(The Root) —
"I'm in a relationship of almost two years with a woman I love. Recently she has become a heavy drinker. Her job is demanding and comes with high stress levels. Lately she's been unusually stressed and has been drinking more often. It makes her aggressive and rude until she sobers up, and then she claims she has no recollection of our arguments. I've addressed this issue with her before, and each time she's dismissed my concerns. I've been planning to marry her and have bought the ring, but I want her to stop drinking before I propose. How do I get her to stop?" —S.F.
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you realize you need to address the issue before you propose.
Now for the bad: You can't "get" your girlfriend to stop drinking. That's on her. And unfortunately, despite the blackouts (e.g., her having no recollection of the arguments she has when she's drunk), she's not going to address this issue anytime soon. How do I know? She won't even acknowledge that there's a problem, despite your repeated complaints. Denial is a textbook response for heavy drinkers and a symptom of alcohol abuse.
You've made a keen observation about the correlation between your girlfriend's stress level and the amount that she drinks. Alcohol abuse — that's you’re your girlfriend is dealing with if she's blacking out — is typically a symptom of a larger problem. Your girlfriend likely lacks proper coping skills for her stressors and uses alcohol to relieve them. The tricky and most unfortunate part is that the alcohol is adding an additional stressor: problems in her relationship with you, which, in turn, may cause her to drink even more. It's an ugly, vicious circle.
There are two ways you may be able to get your girlfriend to stop drinking heavily — and just to be completely forthright, because of the nature of alcohol abuse, they may not work. But you can try to help her find more productive ways to deal with her stress than drinking. Working out, listening to music and writing in a journal are all documented stress relievers. And of course there's the obvious, like seeking the counsel of a therapist who is way more qualified to help her cope with stressors than you.
You should also change your approach when talking to your girlfriend about her drinking. She doesn't think her drinking is a problem because she doesn't remember the problems she causes when she drinks. Instead of talking to her about the drinking, talk to her in a nonjudgmental, nonconfrontational way about the impact it's having on the relationship. That means making it clear that you are concerned about her and your relationship, but don't chastise her for her behavior; it will only make her defensive. "Simply" explain how her behavior makes you feel, and avoid making accusations about her behavior.
Make it plain that how she behaves when she drinks — whether she remembers or not — is giving you second thoughts about advancing the relationship or potentially remaining in one with her.
If she continues to deny the problem, record her outbursts on your phone and replay them for her in the morning so that she can see how she behaves. Being presented with the effects of her drinking may give her the motivation she needs to admit that she has a problem, which is literally the first step in addressing it.
I must be frank: Helping your girlfriend address her alcohol abuse is not likely to be a quick or easy process. Once a person develops a dependency on alcohol, for whatever reason, it is a challenging cycle to break. Too often, people don't seek help for their drinking problems until their lives have spiraled out of control. Unfortunately, that spiral affects those closest to them — like you — in a negative way, too.
To limit the negative impact on yourself, set a comfortable time frame in which you are willing to work with your girlfriend as she acknowledges this issue and, further, seeks help. If she's unable to meet that deadline, you will have to make a hard choice about whether you are willing to accept her reaction to heavy drinking, which I assure you will get worse the longer she refuses to address it.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She answers your dating and relationship questions on The Root each week. Feel free to ask anything at firstname.lastname@example.org.