In both cases, you become the least important person in the relationship
Feb 14, 2017
As someone who just spent 20 hours playing a Pokémon Red she purchased off e-bay, I kind of hate to cast shade on those who love video games. Cuz, you know I get it. They’re fun, they’re all absorbing, and they provide you a sense of purpose in a barren, mass produced world that has been stripped of meaningful human connection as people are objectified into consumers for our commercialized capitalist dystopia. And like, who doesn’t need a break from that?
That said, just like there’s a difference between someone who drinks and an alcoholic, there’s a difference between someone who plays video games and “a gamer.” And, I’ve dated all sorts — people who drank responsibly, people who were (in my estimation) alcoholics, people who video gamed responsibly, and people who were (in my estimation) video gaming self destructively. Where does the line get crossed?
There are answers the internet provides are usually things like “when your social life begins to suffer” or “when your job begins to suffer” etc. etc. And like, yeah, those can be warning signs, but they don’t really cast a light on the mechanics of the situation. As someone who’s dated people with problematic substance behavior, I think the line gets crossed when someone is unable to tolerate any discomfort and will always use their addiction to avoid facing difficult emotions.
So — here are two examples from my personal life, but I’ve changed some details for the anonymity of my exes.
I was dating another programmer in SF who went out drinking with people in the SF startup scene like, every other night. His drinking was not especially greater than anyone else’s in his social group, and indeed, was on the same level as other people I know who I don’t think have drinking problems. The number of drinks he had per week were enough for his doctor to give him a handout on alcoholism, at which point he cut back to 14 drinks a week (the level on the handout before you’d be a “heavy drinker.”) After that, he insisted he was “fine” because he didn’t meet the medical definition for “heavy drinker,” and would get annoyed at me whenever I brought up his drinking.
However, there were some weird clues — even from the beginning — that pointed to his drinking being more problematic than he admitted. For starters, he couldn’t stop drinking for a week. Even though the number of drinks he had per week may not have been “alcoholic” level drinking, clearly drinking was filling an emotional need for him to the point that he couldn’t go without it for even more than 2 or 3 days. The nights he wasn’t drinking he was typically spending with me (he rarely drank around me, since he knew I didn’t like it) which implied he was bad at emotional self regulation. Effectively, he was able to not drink when I was around, because if he started feeling bad or sad, he’d touch me or cuddle me or whatever to make himself feel better. If I wasn’t there and he felt bad, he’d drink to make himself feel better.
The flip side of this was that if we ever had arguments, he would drink a lot. I started feeling guilty about bringing up my legitimate complaints in the relationship because I knew it would drive him to self destructive behaviors. Consequently, I let a lot of things I was really unhappy about slide, because I didn’t want to drive him to drink.
I also began to really hate physical intimacy with him, because I felt like I was being used. I didn’t feel like he cared about me, or my feelings at all, but just wanted access to my body so he didn’t have to feel bad. And, he didn’t pressure me for sex or anything, so it was hard for me to notice this. He didn’t act like a pig. It’s just that, in this subtle way, all expressions of intimacy seemed focused on making him feel good, not on making me feel good. I was an alcohol replacement, not a person to connect with.
Additionally, he had an extremely high tolerance for things being out of order in his life. For instance, his closet was full of his ex girlfriend’s clothes and he kept all his clothes in a pile on the floor. They’d been broken up for more than a year before we started dating, but he said he just hadn’t “gotten around” to cleaning out his closet yet. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I just went with it, but like… he obviously wasn’t over his ex. I figured he should be because it had been a year, but he wasn’t.
Strangely, the clothes thing wasn’t actually as big a problem as it sounds. Like, I’d go so far as to say a closet full of your ex-girlfriend’s clothes is not, in and of itself, a veto point for me. After a few months of dating, he packed them all up and sent them back. The bigger problem was more the question how emotionally disconnected do you have to be to tolerate not using your own closet for a year. It suggested he probably spent a lot of that year checked out in an alcoholic daze.
