I Feel So Guilty about Leaving My Husband, but Leave I Must

I've been married to my husband for seven years, with him for eight. We have two children together. During this time, I have been the one to hold things together. He has lied to me about money, leaving me to pay the brunt of bills or borrow from family. He almost died last year because of alcohol abuse but started drinking again two weeks after being released from the ICU; this was despite the doctors' warnings to him. I do everything for everyone. He doesn't help me with the kids, doesn't know what to do to take care of me or his family. I have constant migraines, chest pains, anxiety, and I cry all the time. I am broken, depressed, and I feel used, unloved, and unappreciated. So I made a decision to move with my mom. We move this week. I haven't told my husband, and I don't know how he will take the news. I have penned a letter explaining why I am leaving. I plan to stay at a family member's house until my move date. He has three days to find a place to stay. He's been dependent on me to do everything for him, so I don't even know if he has money to fend for himself. I feel I am making the right decision for me and my kids, but I feel so amazingly guilty as I struggle knowing I will be leaving him in a vulnerable state. I feel so hateful leaving him to do the things he doesn't know how to do. I want to put him up in a hotel or pay extra rent for him to stay in the house longer, even though I can't afford it. I feel mean and spiteful, like I'm abandoning him. This is in spite of all the hurt and pain he's put me through for the past eight years. I still love him. Please help me figure out how to best deal with my guilt, my hurt, and my pain. I love my husband so much, but I really don't think he loves me the same. I have to learn to love me more and stop being taken for granted and used. I don't want to sit and watch the man I love drink himself to death. My kids shouldn't have to. I don't want them to grow up and live the same painful life. I feel I have to do this, but again, I feel so guilty. —Guilt-Ridden but Going Anyway
Dear Guilt-Ridden but Going Anyway,

Thank you for your honesty in describing what sounds like an unbearably painful situation. Alcoholism and addiction basically put both the addicted person and his or her loved ones in an impossible position, where the addicted one is both there and not there, leaving the partner and loved ones to have a “split” experience with, it often seems, two or more personalities. Those who love people with addictions often have a glimpse of the “real” or true person, who is suffering and appears to want help, before the drunk or stoned person appears again: critical or self-centered to the extreme, and hurtful to be around. Thus, by distancing ourselves from the latter, we also seemingly end up abandoning the former—the sober person we fell in love with. This leaves us in a no-win position, where we can stay and feel continually abandoned ourselves (or attacked, or both) or leave and bear the burden of guilt that tells us we are leaving our loved one alone on a deserted island.

It is also devastatingly difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how or why someone would choose drinking or using over family. This is why I like the idea of addiction being a mental health issue, where a person gets to a point where he or she would rather continue to self-destruct and lose everything and everyone than stop and get help. I have lost family members to addiction, so I relate to how absolutely baffling drinking to this degree can be, and how heartbreaking.

But sometimes things get to such a crisis point that a decision has to be made: namely, do we want to go down with the ship or not? It sounds as though you are choosing sanity, being a good mother, and what often becomes the lesser of two evils: saving oneself, setting a life-preserving boundary against alcoholism, versus rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Of course, the ensuing guilt is inevitable, although in truth when a drinking problem reaches such a tragic state, there is little to nothing we can really do anymore and the only real option is to take the lifeboat. By leaving, you are acknowledging the crisis, refusing to minimize it, telling alcoholism you no longer wish to be part of the problem and that you need to protect yourself and your children.

Your husband has long been in a vulnerable situation, and this moment of decision would arrive with or without your presence. The problem is his drinking is killing him, period. Everything else is almost an afterthought. No one can make this decision for him. He must decide whether he wants to stop drinking and live, or keep going and face tragic consequences. Your presence cannot soften these consequences; in fact, your absence may help clarify the starkness of his choice, so I think it’s wise to remove yourself from the situation. No matter how much you have helped him, and with what, the choice remains the same: does he stop or not? This decision and ensuing consequences are out of your control, so in spite of the difficulty you are giving him the dignity of his own choice and allowing him to decide which way he wants to go. You are also setting a good example for everyone by choosing life over insanity and death, though he might not see it that way right now.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding your own support. This is an extremely traumatic situation and likely has been for some time, though that might not be obvious to you; a person’s alcohol or drug problem tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room, hog the mental spotlight as it were, so that the partner forgets that he or she also needs help.

