By Michele McCormick
A Laguna Beach husband comes into my therapy office and says, “She’s drunk. I just texted from my car. She said dinner was ready. She’s in the kitchen working on her second bottle of wine. The first one is trashed. So is she. Right, Doc? Look, I know she’s just come from an afternoon play date with our 3-year-old, after her chardonnay work lunch. What the heck! (Instead he throws the “f” bomb). So, I stand there steaming. I poke at her. But she’s asking me to go to the store for bread and what else? Char…dho…f’n..ay! I say, ‘sure babe’. Instead, I go out to the garage and smoke a joint. I swear, doc, what’s the deal here in Laguna with women and wine?”
As a psychologist working in Laguna and Newport, I get it. The topic of chardonnay wives is not only trending on Twitter, I see it in my office. And, I want to help this guy. He’s mad, scared….fears losing his wife to the bottle. Not only is he left hungry while foraging for take-out or leftovers; he reports months without sex.
Shrinks are often more into the “why” than the “what” of their clients’ concerns. Feeling starved-out is one thing, but imagining a life alone is unbearable. Both husband and wife in this scenario are truly lonely. The euphoric effect of alcohol mimics intimate connection. A solid relationship releases the feel good chemicals of love throughout the body: endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin. It’s as if she has taken a lover and now he is in competition with chardonnay. Rather than fight for her, he passively beds down with weed. He feels the victim. It’s really the dance between them.
Imagine that the “why” of his woman’s excessive chardonnay consumption is not based on biology or addiction or even the social pressure rampant in affluent Orange County. You know the reality. Everywhere she goes, every event offers the opportunity to imbibe: girls day-out, book clubs, Bloomingdale’s, Laguna’s fine dining, special events and fundraisers. Let’s say her drinking is not about the way our frantic lives rip us away from each other… “face-time” relegated to iPhone chats or texting. Maybe it’s not even about an unbearable grief or postpartum depression, domestic violence or the empty nest syndrome. Let’s say it’s none of the hurdles couples face: in-laws, sex, money, schedules, parenting, and religion or compatibility issues. What if it’s something else entirely?
What if women lose themselves, their sense of identity, while caring for those they love? Even mothers fulfilled by raising children may feel emotionally isolated while surrounded by family and friends. The women I see in my practice navigate two types of identity formation: autonomous and vicarious. Vicarious identity is the sense of fulfillment women experience while supporting their family. This is not unhealthy co-dependency. It’s what women do. Autonomous identity develops through pursuits apart from family. College graduates may marry later to pursue careers and establish professions before marriage and children. Some moms “do it all.” As early as 1955, Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her timeless book “Gift from the Sea” describes the challenge like this, “A woman’s life is like a three ring circus that puts even the trapeze artist to shame.” Could it be, then, that 30-something women who choose to dance with martinis rather than their husbands are not simply misbehaving?
Of course these women want to party. Who wants to feel bone-grinding emotional pain? Alcohol (or pills) soften the blow…turn down the vibe of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and anger. We don’t need Carol Gilligan’s 1982 findings published “In a Different Voice” or research from Wellesley’s Stone Center to confirm that women are relational; that we are not meant to be alone. Both men and women are meant to work together in community. Hillary Clinton may be right in this case, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
How then might I coach a husband who is losing his wife to chardonnay? “Start the conversation. Don’t participate in every argument you’re invited to. Get a sitter. Take her to dinner. Heck, take her to Santa Barbara or Paris. Go to breakfast or hiking without your kids. Discover each other again. Dance. Find her love language, yours too. Try to see her. Really see her. Allow her to see you. Each of you have changed, are changing. But, you will always need connection. Find the love, guy. Go in and find her.
Author’s Note: While references are factual, they are generalized from reconstructed and combined case examples, not derived from any one identifiable case.
Michele McCormick is a resident, writer and practicing psychologist in Laguna. She can be reached at [email protected]