The thing about drinking to make your problems go away, is that it can only be maintained through more drinking. Drinking effectively hides your true emotions from your consciousness, so you feel better in the moment, but take no proactive steps to improve your life. So, let’s say you have your ex girlfriend’s clothes in your closet. You see this, and it bums you out. What do you do?
Choice 1: Clean out the closet. This probably makes you feel like *absolute shit* while you are doing it. Maybe you cry, maybe you smash something. But, when you’re done, you never have to look at that closet again, and have improved the base level of happiness in your life.
Choice 2: You drink. The feelings of sadness that were bugging you are no longer bugging you. You have a relatively peaceful night, but not like, totally peaceful. However, tomorrow, you still have that closet full of clothes and you’re back to square 1. Do you clean it, or do you drink again?
Now, many people use a combo. Maybe they drink for a week right after the breakup, and then get their act together to clean out the closet. That seems like, not too bad. But, after enough time passes, you’re essentially using alcohol indefinitely to put off ever dealing with your problems, and this is where shit gets really bad. If enough time passes, you will accumulate more problems on top of your original problem — for example, let’s say you fall behind paying the rent while checked out and not cleaning out your closet. These additional problems will also make you want to drink to forget about them, and so the impulse to avoid through drinking intensifies. And, eventually if you drink regularly enough, you will get the *massive* problem of facing withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking which will be like, 100x as bad as the previous problems you were trying to avoid, so you will be very highly incentivized to keep drinking.
Note: If you experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, get yourself to a doctor, or tell a friend to get you to a doctor, or get to AA, or just seek out whatever help you can, because if you don’t, you’ll get on the downhill shit spiral.
It is not the amount of drinking that is the issue, but rather when someone using it to avoid improving their life situation. Is someone using drinking to numb out feelings that are driving them to do difficult things that would improve their life? If yes, then you have a problem. If someone parties super hard, but is willing to face and act on difficult emotions, they’re likely to be less problematic. To make it even harder to distinguish, you also only have to be able to face your issues — like — 10% of the time. Let’s say, 9 nights out of 10 you look at your closet and drink instead of cleaning it, but on the 10th night, you clean it. That’s really not so bad, you just had a crappy situation for a little over a week. But, if 100% of the time you drink, you will go indefinitely without cleaning that closet, and are stuck in a crappy situation forever. This leads to very different levels of life contentment.
However, these two types of people may look similar from the outside. Someone using alcohol to avoid their problems 9 out of 10 times will, superficially, seem to drink a similar amount as someone using alcohol to avoid their problems 10 out of 10 times but they are completely different in their levels of functionality. The 9 out of 10 times drinker may be a fine partner; the 10 out of 10 times drinker needs AA.
We see a similar problem with people who play excessive video games. This one was hard to spot when I first encountered it, because where I went to college, I was around a lot of heavy but highly functional video game players. I knew people who played video games all the time, but no one who ever blew off their classwork to play video games (or at least, didn’t blow class off enough to fail.)
This wasn’t true with an ex girlfriend of mine. I started dating her when she was still in college, and I knew she played second life “a lot” but I didn’t really know how much. She also had trouble passing some of her classes, and ultimately did not get her college degree, which I eventually connected up to her second life usage. At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal, since I knew many people who hadn’t graduated college and still found work. I told her not to worry about it, and just start applying for jobs.
Anyhow, after we moved in together, I saw just how much second life she was playing. She didn’t have a job, having just “graduated,” and she’d be playing second life when I left for work in the morning, and would still be on the computer when I got back in the evening. I’d try to bring up applying for jobs, but she’d get upset and cry. She didn’t think she was employable, and she was worried no one would want her since she never got her degree, etc. etc. However, she never even tried to apply for a job. She didn’t send out a single resume. She was so worried she’d get rejected, this worry led her to play video games to feel better, until she had no time to even see if anyone would be willing to hire her.
