When I first quit drinking alcohol, I remember being terrified to tell my partner. At the time, it felt like anxiety, but looking back, I know I was worried about judgement. Until then, much of our relationship revolved around alcohol.
My partner and I had been together for 11 years and had been married for eight. We met when we were still teenagers, and we both grew up in environments where drinking was the norm. We began dating in college, where binge drinking was a weekly occurrence. By the time we settled into married life, most of our social engagements revolved around dinner parties with endless wine or nights out at a local bar.
When I decided to eliminate alcohol from my life, it had a bigger impact on him than I could have ever imagined. Until that point, most of my decisions were made with his input, but this time, I knew what I needed to do regardless of how he felt. Honestly, my drinking had been problematic for a while, but I had done a great job of hiding it from my family. Of course, he saw the fun times—the nights out at parties and the cool evenings with a beer around a fire pit. But he didn’t see my 3 a.m. night sweats or how I’d run out to buy a bottle of wine before he got home so he wouldn’t know that I’d already finished the one in the kitchen.
When I came to him and said, “I’m quitting drinking for a while,” he was shocked.
When I came to him and said, “I’m quitting drinking for a while,” he was shocked. He told me that I was overreacting and being dramatic. I remember being crushed that he wasn’t immediately supportive and proud of me. In fact, he was defensive, telling me that I shouldn’t expect him to quit just because I did. I was so raw and exposed. It felt like a slap in the face.
I had been experimenting with short stretches of sobriety for a few months and had started participating in online sober communities, where I’d see so many posts and comments about how elated people’s partners/families/kids were when they quit drinking. What I didn’t find was straightforward support for women whose partners had zero interest in sobriety and continued to drink.
In the past five and a half years, my partner’s stance on my sobriety has completely changed. He is incredibly proud of me and the work I’ve done to become the very best version of myself. He is one of my biggest cheerleaders and brags to his friends and colleagues about the work I do in the world. But this change didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of work on both of our parts to get to this point. However, there is one thing that has not changed—he still drinks alcohol.
I get asked all the time how I stay sober with alcohol in my home. Almost every traditional recovery path will tell you it’s nearly impossible to stay sober unless you remove yourself from the “people, places and things” that led you to drink. Well, what do you do when those “people, places and things” aren’t something you can just leave behind? How can you cope when your partner continues to make alcohol a part of their life? Here are a few ways that I’ve made it work:
1. Remove the alcohol.
Wait, didn’t I just say we still had alcohol in my house? Yes, I did. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t remove the alcohol from spaces that I found triggering. I almost always started my nightly drinking in the kitchen, so when I got sober, I hated opening my fridge and seeing beer there. After a few weeks of being triggered every time I wanted to grab a snack or a juice box for one of the kids, I drove myself to Costco and bought a mini fridge for our garage. I took all the beer out of our main refrigerator and put it in the mini fridge. This way, I didn’t have to see it every day AND my spouse could still have a drink when he wanted. An unexpected bonus was he was very touched by my thoughtful gesture. It really helped solidify for him that my sobriety was MINE and I wasn’t forcing him to give up drinking or change his lifestyle as well. I also requested that he no longer keep red wine, my drink of choice, in our home. This small action helped me feel supported, without him feeling threatened by my sobriety.
2. Have a backup plan for social outings.
One of the most difficult parts of being the sober half of a partnership is figuring out your social life. When I first quit drinking, much of our calendar revolved around drinking, and I had to determine how I was going to handle that. For the first few weeks, I did my best to avoid all social functions. But after about a month, I knew I needed to step out into the world.
Remember change doesn’t happen overnight, and eventually, you will find a system that works for both of you.
First, I made sure that I either brought my non-alcoholic drink of choice with me (if it was a dinner party or BBQ) or that I ordered a seltzer first thing (if we were at a restaurant). Second, I always made sure that my partner knew that I would be leaving if or when I felt uncomfortable. If he wasn’t ready to leave, I always had a backup plan. Often, we would take separate cars, so I had the flexibility to exit as needed. Sometimes I would just ensure he had a ride from someone else or even a taxi, and then I’d take my leave.
Either way, I made it clear to my partner that the minute I was ready, I was out of there. This kept me safe and helped set reasonable expectations for him, prior to even leaving our home for the evening.
3. Set boundaries and make them known.
Before sobriety, I struggled with setting boundaries in my life. I would often do things or attend gatherings even when I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to let my partner down. I was very co-dependent and a people pleaser, so I never wanted to ruin anyone else’s plans. This led to many drunken arguments, with my resentment over doing things I didn’t like spilling over into blind rage.
When I quit drinking, I had to learn to set strong boundaries not only with my husband, but with everyone in my life. There were some missteps along the way, but as I practiced setting limits, it got easier. I would often say, “I’m not giving you an ultimatum, I’m telling you what my boundaries are, and you are free to make your own choices from there.” This was VERY new in our relationship, and it took my partner some time to get used to it. But today he respects me and my boundaries, and in fact, my strong boundaries and convictions are part of why he loves me.
4. Take your time.
We can often feel like change should happen immediately. I know once I’ve made a decision, I expect the rest of the world to fall in line. But that’s not how things work in a partnership. I’d been exploring and questioning my drinking for years before I finally quit, but for my partner, the journey started the day I told him I was ready to put down the booze. It makes sense that it would take a while for him to get used to the idea and for us to find a new flow when it came to our social life.
Remember change doesn’t happen overnight, and eventually, you will find a system that works for both of you. It won’t look like it did before, but it will be so much healthier for you, your partner, AND your relationship.
5. Focus on yourself (but let your partner see you).
A piece of advice I often received in early sobriety was “keep your eyes on your own paper.” Essentially, it wasn’t my job to worry about anyone else’s behavior, but focus on my own. This was also true when it came to my husband’s drinking habits. Because I was hyper-sensitive to alcohol, I often found myself obsessing over his drinking. I knew this wasn’t healthy, and it certainly wasn’t going to convince him to drink any less. It began to drive a big wedge between us.
A piece of advice I often received in early sobriety was “keep your eyes on your own paper.”
As we continued to work on our relationship, I realized while I was focused on his drinking, I wasn’t sharing why it was difficult for me. Instead, he just felt like I was trying to control him and force him to be sober, too. When I was able to open up and share with him how I felt, he was more understanding. And, naturally, throughout the years, his drinking has decreased exponentially.
I want you to know that getting and staying sober is absolutely possible, even if your partner still drinks. I was often told early on that there was a very small chance of my sobriety succeeding unless my spouse chose to live alcohol-free as well. I’ve found that to not only incredibly unhelpful advice, but also untrue.
You must put yourself and your sobriety first (especially in the beginning), learn to set strong boundaries, and communicate as openly as possible. And remember, it takes time to figure out a new rhythm, so don’t panic if it doesn’t all fall into place immediately. Regardless of what other people say, keep the focus on what works for you. No one else has the right to tell you what will work for your journey, and if you keep your heart and mind open, you will know the way.