It’s Complicated:

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You are in a perfect relationship. It’s everything you have been looking for – she is beautiful, engaging, your friends love her (in fact, they always encourage you to bring her along and always want her to stay around for as long as possible). She has been with you through the most difficult of times, and through the most wonderful, exciting of times. She doesn’t care whether you are dressed to the nines or just relaxing in your PJs, or if you buy her expensive gifts. She always encourages you to hang out with your friends, and she never nags. When you fight, you always feel guilty and focus on what you can do better next time, because you can’t even imagine blaming her for anything. She is the perfect partner in your eyes.

But what if, this partner, this relationship which you are currently engaged in, is actually not serving you at all? What if this relationship is causing you more harm than anything else? What if this relationship is with alcohol; or any drug of choice for that matter. Before you dismiss my characterization of this “relationship,” – let me explain. There is an overwhelming body of evidence suggesting that men frequently engage in unhealthy, risky behaviors with drugs or alcohol. In fact, substance problems seem to be men’s shtick, as substance issues are one of the most common disorders men experience and engage in much more frequently than women. We, as men, often idealize this relationship and encourage each other to stay in it longer than we should. But, maybe, just maybe, it is time for a change.

If you are considering breaking it off, or someone is suggesting to you that this relationship has taken a turn for the worse, perhaps you will consider the following:

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1) Acknowledge that you are, in fact, in a relationship: This, in itself, is very powerful. Just because you are in a relationship with a substance, doesn’t mean that all of the same characteristics that we typically apply to romantic or platonic relationships don’t still describe this one. For example, just like in any other relationship, there is a courting period where you get to know each other and assess whether you’d like to hang out more often in the future. As the relationship progresses, there is significant amount of eagerness and anticipation about spending more and more time together. As those feelings level out, there are often good times spent together enjoying each other’s company, and there are often bad times spent together trying to figure out what went wrong. As the relationship moves into the serious stages, the relationship can become co-dependent, needy, and just outright destructive. So next time you go out with your friends, give a second thought to what kind of “girlfriend” you bring along to the party.   

2) Make a pros and cons list: Just like with any other relationship, consider making a list of advantages and disadvantages to staying in it. What have you gained from it? What have you lost? Be honest; sometimes what on the surface may look like an advantage actually turns out to not be so. For example, can you still have a good time without your “girlfriend” tagging along? Do you feel like a part of you is always wishing your partner would be there? Another important consideration is whether you are minimizing one or two big cons. Are you downplaying major setbacks in this relationship, e.g., physical fights, driving while intoxicated, infidelity? These are just some of the behaviors that may mark a volatile, unhealthy connection.

3) Strengthen other relationships: The old adage “you can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps” is as true today as ever. Having said that, I challenge you to look around your friendship circle and notice which relationships would help you to break up from your ugly habit and which ones tend to encourage your co-dependence with your substance of choice. Just to remind you, this isn’t an exercise in judgement or criticism, but simply a call to observe and discern where you’d like to spend your free time. I know most of us are very busy, and I also know that this vice provides us an easy, fast, fun way to relax; relying on this relationship means there is no need to plan or come up with creative ways to spend time – we have been doing it for years and have done it with the same circle of friends. That’s why this suggestion, to strengthen other relationships, may take a subway or car ride to think about. For example, “what friendships have fallen off the radar because I spend most of the time hanging out with my “girlfriend?”’ “What family members haven’t I seen in a while because they don’t enjoy my substance of choice?” Research suggests that feeling emotionally connected to people is one of the best ways to decrease or eliminate problematic substance dependence.

4) Consider other ways to pass the time: This one is more difficult than it may initially seem. It is more difficult because we create neuronal pathways in our brain that pull for consistent, habitual action. So if you are used to drinking on the weekend, it Is likely that your brain is planning to do so even though you may not be completely aware of it. Once you are aware, or think you have made a conscious decision to go to a bar with your friends, that information has already been edited for you by your brain and now appears as an urge or just habitual, patterned behavior. As a common expression in Alcoholic Anonymous goes, “I didn’t want to go to the liquor store, but my legs just took me there.” Any behavioral change, whether to stop drinking, to start exercising, or simply to go for a walk when stressed, requires a mindful presence at pivotal moments where the old behavior is likely to take hold. It is in this mindful awareness that we hold a lot of power to change. If you are interested in find out more about a mindful approach to recovery, please click here.  

5) Embrace alone time: This may mean feeling different from what we are used to. Typically, we try to escape loneliness or boredom, and instead distract ourselves from uncomfortable emotions and sensations. We must do something, is our mantra. We live in an action-obsessed world, where sitting in quiet contemplation and reflection is seen as a waste of time. We are always on the clock, always needing to feel and be “productive.” Even our resumes can’t have any time gaps without work – it often raises a red flag, as if someone who takes time off is lazy or considered an unmotivated worker. My hope is to change that culture as a whole, but we can only do that one person at a time. That’s why I encourage you to consider spending more alone time in reflection – getting curious about internal experiences, such as thoughts and feelings. If you are interested in more resources, please click here.

Hopefully, if you put these suggestions into consistent practice, you’ll find them helpful on your journey to health and vitality. But if you, or someone you know, are having trouble, please feel free to reach out to a professional substance abuse counselor in your area.

Stay manly,

Dr. K


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