I’ve been with my boyfriend for three years. The first year was rocky. He was selling drugs, got addicted and went to prison. Three months after getting out, he relapsed. I persuaded his mother to send him to rehab, and afterward I found us an apartment, where we’ve been for six months. He has remained drug-free, helps with cooking and cleaning, and pays half the rent and bills. His job just got cut back to 16 hours a week. He has applied for a handful of positions but isn’t consistently looking, and he spends lots of time fishing. Meanwhile, I’m paying for groceries, dinners out and any puny vacations, and I’ve bought him new clothes so he’ll look his confident best. When I say I’m exhausted pulling this much weight, he uses his sobriety as a tool, saying, “Look how much better I am; I did this all for you.” My last relationship was much more equal, and I ended it because I felt like I didn’t matter. I do like feeling important to this person, and I do like the love, affection and kindness he shows me.
It must have been hell for you in your previous relationship when stopping your boyfriend’s self-destructive behavior only involved putting out messages like “Just say no to chicken-fried steak and the occasional cigar.”
Some women do volunteer work; some women date it. You and your boyfriend are a classic combination, the drug addict and the enabler. Addict behavior is immature brat behavior — throwing over tomorrow to get your rocks off (or snort some rock) today. These days, your boyfriend’s nose might not be powdered, but he’s leaving you “gone fishing” notes instead of going looking for “help wanted” signs. Then again, why should he man up when he can always count on you to mommy up?
Welcome to “the well-intentioned path to hell,” as Dr. Barbara Oakley puts it. Oakley, author of the fascinating book “Cold-Blooded Kindness,” studies “pathological altruism,” help that actually ends up hurting — sometimes both the helper and the person she’s supposed to be helping. Oakley explains that your boyfriend may not be the only one in the relationship who’s been getting a buzz on: “Part of our sense of altruism — of wanting to care for others at cost to ourselves — is related to the positive feelings we get from our nucleus accumbens and related areas (the brain’s pleasure center — the same areas that are activated when we get high on drugs or gambling.”
You have a choice: Keep pressing your paw on the little lever for your do-gooder’s high, or accept the risk of seeking real love with the sort of man who can live without you but would really rather not. Real love means having a crush on a man as a human — respecting and admiring who he is, as opposed to pitying him for what he’s done to himself. A man who really loves you wants the best for you; he doesn’t guilt-trip you (“I did this all for you!”) into ignoring your own needs so you can better meet his. Should you decide to stay with your help object, inform him that you’ll bail if he doesn’t start putting out more than a clean urine sample. If he doesn’t come through, either accept your fate as Mommy II or finally act on what you’ve spent three years pretending not to know: that a woman without an addict is like a fish without a Smart car.