Care and Feeding

My Wife Drinks Too Much in Front of the Kids, and I Don’t Know if We Have a Future Together

A mom drinking wine in front of her child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email

Dear Care and Feeding,

Several incidents in the past year have me wondering if I have a future with my wife.

Last summer we went to a village festival with friends and took our kids along. My wife had too much to drink and ended up sloppy drunk and puking on the train while our kids looked on. We explained this as a one-off: Have you ever seen your mother or father drink too much in the past? No. Was one of us responsible and looking out for you? Yes. I was very disappointed and expressed as much to my wife.

In the months since then she has come home after nights out with her friends obviously tipsy and sometimes very drunk. After initially denying that she had been drinking, she would explain it away as something that seldom happens—and why shouldn’t she enjoy herself? Drinking and driving wasn’t a problem as she would get a ride back with a designated driver or take the train.

This past weekend she took our daughter into the city for an afternoon of shopping and sightseeing. Her friends invited them to a café for drinks. Five hours later they get home and my wife has peed in her pants during the trip home. She could hardly talk and walk. My daughter was freaking out. My anger and disappointment were obvious.

The next morning it was a series of excuses: I wasn’t that drunk. I should have left earlier, but my friends wouldn’t let me. It’s not a big deal. Etc. Etc. Two days later she said she was embarrassed and felt like a bad example and swore she will change.

I never had a problem with her going out with friends and having a few drinks. I do have a problem with her lying about drinking and making excuses for what has happened. I look at her, and I don’t recognize the person I married anymore. For the first time in 18 years, I don’t see a future with her, but I have two kids to think about.

She says she has learned her lesson and it won’t happen again. To me, she already had her second chance. She will always be the mother of my kids, and I can’t and wouldn’t try to change that. However, staying married is a choice and one that I never considered before.

—I Don’t Recognize Her

Dear IDRH,

Based on what you’ve written here, I feel pretty confident that your wife is an alcoholic. This is a fact you must accept because it is true and there is nothing you can do to change it. It doesn’t mean that there is no hope for your marriage, or that all is lost. Plenty of happy marriages exist in which one partner is an alcoholic, but in most cases that person has to be a sober alcoholic rather than an active one. As long as you’re under the impression that these things are “one-offs” or that she “just got out of hand this one time,” you’re signing up to live the same horrific events over and over with no real progress and increasing damage to your kids.

One very simple way to define alcoholism is that it means a person cannot both control and enjoy their drinking at the same time. When they are enjoying it, they can’t control it; when they are controlling it, they are not enjoying it. So while it may well be that your wife can, on occasion, have a few drinks without getting shitfaced, it does not mean she is “better” or “cured.” It simply means that she was able to exert intense control in this one situation. It’s actually a real mindfuck because it feels encouraging, but it’s a false flag. The truly important data points here: Your wife has lost control in front of her child, friends, and partner; she has put her child in danger; she’s gone out with the intention of not drinking to excess and has nonetheless drank to excess; she has hidden her drinking from you.

There is no other way to interpret these behaviors. She is an alcoholic. And it’s not going to get better by itself. One of the most baffling things about the disease of alcoholism is that typically an alcoholic becomes very skilled at denying that the problem exists at all, especially to themselves. This can be dizzying for those who love them, because it plays very nicely into your own desire to believe that this doesn’t have to be a problem—that the person just needs to get it together. It is helpful instead to think of alcoholism like cancer or diabetes. If you have it, there is no benefit to telling yourself that you don’t. If you love someone who has it, there is no benefit in hoping it goes away of its own accord. That is simply not how it works.

What does work is getting help. Consider looking into Al-Anon, or other resources for the partners and spouses of problem drinkers. Because while your wife is suffering from the disease of drinking, you may be suffering from the illusion of believing a) that if you love her just right, you can control her drinking and b) that you must do so in order to be happy and satisfied in your own life. Of course, the ideal outcome is that your wife gets sober, but she will probably not be able to do so without help from a 12-step program or treatment center. The sad truth is that while you can and must talk with her about this, you cannot make it happen. No one can be convinced that they are powerless over their drinking by another person. They must reach that conclusion on their own.