There is no way, of course, to predict any outcome, though it is my great wish that this is the wake-up call your husband needs; people who drink or use are amazingly adept at ignoring or forgetting inconvenient truths, such as the lethality of drinking and using. Perhaps, as human beings, it is near impossible to consider our own demise. But the demise of the relationship, or at least your presence in the house, might, I truly hope, be a stark reminder of the destructiveness of his alcoholism. You are having a healthy response to an extremely toxic situation (alas). I’m sorry to say you ultimately could not save him even if you stayed.

My final point is about your own well-being. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding your own support. This is an extremely traumatic situation and likely has been for some time, though that might not be obvious to you; a person’s alcohol or drug problem tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room, hog the mental spotlight as it were, so that the partner forgets that he or she also needs help. Often we buy into the myth that says we are not addicted and therefore strong and resilient, such that no help is needed. To want any support or relief might even be seen as selfish: How can I think of myself at a time like this? But as the airline safety tip goes, give yourself oxygen first so you can better assist your loved one. This is, in fact, what you are doing.

Just from the distressed tone of your letter, I can say with reasonable certainty that I think some counseling and/or group support (Al-Anon, community or spiritual/religious groups for families or spouses) would be extremely valuable. It is too easy to underestimate the damage done to our own psyches by addiction; we often don’t feel it until the dust begins to settle. Then, following the guilt comes rage, hurt, anxiety, sadness, and a whole other cluster of intense emotions—not necessarily in that order. This doesn’t at all signify a person’s “failure to cope”; it is, again, a very normal reaction to an abnormally and almost cruelly stressful situation that annihilates love and tenderness, and often hope, to a traumatizing degree. It is a situation, I might add, that often parallels earlier childhood experiences where the nondrinking person became a kind of parentified child, or precocious caregiver, so that this role became second nature, where crushing guilt ensues anytime the person tries to step out of it. But any adult romantic relationship contingent on one-way giving/receiving will sooner or later collapse from imbalance. A thriving, growing love needs mutuality, or at least something in the ballpark. We need to take turns—otherwise the see-saw tips too far in one direction and falls over.

I also often say that a partner going to Al-Anon helps the addicted person too, as it is excellent role modeling.

I’m sorry you are in such a hellacious bind, though I commend you for your courage and stamina in making the sane choice (which can seem insane in the midst of chaos). Your feelings are normal for someone in your position; however, they do not, by any stretch, indicate that you are doing something wrong. It sounds like the kind of wake-up call that has been in the works for some time.

Thanks again for writing.

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Caren

    July 31st, 2015 at 9:20 AM

    Could leaving him be the wake up call that he needs?

  • Zara

    July 31st, 2015 at 1:20 PM

    You have to in this situation do what you feel is best for you and your children. I am sure that this was a very difficult decision to make and I know that it is not one that you take lightly. I think that if you stay you will never find that love and respect for yourself that you deserve to have, just like anyone does. It could be uncomfortable and it could be hard but it could just be the best thing that you have done for yourself in a very long time so I say you have to try.

  • wynn

    August 13th, 2015 at 5:28 PM

    It must be awfully difficult to find the courage to do something that could potentially hurt so many and yet save yourself.

  • Richard

    August 22nd, 2015 at 8:14 AM

    Sometimes in life you have to understand that it is every man and woman for themselves. That’s not really a pleasant way to look at things, but you have to know that you are doing the thing that is going to be the best thing for you. There are way too many people who stay in all kinds of relationships for all the wrong reasons, but this is your chance to move on and do the right thing.

  • Doulat

    April 13th, 2018 at 10:14 AM

    Need more articles in box

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 13th, 2018 at 10:46 AM

    Hello Doulat! Thank you for your comment. If you are hoping to find more articles on this topic or a related subject, please feel free to browse our blog at https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/

  • Beth

    January 17th, 2024 at 10:21 AM

    I could have written this word for word. I recently went through this exact thing with an alcoholic mate. After 18 years together, I left due to his addiction. He too almost died a year ago, and was told he had to stop drinking, but he did not. I left him last March after he picked up drinking again, he ended up dying a few months later from bleeding out due to alcoholism. The guilt I feel at times is overwhelming.

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