Q: My husband and I both smoked pot regularly, but I quit several years ago, and he began smoking nightly. I kept encouraging him to quit because it makes him mentally disappear. He goes through periods when he doesn't smoke (mostly because of my nagging), and then we’re able to connect and have a loving relationship. But he inevitably falls back on this nightly habit, and I become frustrated and resentful. Recently, I discovered a large stockpile of hidden video footage he’d taken of women’s booties. In one video, I was standing next to him, oblivious, as he videotaped the woman ahead of us in line. I was shocked that he was capable of this kind of disrespect. We had an emotionally-wrecked several weeks. He slept on the couch, and I avoided him. I told him that if the nightly pot smoking and the butt videotaping were to persist, I’d have to move on. I was convinced that leaving was probably the best choice. But since I said this, he’s only smoked a couple of times, and we've been reconnecting. He says he's not making any more videos because he saw how upset it made me. I love this guy, but am I deluding myself in thinking he can change?
A: When you marry a man, it isn’t because you’re looking to walk off into the sunset all by yourself while he’s lying facedown on your living room floor staring at an ant, realizing he totally gets what the ant is thinking.
Your husband — let’s call him “the old bong and chain” — is an addict. You may not think of him that way, because he probably doesn’t have a physical dependence on weed or running around town making butt-umentaries (say, in the way I have a physical dependence on break-a-tooth-black coffee). Probably what he has is a psychological addiction to checking out (instead of engaging emotionally), and he’s using these habits as transportation to get there.
To explain that further, an addiction treatment specialist I respect, Dr. Stanton Peele, in “7 Tools to Beat Addiction,” writes, “When people turn to an experience, any experience, for solace to the exclusion of meaningful involvements in the rest of their lives, they are engaged in an addiction.” Another addiction therapist I respect, Dr. Frederick Woolverton, in “Unhooked,” explains that what all addictions have in common is a longing to avoid “legitimate suffering” — difficult emotions that are a normal part of being alive.
So, no, your husband’s saying no to butt cheeks and “only sometimes” to pot probably isn’t enough. These are just his preferred forms of checking out. To avoid simply replacing them with new forms, he needs to recognize that he’s been using them to duck feeling his feelings — maybe just in your marriage but maybe in other parts of his life, too. He also needs to commit to changing this, but not because you’re hassling him and it would be an even bigger hassle to get dumped by you. (Change is especially tough for the emotion-averse.) He needs to come to the conclusion that it’s worth it to tough it out and feel so he can connect with you on more than the pothead’s deep philosophical questions, “What does paisley sound like?” and “Are we out of Funyuns?”
It isn’t easy to go straight from the daily numb to “Hey, intensity, here I am,” and addicts are already in the habit of going straight to easy. Your husband might avoid setbacks by using a practice called “mindfulness meditation” as training wheels for living in the now instead of avoiding in the now. This form of meditation involves sitting or lying quietly, scanning your body with your mind and observing your thoughts and bodily sensations nonjudgmentally, as if they were scenery you’re passing in a car. I know this sounds airy-fairy. But a growing number of solid studies (by molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn and neuroscientist Richard Davidson, for example) find that regular mindfulness meditation diminishes stress and anxiety and dampens reactivity to emotional discomfort, helping people stand back a bit from their feelings instead of letting their feelings get them in a death grip.
It’s possible to do mindfulness meditation without a program, but the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness, founded by Kabat-Zinn, has a link to programs and teachers around the U.S. and Canada (bit.ly/MBSRsearch). Taking a class in this could even be something you do together and might be the start of lots of things you do together. If he’s sincere about wanting you more than he wants to check out, you could soon have a husband you can count on to be there for you — and not just as a large, heavy, smoking object keeping the couch cushions from running into the street and getting hit by a car.
It’s Amy Alkon’s Advice Goddess Radio — “Nerd your way to a better life!” with the best brains in science solving your love, dating sex, and relationship problems. Listen live every Sunday — http://www.blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon/ — 7-8 p.m. PT, 10-11 p.m. ET, or listen or download at the link, at iTunes, or on Stitcher.