaging, and traumatic relationship (now also with a child with this man who I looked after on my own for weeks, even months at a time) I didn’t run a mile?

These are very fair questions, I’d ask the same of any friend of mine in such a position, but they come with a simple answer: I knew nothing at all about alcoholism before I met him, nor what it can do.

I’d never (knowingly) known an Actual Alcoholic, nor had any idea what the word really means, far less how it manifests itself, progresses and destroys everything in its wake. No idea what it’s like to love one, have every aspect of one’s life smashed apart by one, or what to do if we find ourselves living with one.

We are taught an awful lot about very little that's of much use, and almost nothing about things that could save our lives. I’d come out of school knowing Pythagoras’s theorem and how to ask the way to a train station in German, but I couldn’t spot a single red flag for alcoholism. I didn’t know about psychological manipulation, victim blaming, coercion or what to do if someone calmly threatens to smash your teeth out.

In my total ignorance, I thought alcoholics looked like alcoholics – all bulbous nose and red face, sunken eyes and, well . . . drunk. I didn’t know about functioning alcoholics, fit alcoholics, successful alcoholics, recovered alcoholics, vegan alcoholics or alcoholics I love.

Sure, my partner drank a lot sometimes, but in our drink-soaked culture it’s stranger if someone doesn’t drink at all than occasionally gets sh*tfaced, and for the first year or two that we were together I thought his occasional heavy-drinking patches, even passing out through drink a few times, were nothing more than that; just within-the-bounds-of-normal patches. This, combined with the fact that he came from a place in Scotland where, frankly, if you’re not drinking someone will ask “are you okay, pal?”.

Liz shortly after the birth of her fourth child, and before her partner’s alcoholism escalated
Liz shortly after the birth of her fourth child, and before her partner’s alcoholism escalated

When he finally fell right off the wagon and descended into an alcoholic vortex of total life-obliteration, lasting nearly a year, I found myself in a situation for which I was utterly unprepared and uninformed. I felt overwhelmingly alone, heart-broken, and frightened.

I was left caring for our baby daughter on my own, dodging lies and accusations, my head spinning from gaslighting and psychological manipulation, exhausted by fear and confusion, working to pay all of our bills, and still, despite it all, missing the man I loved and who I knew was desperately unwell.

Alcoholism, like all addictions, requires intensive lying. The dishonesty and deceit is almost constant, and anything that gets in the way of the addict’s needs – such as a partner exhausted by these lies – has to be silenced or stopped.

As my partner’s drinking increased over the middle years of our relationship, and with it his disappearances, latenesses, volatile and snappy moods, forgetfulness and so on, I began to dare to question and challenge him. But all of it was either immediately explained away with a fair degree of irritation, or I was told I was imagining it. I was even told I should stop asking because all this questioning made him anxious and more likely to drink.

Nothing makes you madder than being repeatedly told you are mad, especially when you’re demonstrably the one doing all the responsible parenting and keeping things sane

This spectacular re-framing of events to make me look either responsible for his drinking or mentally unstable in some way, were the very early days of victim blaming and gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a powerful form of psychological manipulation designed to make someone question their reality and sanity. It’s extremely damaging, and it’s also ingenious because, by its very nature, a person being gas-lit often doesn’t realise it . . . because they’re being gas-lit.

By sowing seeds of doubt in someone’s mind and repeatedly denying things they know to be true, a gaslighter makes their victim start to question their own memory, perception, judgment and mental health until they have so little self-confidence or trust in anything, they’re basically non-existent.

Physical abuse is horrific, but you can see the damage, look at the scar or broken bone and watch it healing. But psychological torment is invisible, complicated and the damage it causes is immense, often hard to pinpoint, and can take many years to mend.

Nothing makes you madder than being repeatedly told you are mad, especially when you’re demonstrably the one doing all the responsible parenting and keeping things sane. All the while he’s drinking himself into the ground – with your money – and as the lies, denials, verbal insults and blaming of me rose, he steadily got worse and worse until he was barely even himself anymore. Meanwhile my emotional and psychological coping skills were reduced to the point where I could hardly manage all the head spinning and mind-twisting.