So, then we talked about her going back to college for a semester to re-take those classes she failed, but she thought she wouldn’t be able to pass them the second time either, and it would be a waste of money. Could she get a tutor, I asked, or study the material she had from last time before the semester started? But, every suggestion I made was immediately knocked down. I started to acknowledge that she was likely suffering from depression, which put me in a fairly difficult spot, because the relationship was really starting to strain me, but I didn’t want to dump someone when they were down either. Although her parents chipped in, I was definitely paying for more than half the expenses. I also had to do all the cooking (if not, she’d just eat absolute trash) and cleaning (and, I am *terrible* at cleaning, so the house was not clean.)
I tried to get her to go to therapy, but she’d refuse. I even offered to call the therapist for her, but she wouldn’t let me. Any time a minor discomfort or disagreement came up, she’d be unwilling to tolerate the discomfort, and would go and play second life instead of engaging with me. There were always people online for her to interact with, people who were a lot nicer to her than her pissed off girlfriend. I’m not actually too sure what you do on second life, but I get the vibe that you can just make some imaginary world that’s perfect and not at all like the flawed world you really live in.
The thing was though, what separated her from the productive gamers I knew, is that she used gaming as an escape 100% of the time. Every argument we had ended up with her going off into video game land. Had she only escaped into gaming, say, 9 out of 10 arguments — or, even 99 out of 100 arguments — she would have eventually at least let me find her a therapist. And, I’m not saying a therapist would have immediately fixed things, but at least it would have offered the possibility of hope.
But, someone who shuts you out 100% of the time is someone you can’t date. Someone who refuses to face difficult emotions 10 out of 10 times is someone who will never be able to grow in any way. And, in the end, the function of problematic behavior is more significant than the volume of problematic behavior. The overriding theme is, people use their addictions to avoid emotionally difficult situations.
Someone who constantly refuses to face difficult emotions is not someone you can build a life with.
Someone who never spends time with you because they are playing video games all the time does not love you. Someone who goes out on a drinking bender every time you have a fight because seeing things from your point of view is too painful for them does not love you. Someone who resents you for “nagging” them instead of being concerned that you feel you’re doing more than your fair share of the work does not love you.
It sucks. It sucks to realize you are less important than a virtual world, or a beverage, or whatever, but it’s also true. No number of romantic proclamations can atone for repeated behavior. And, if you’d like some handy little “rule” or something — if someone blows you off for their addiction 10 times without being willing to do the emotionally difficult work of seeing your point of view, you should seriously consider what you’re getting out of the relationship. If someone lies to you 10 times to get you off their back instead of understanding why you’re upset, you should reconsider the relationship. If someone just seems like they’re always telling you what you want to hear so you’ll leave them to their addiction in peace, you should seriously reconsider the relationship. Yes, people will sometimes do these things because they’re tired or overworked or whatever, but if they always do these things, then you’re stuck and nothing will ever improve.
The funny final conclusion to all this was, when I left both these partners, they improved their situations. Both of them expressed regret about how the relationship went down, both of them offered to go to couple’s therapy with me, and both of them admitted to things they could have done better. But, from my perspective, it was all too little too late. Their addictions prevented them from realizing how serious our relationship problems were. They felt like I’d just be around forever, and when they realized I wasn’t going to be, they finally got their shit together. My ex boyfriend cleaned up his apartment and got a promotion at his job (though, he still drinks heavily for my tastes) and my ex girlfriend got an internship and that eventually transitioned her into the industry she wanted to be working in. I did neither of them any favors by coddling them, and I did myself even fewer by staying with them so long.
Final thoughts — what do you do when you’re the alcoholic or video gamer in this situation? Best answer is usually to find help, look for “recovery”programs. Meditation in recovery has seemed really good for many people I know, and will take all sorts of addicts including video game addicts and codependents, but other people may prefer other types of recovery programs. Don’t beat yourself up for what you’ve lost in the past, just focus on improving your situation for the future.