In his remarkable film Boyhood, director Richard Linklater follows a family over 12 years. Linklater filmed in six month increments so we actually see the actors slowly age in real time, a remarkable approach never before utilized in a popular movie. Over the course of the nearly three hour film, we witness Mason Evans, Jr., as played by Ellar Coltrane, growing from an innocent six year old to a wizened eighteen year old heading off to college.
During the intervening years, Mason deals with issues relating to being raised by his single mother Olivia (as portrayed by Patricia Arquette), on-going sibling rivalry with sister Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), frequent geographic moves, an alcoholic step-father and a broken heart.
A brilliant soundtrack deepens the emotional impact of the film. The song Hero captures perfectly the pathos underlying the son’s need to break away from the family drama and begin his new life in college. We, in fact, see him turning up the song in his car as he is driving to Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas to start his freshman year. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Once you see and hear it, I guarantee you will want to get the soundtrack!
Of all the dramas that unfold in the movie, one of the most pertinent to my practice as a couple’s counselor is the mother’s marriage to an alcoholic. He is her college psychology professor and appears at first to be a stable and calming influence. Over time, however, he is revealed to be a controlling and abusive mate with a frightening dependence on alcohol. In a dinner scene, with Olivia, her two children and his two children he defiantly asks if anyone has an issue with his drinking. He then slams a whiskey bottle on the table and starts indulging. He becomes irritated at Mason and throws a glass at him, shattering on the table. Soon thereafter, Olivia decides to leave and file for divorce.
This scene reveals many things pertinent to married life. First, substance abuse is toxic to families. The incidence of intimate partner violence increases substantially when one or both partners have a dependence on alcohol. The impact on children is traumatic, primarily because the problem drinker is unpredictable and can lash out at a moment’s notice. Children growing up in such families learn to pay more attention to their impaired parent than to their own internal development. After all, if you miss a signal that the parent or step-parent has been drinking to excess, you may get yelled at, hit or have a glass thrown at you! This type of environment becomes a breeding ground for future co-dependency, anxiety and depression as well as destructive relationships in adulthood.
Secondly, individuals with a substance abuse disorder or dependency predictably choose their relationship with their substance of choice over their partner. Anyone who misses the fact that substance abuse is a relationship is missing the point. Spouses often tell me that living with their impaired partner is akin to living with someone who is having an affair.
There are many ways to cope with being partnered with a person with substance abuse issue, none of them very good. You can leave the partner as Olivia does. Certainly this is the best choice if the problem with alcohol is associated with chronic verbal or physical abuse. Another choice is to stay and join the spouse in their substance abuse. I worked with one couple who sadly went down this path when the husband had a serious relapse and the wife decided it was better to match him drink for drink rather than lose him. They were lost to follow up.
A third choice is to stay and make the best of it, getting support from friends or organizations such as Al Anon to help you reconcile with this decision.
Perhaps the best way forward is to first gain personal strength and develop resources and a support system for a possible life outside of your relationship. Once ready, tell the partner that he or she is free to drink but they will have to choose between their substance of choice and their partner. If they choose their substance of choice, then they need to leave the house. Often, when faced with something larger than their addiction, such as the loss of a marriage, substance abusers stop.
I do believe that substance abuse is a disease mediated by the brain and characterized by typical physical and psychological symptoms. I also believe that continued use leads to a circumstance in which compulsion to use overtakes reason. However, I also suspect that those who abuse substances are numbing themselves to their demons. In such cases, it may be more productive to ask the question: “Why won’t you stop rather?” rather than “Why can’t you stop?”
Of course, Boyhood touches on other issues relevant to my practice of couple therapy. Blended families are a challenge for many and it is said that it takes about seven years for such families to feel normal. Geographical moves can be difficult for children and teens, particularly those entering junior or high school. Finally, sometimes it makes more sense to work to improve your relationship with your current partner rather than chase other relationships. Data tell us that second marriages are more likely to fail than first marriages. Certainly you have the impression at the end of the movie that Olivia and her kids would have been better off if she had worked to build a better relationship with their father, Mason Sr. (as played by Ethan Hawke) rather than leaving him.
In fact, sometimes the true unsung hero of the American landscape is the parent who stays in an imperfect marriage (as most are) and works to make it better rather than the parent who either leaves or keeps doing the same dysfunctional dance over and over.