‘Malcolm & Marie’ and the role of addiction in relationships

Editor’s Note: This article contains mentions of substance use disorder. Please take care while reading, and note the helpful resources at the end of this story.

Jessica Hoppe is In The Know’s culture contributor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter for more.

We got the news a few hours before the ball dropped — my grandmother was being rushed to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms on New Year’s Eve. Though we feared the worst, our hands collectively tied as a family, far from her Florida home in New York, we had no idea what was going to happen. 

Triggered by this unexpected crisis, I felt unable to aptly express my emotions to my partner. So I kept cooking dinner, silently stewing in the one certainty I knew: I wasn’t prepared to lose her. 

After dinner, my partner and I unfurled onto the carpet, eyes fixed to our phones, the curved edges of our new loveseat lacking the dimensions to accommodate our cuddling.

“Eight minutes,” I said, hopping up abruptly, desperate for a break from the family group chat and assuming he understood that his cue to kiss me at midnight was fast approaching. But he kept scrolling. 

I went to the kitchen to prepare a good luck ritual I wanted to try this year for the first time.

“Three minutes,” I prodded, resenting his lack of enthusiasm as I anxiously counted out twenty-four grapes according to the (mostly) Mexican tradition. When he finally stood with a minute to spare, my temper erupted — succumbing to my impulses, I resorted to anger in order to escape my feelings and we rang in the new year with a fight. The fizz of the sparkling cider I’d dragged him to three different stores to find evaporated as quickly as my expectations and the grapes meant for wishing turned sour.

“It is hard to love an addict,” Emilie Pine wrote in her best-selling book of essays Notes To Self. Her words — short, shattering, certain — have hummed inside me and between each of my relationships since I read them in early sobriety. For those of us in recovery from substance use disorder, intimate partner relationships can be like minefields, bewildering as we navigate new territory without the substance you came to rely upon. And although I’m no longer drinking or using, interrupting my tendency to fall back on maladjusted coping mechanisms is a vigilant, daily practice, one that requires the support of my partner.

In the new pandemic picture, Malcolm & Marie, written and directed by Sam Levinson, we watch a woman in recovery from addiction combat what writer and critic Myriam Gurba calls “romantic terrorism.”

Critical reviews aside, the film’s positioning as the story of a couple’s “romantic reckoning” seems wantonly irresponsible, particularly after a week of triggering headlines reporting the utilization of drugs and alcohol by predators such as Marilyn Manson and T.I. in order to abuse and undermine their victims (oftentimes long term partners) in a manner not far from the scenes artfully manipulated by Levinson. 

While my current partner has not been a witness to my active addiction, nor do I identify our relationship with the titular couple, I have been in Marie’s position many times — my self-destructive tendencies painfully exploited, the crucible of addiction weaponized against me by an abusive partner. Made vulnerable by the cycle of demoralizing behavior experienced during active addiction, I was ill-equipped and wholly unaware of how to conduct a healthy relationship. 

Removing substances was my first step in the process of finding out for myself what kind of partner I desired, before learning to recognize the compatibility that I share with the person I’m with now. Though at times I’m aware of an image of us together that casts me (a person in recovery) as the bad girl, and him (neither in nor requiring recovery) as the choir boy. While these binaries are far from reality, I sometimes find myself playing into the caricatures. Whether to contrive sex appeal or elicit good humor, my willingness to do so belies an insecurity echoed in Pine’s words (“It is hard to love an addict”), a fear instilled by the legacy of an abusive past and our culture of misogyny. 

The work of recovery is mine to address, not my partner’s, and I am learning how to do that. I reassure myself that, addict or not, I’m not hard to love — and my partner reflects that truth by his commitment to his own well-being as well as to our relationship. By participating in his own program, Al-Anon, which helps the families and friends of those in recovery, we’ve gained a shared language and healthy framework for conflict resolution.

Two weeks after our regrettable New Year’s blowup, my partner and I celebrated two years together. Before the end of the month, my grandmother returned home, nearly fully recovered from COVID-19. 

“I just spoke to my grandmother,” I told my boyfriend as I descended the stairs of my sister’s house with my mother during one of our weekly visits. He practically stood at attention. “What’d she say? How is she?” he asked with sincere concern as I took the seat beside him at the dining table.

“She said, ‘Te añoro, Jessy,’ I replied. “She’s never said that before. That doesn’t just mean I miss you, does it? It’s more…”

“It means ‘I yearn for you,'” he said, and then he kissed me. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or substance use disorder, call The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357 for resources, or find a treatment option near you through The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers directory. Visit the American Addiction Centers website to learn more about the signs of substance use disorder and find additional online support through Intergroup.

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