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damage control

The question

My husband and I have been married for more than 30 years. I love him dearly – in fact, I am still in love with him. He is kind and thoughtful and there is very little about him that I would change. But he refuses to quit smoking and it's killing him before my eyes. His health is now suffering and every moment he spends outside smoking, makes me so angry with him that I can barely keep my temper. He tries to quit but always, always fails. I'm at a complete loss. One way or the other, this will be the end of our marriage. Help.

The answer

Smoking's a tough one – as I know from prolonged, painful, personal experience.

Dealing with a loved one with any type of addiction is tough and cigarettes are particularly addictive – more so than heroin, they say.

I started around the age of 15 and have wrestled with this particular monkey on my back – more like an orangutan – ever since.

I was definitely a smoker in my 20s. But around the age of 30, with my first child on the way, I undertook a program wherein every time I wanted a cigarette during the day (starting with that first glorious one with your morning cup of coffee), I would say to myself: "I will postpone the cigarette I want right now until tonight, after the sun sets."

Mirabile dictu: it worked. I became a nighttime-only smoker. From there, it wasn't too hard to push back that first cigarette to 11 p.m. and become a two-a-day smoker.

And from there to quitting – though I should say it's a process that unfolded over decades, with much backsliding and self-loathing and self-recrimination. And while I'm at it, I might as well confess I'm still something of an occasional/social smoker, i.e. I'll fire up the odd butt when people come over or I go to their houses.

But eventually, that's got to go, too – in my case, also for health reasons. It helps that my youngest child, who's like a combination of Hercule Poirot, the Spanish Inquisition and Lear on the Heath all rolled into one vis-à-vis this particular vice, will lurk in the shadows in the foyer, then burst onto the porch whenever people come over: "Aaaaaah-HA!"

Then, practically rending his garments, lament before the assembled guests: "Why, why, why? Oh, man, I've got a Dad who's gonna die!"

Of course the kid's got a point … (Ironic that as teens we try to hide smoking from our parents, then as parents try to hide it from our teens.)

I wonder if you could suggest a similar taper-down, start-with-nights-only-then-phase-it-out-entirely-or-almost-entirely approach as the one described above to your husband?

Doesn't work with everyone, I've noticed, but it worked for me, and who knows? Might work for him, too.

Or what about getting him to try e-cigarettes? Many people report success with quitting using these electronic devices, though I have also seen a lot of recidivism to regular cigarettes among e-puffers.

Mainly, though, keep up the gentle and loving pressure.

I wouldn't, as some might suggest, threaten to leave him over the issue.

You say you love him and are in love with him and he's kind and thoughtful – a rare find! What if you split up with him and wind up with an obnoxious, annoying non-smoker? In which case your partner, rather than killing himself, would wind up slowly killing you.

Put loving pressure on your husband and then slowly increase it and make it sterner (as my wife did with me). It's the frog-in-hot-water approach: just keep turning up the heat slowly, so he doesn't notice.

And if his health is indeed suffering I would recruit your family doctor (as my wife also did with me) to back you up. Obviously your husband is able to ignore those dire warnings and pictures on cigarette packages, but it's harder to brush off a live, empathetic and highly qualified human being saying: "Listen, this is what's going to happen to you, it's going to be horrible, and do you really want to do that to yourself?"

The two operative words, perhaps, being: "empathetic" and "yourself."

Because, of course, you feel empathy for his struggle to quit. But ultimately it's up to him to do so.

Maybe frame it in a positive way: "I married a strong man. I want you to show me you still are that strong man and quit."

Tell him you love him and you want to continue to enjoy his company for many years to come, as a live human being, not, as I recently heard a woman who didn't want to become a widow put it, "a picture on the mantelpiece" – or an urn with some ashes in it.

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