Mental Health Relationships

Can I Still Drink Around My Sober Partner?

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, avoiding eye contact with his wife, the woman sitting less than a foot away from him, holding sixty days of sobriety after a multi-year spree of frenzied alcohol-induced chaos. Read More

Can I still drink around my sober partner?

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, avoiding eye contact with his wife, the woman sitting less than a foot away from him, holding sixty days of sobriety after a multi-year spree of frenzied alcohol-induced chaos.

It was our first couples therapy session. They had both cried and pointed fingers at one another, trading blame and taking names. You’re the one who got us into this mess! You’ve been able to drink all your problems away!

In my work, I am used to these blanket accusations. Couples therapy represents an awkward and messy and even helpless process- people often seek it out as a last resort after the last resort has burnt down.

The husband turned to me. So, can I still drink at home? Is that allowed?

In all the shock and uncertainty that had come with his wife’s new sobriety, he still had a valid question.

The Alcoholic and The Spouse

I work as a marriage and family therapist, and I specialize in acute addiction treatment. I’ve been on the frontlines of every spectrum of every addiction, and I’ve seen the devastating and debilitating effects this disease has on loved ones.

Everyone knows that relationships are hard. Relationships where one partner is actively trying to change her entire identity and life? Yeah, that takes hard to an entirely new level.

Sobriety is not for the faint of heart, we all know that. Sobriety tests everything, from a person’s dignity to their mental health to their marriage.

In relationships with the presence of addiction, everything feels as volatile as it does delicate, as chaotic as it does predictable. Alcoholism is strangely controlled chaos, an oxymoron of the imperfect human condition.

Though it’s inherently unpredictable, loved ones uncannily condition themselves with noticing alcoholism’s specific patterns. Partners acutely anticipate its ebbs and flows. They conclude what addiction can and cannot do to the people they love. It’s a lifetime of detective work, and it makes marriages exhausting.

The spouses, in many ways, become addicted to the alcoholism in their own equally, well-intentioned ways. In attempting to save the one they love from sickness, they often fall sick themselves.

The Layered Questions We Ask

Deciphering whether or not this husband could drink around his newly sober wife was not the actual question. Better yet, I was not the one who could provide the answer.

It’s like asking a therapist, Is kissing another girl a form of cheating? It’s also like asking, Is it rude to eat meat if your date is a vegetarian?

Invariably, the answer will be this: it depends on you and your relationship. It depends on you and the boundaries you establish. It depends on the values you and your partner implement.

A therapist cannot set those guidelines or rules because they don’t exist in a black-or-white, all-or-nothing format. They don’t exist as something that just has a single, textbook answer.

If you don’t know what your values are, a therapist can’t just arbitrarily give them to you. It doesn’t work that way. As humans, we are nuanced and unique; what we believe in makes us who we are. It’s the stuff we’re made from.

While a partner cannot assume responsibility for anyone’s relapse or recovery, healthy relationships create opportunities for support and stability. Partners can play powerful healing agents in recovery, and they can be an undeniable source of comfort and outreach in times of struggle.

They cannot, however, replace: sponsors, therapists, or medical doctors, and I have worked with too many couples who have tried to force their partner into these impossible roles.

Codependency has never saved an alcoholic. Typically, it only enables the drowning. And, love is not the grandiose cure. But, it can absolutely be one of the ingredients in the recipe for beautiful and dynamic change.

Communication is Everything and Triggers Change

I witness numerous clients transform their lives in inexplicable ways when they choose the path of sobriety. Sadly, I also observe many people sabotage and destroy themselves in the process of attempting to heal. Addiction is fierce; we all know the devastating statistics, the bleak and unfortunate outcomes associated with recovery.

Couples cannot adequately determine all the tough questions about sobriety in a single conversation. It’s an active dialogue, a continuous back-and-forth discussion, and it flows as feelings change and people grow.

Triggers evolve as people evolve, and cravings change like the weather. In the early stages of sobriety, even the presence of alcohol can be difficult for someone struggling to string a few days together. This was the case for my female client. Grocery stores, TV commercials, sporting events- they all triggered her. She was terrified of relapsing, and she panicked at the mere sight of liquor.

As time went on, however, the reverse started happening. She resumed with her grocery shopping every week. She watched her favorite TV shows. She went back to sports events and enjoyed cheering on her favorite teams. She wanted to participate in life again. Alcohol had already taken so much from her. She wanted to regain some of that back.

She didn’t like feeling as if others were walking on eggshells, tiptoeing around her alcoholism, seemingly behaving with fear that any wrong move could spiral her into a relapse. She didn’t want her husband to feel like he needed to wear kid gloves around her.

At the time, there wasn’t a single answer for her husband. That’s because it wasn’t just about the drinking. It was about individual needs and healthy communication. It was about understanding personal accountability and the difference between enabling and supporting. They both had to engage in several conversations along the way to determine comfort and safety. This entailed rigorous honesty and working through vulnerability and fear.

It was scary, as most things in life are, but it was worth it. Healing comes with a hefty price tag, but as a therapist, I do believe it’s worth the cost. After all, isn’t that what life and relationships are all about?

They both needed to learn how to find unique solutions that honored the values in their marriage. They both needed to learn how to discuss their individual feelings and concerns. And, yes, they both needed to take responsibility for their personal recoveries.

Everyone’s Needs Matter

Establishing clear boundaries is a crucial part of both sobriety and healthy, intimate relationships. Boundaries refer to the personal limits between us and other people, highlighting what we will and will not tolerate. Both this husband and wife needed to reevaluate their boundaries and express them to one another safely and productively.

Inherently, any relationship with a history of addiction presents with risk. That’s due to a scorned past of tumultuous baggage, betrayal, and deceit. It’s also due to an ambiguous and unpromised future capable of spiraling back into a destructive relapse.

With that said, just as individuals can profoundly transform and heal from the heinous perils of alcoholism, relationships can do the same.

Does that client now drink around his wife? I honestly don’t know. And, at the end of the day, does it matter? Her sobriety belongs to her, his support belongs to him, and their marriage is theirs to define.