But still, I stayed.

It’s easy to offer advice if you have no emotional connection to the people involved, if you aren’t in love with them or so deeply enveloped in their lies and coercive control you can’t see reality

As many of us do, who love the person hurting us, I naively believed that I was the one who would make him better. That if I kept loving and supporting him he would love me so much he’d give up on his far greater attraction, to drink. I worked tirelessly to this end, spent a huge amount of money, which he either drank or it disappeared into debts I didn’t know about. I lost several good jobs after I had to bring a baby with me to work because her dad was either drunk or absent, or because I was so exhausted I couldn’t work properly. Eventually, I even lost my health for a while.

But still, I stayed.

I kept trying to encourage him to go into some kind of recovery programme, or see a therapist, or a doctor. Anything. I begged. I shouted at him. I cried. But nothing made any difference. Of course it didn’t: nobody can make an alcoholic stop drinking and get well, until they are ready to.

In the course of the last year of his drinking I was bitten in the head, spat at, told I might be stabbed, had my furniture smashed, called every name under the sun. I was told I was an evil, narcissistic bitch, that I had no friends and my whole life was a joke – and yet still, I stayed.

I wanted the man I’d met and loved, and whom I felt sure was still in there somewhere, to come back to me. To us. To our lovely little family so broken apart by alcoholism. If only the poison could get out of his blood.

It’s easy to offer advice if you have no emotional connection to the people involved, if you aren’t in love with them or so deeply enveloped in their lies and coercive control you can’t see reality. Even if we do know things are bad in a relationship, it can be very hard to get out of it because we’re weakened, and scared.

I’ve talked with lots of partners of addicts who love them, as I did, and also found it impossible to detach, no matter how much they were hurt. I sometimes want to shout, “Why are you staying with this person? You could be so much happier and more fulfilled on your own. What are you DOING?”

And then I remember that I did exactly that too, so I’m not one to talk.

I wish I’d known so much more about addiction, how it works and how terrible it can become

I excused a lot of awful things that happened to me, because . . . oh, you know, he wasn’t well, it wasn’t his fault, it was the depression, it was the drink. If he could JUST get sober it would be fine. If he had some counselling he would be lovely again. I even blamed myself for his problems, his aggression or anger sometimes, as a lot of partners end up doing because we’re told we are the problem, we provoke, we goad, we are a nightmare, we make this happen.

I tried Al Anon, the recovery programme for those affected by another’s drinking, but it wasn’t something that worked for me. In the end, it was friends who kept me going – and the strange and wonderful world of social media. It became a lifeline for me in the hardest, loneliest and most exhausting days, as people came forward to ask if I was okay, and sent me messages of encouragement and kindness, or just to say YOU GOT THIS.

When I finally dared to speak up about what was happening to me I heard from a huge number of other women who had lived through similar things. Just knowing I wasn’t alone was an enormous help.

To this day, I have never met most of those people who helped me; but I know who they are, and what they did for me and my little girl when we needed a virtual hand to hold.

That’s the reason I wrote a book about it, in the end, and why my partner, six months or so into his sobriety, encouraged me to write it; to help other people who might find themselves in a situation like mine and who also feel alone, and hopeless and scared. And to help alcoholics, perhaps, to recognise when it’s time to seek help, and get it.

I wish I’d known so much more about addiction, how it works and how terrible it can become. I wish I’d stopped trying to find The Solution far earlier. It wasn’t for me to find; it had to come from within him, because the solution to it all was him.

Six weeks ago, out of the blue as far as I was concerned, my partner ended our relationship, again, and moved out. It came as a massive shock and total hammer-blow to me, after all I had done to get us here. Sobriety is not the end, not the solution and not an easy ride for either party, the challenges keep coming.

I’m glad for all I’ve learned, and all I take forward with me into my next chapter, and the knowledge I hope I can use to help others.

One day at a time, and all that.

Liz Fraser is a writer and broadcaster. Coming Clean: A True Story of Love, Addiction and Recovery (Bloomsbury) is available to pre-order now.