Your children need protection and good parenting, which an alcoholic parent who is drinking cannot provide. Full stop. So, you very well may not be able to stay with your partner right now. This is sad, and terrifying, but I feel in your letter that you are slowly arriving at that conclusion yourself, so I don’t think I’m blowing your mind here. First, go to Al-Anon or find another resource for partners of alcoholics. Second, tell your wife she needs to get sober or else you will have to seriously think about leaving her. Do not do this as a tactic or manipulation to negotiate her into your desired outcome, but rather as an expression of your dedication to your own life and, most importantly, the lives of your children. And, finally don’t make a threat that you don’t intend to keep. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I took my 5-year-old daughter to the neighborhood park today. Invited a friend and his girls, ages 6 and 2. Usually our kids play very well together.

At the park we ran into a girl who we’ve played with before. Let’s call her Denise. She’s 10 and comes to the park by herself. We’re not sure where she lives, but it must be within walking distance. I’ve had issues before with her being a troublemaker and not respecting boundaries: She’s gone digging in our snack bag without permission, buried my sunglasses in the dirt as a “joke,” and plays too rough with the little kids at the park.

Today she was doing everything she could to split up my daughter and her friend. I encouraged them to find games everyone could play together, started a game of hide and seek. Denise continued to find ways to separate them. The outing ended after Denise walked over, holding hands with my daughter’s friend, and said, “You can only be friends with one of us, you have to choose.” My kiddo (who isn’t prone to emotional outbursts in public) ran off sobbing. Denise yelled, “Pranked ya!” and laughed hysterically.

It’s a small neighborhood and a small park. We’re frequently the only ones there. This girl is probably there half the times we visit—we’re guaranteed to see her again. I’ve never seen her parents around. How would you handle this situation? What discussions would you have with your child? What would you do next time you see this kid at the park?

—Playground Problems

Dear PP,

You already know that there is something going on in this kid’s home life that is causing her to behave in ways that are not to your liking, so I’ll spare you that. And while it is frustrating and painful for you as a parent to watch this impact your kid, it doesn’t seem as though you want to make the mistake so many adults make in assuming that because a child is hurting your own child’s feelings that she is an enemy. As you know, neither you nor your kid is guaranteed a world in which no one behaves like an asshole, even if our current fascination with personal rights (as opposed to justice) seems to tell us differently. If I were in this situation, I would have to work very hard not to demonize this girl in my mind. I’d have to remember that she is not an oppressor. She is a child.

Which is basically what I would tell my 5-year-old. “Denise is a good kid, but she’s still learning how to play with other kids, and sometimes that’s hard. We all have learning to do. If you’re having a hard time with her, you can always come to me and we’ll figure something out together.”

What strikes me most about this kid is that she is a child in your community, which as you mention is small. I deeply believe that as an adult community member you have some responsibility to all the children in your community. Not all responsibility. Not ownership or parental rights, but definitely a role to play to help them grow up and understand how to be a part of the community. I would try, if I could, to make her a friend rather than a threat. I would talk with her while the other kids played. I would ask her about her parents and school and home life. I would find out what kinds of snacks she likes and bring some for her. I would enlist her help in playing and organizing games. I would see if she wanted to read to the kids. My reading of the situation is that she likes what you have and wants to be a part of it but doesn’t know how. So I would show her how she can be a part of your group. It sounds as though she needs that.

None of this is a guaranteed solution to your discomfort. She may continue to be an asshole, at which point you are free to find another park and just hope for the best for this kid. But unless she is a psychopath, which nothing in your letter suggests she is, what will probably happen is that she will like hanging out with you and want to do nothing to jeopardize that. Over time, as you get to know more about her, maybe you’ll get to know the adults in her life so that you can have a clearer picture of what is really going on. In other words, you’ll develop a relationship.

Of course this is a lot of work. Basically, if you take your kid to the park and Denise is there? Well then, for this hour or so, you have two kids, and that’s the fact of it. I happen to think that’s a wonderful thing. You can, too.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband is from the South, and he would like to teach our 3-year-old to say “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir.” I get that it’s a sign of respect, but the other day our son asked me, “How do you know someone is a ma’am or sir?” It got me thinking about how wrong it is to teach our son to use a gender-specific term. I discussed this with my husband, and he was pretty insistent but agreed that a gender-neutral term would be better. After much thinking (and Googling) we couldn’t come up with one. Is there a better way for our son to show respect or am I just overthinking this?

—Respectful Addressees

Dear RA,

I understand where your husband thinks he’s coming from. But the reality is that it’s 2018, and so there are really only two options here:

1) Teach your son to say “Mx” and be prepared for him to explain what it means to 90 percent of the people with whom he uses it. Or,

2) Find some other way to show respect to adults without assuming their gender.

Your pick.