Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: My boyfriend of more than three years is a former smoker who, until yesterday, would have the occasional cigarette but not smoke regularly. Then yesterday, he told me that, moving forward, he wants to smoke as much as he wants, which seems to be about once an hour.
I am highly averse to smoking (which he knows), both in finding the smell disgusting and for health reasons. I feel like he is being selfish and not only disregarding his own health, but also mine and that of the children we plan to have someday. He feels like smoking is a character trait and that if I cannot accept his constant smoking, then I don’t really love or accept who he is.
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Am I being unreasonable? I certainly never would have started dating him if he was a smoker, but now we are already in a committed relationship. How to move forward from this? Or not? Would your response be different if we were married?
DEAR NONSMOKER: Maybe marriage would change the stakes of my answer, but it wouldn’t change the fact that if you don’t want to be around a smoker, and if your boyfriend intends to smoke for the rest of his life, then you need to leave the relationship. Sad and maddening and a real waste, but at least he is being honest instead of making a string of promises to quit that he doesn’t intend to keep.
I could argue, by the way, that the relationship ended not with his decision to smoke, but with his declaration that “if I cannot accept his constant smoking, then I don’t really love or accept who he is.” I mean, can’t you argue that if he can’t accept your preference for clean air then he doesn’t really love or accept who you are? People who take the argument down that road, who make unilateral decisions and then blame others for the consequences, are betraying poor emotional health, and it’s best to treat is as such, not as a legitimate point. I’m sorry.
The way in which he confessed — dukes up — suggests to me that maybe he’s not as comfortable with his relapse or with himself as a smoker as he wants you to think. I love my husband dearly, and hate his smoking with a passion, especially since we do have kids. But suddenly proclaiming that he’s going to smoke until the day he dies would seem like less an ultimatum to me than a cry for help. Talk to him about setting a firm quit day and trying methods he hasn’t tried before you give up.
DEAR EX-SMOKER: Fair nuff, thanks, though that still leaves the unilateral-decision-plus-blame problem.
“Well no, if who you really are is someone who wishes to smoke, I don’t love that piece of you, and I’m not willing to live with it.” Part of not being guilted by the “don’t really love or accept who he is” kind of line is admitting it to YOURSELF. He’s right. You don’t love and accept him IF that is who he is. It’s OK not to, especially when it impacts your day-to-day life.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: Dead on. Guilt goggles really make it hard to see straight.