I got a lot of advice when I first got sober.
Something I heard over and over again was to find my peers and learn how they made sobriety work for them. So I searched for other sober women, including moms and business owners, to learn how they navigated their way through the hell of early sobriety.
Eventually, I found them. And quite simply—these women saved my life. They understood what I was going through, and I learned how they’d made it to the other side. Their encouragement gave me the inspiration to keep going, especially when I felt overwhelmed by the rawness of my alcohol-free life.
However, there was one category of sober women that I struggled to find: Women who had experience getting sober in a relationship, and who’d stayed with their partner throughout the process. I met tons of single women who’d put down the bottle and many others who’d divorced or left their partners. But hardly any who’d stayed in a marriage or relationship for the long haul.
I understand why it’s difficult to stay in a romantic relationship when you’re getting sober. Becoming alcohol-free is a massive life change, and when you’re doing life with a partner, this can cause conflict. Many sober folks simply outgrow their partner, especially if their significant other is still drinking. Of course, we know that getting sober is a positive thing. But the initial changes—particularly in those early months—can be brutal on a romantic partnership.
For me, while I was getting sober in a relationship, I went from a people-pleasing, codependent woman who avoided conflict like the plague (until I would explode in a wine-soaked rage) to a combative ball of emotion.
My only coping skill for pain, fear, sadness, and anger had been alcohol, and that was no longer an option. I was like an exposed nerve. I went through bouts of depression early on; I slept all the time. Although I’d always seemed fairly extroverted, without wine, I’d discovered a version of myself comfortable staying home and avoiding crowds, which affected our social life as a couple.
And all of these changes had been of my own volition—without much input from my partner. Before I quit drinking, I was always looking for validation in my choices. I rarely made big moves without at least talking to my partner and getting his opinion.
For possibly the first time, I was setting some pretty strong boundaries. My spouse felt blindsided.
Several years later, I can look back on those early months and see where I excelled and where I could’ve done better in managing getting sober in a relationship. I believe if more people shared honestly about the struggles of quitting drinking when you have a partner or spouse, then more people would succeed.
Sure, nothing guarantees that a relationship will endure this massive life change. But preparing yourself and your partner can make the transition a bit easier for both of you.
1. Be Honest From the Get-Go
When I first quit drinking, it was a shock to my husband.
I’d done a very good job of hiding how bad my drinking had gotten, so he didn’t understand why I was insisting on such a drastic life shift. Looking back, I should’ve been more honest and open about how much I had been struggling, but at the time, I felt afraid and nervous he’d judge me.
Now, I see that I caused so much more damage by being dishonest and not sharing my entire story with him, but I did the best I could at the time. He just wanted me to be healthy and happy, but when I was only sharing part of my struggle, he was confused and felt he was being lied to (which, yes, he was).
Eventually, when I was able to talk with him openly and honestly about how bad my drinking had gotten and how many times I’d tried to quit, he was much more receptive and supportive of my decision.
2. Find Support for Yourself, and Encourage Your Partner to Do the Same
There are so many places to find support for getting sober in a relationship, both online and in person. but it’s more difficult to find support for spouses or partners. While you can’t force your partner to do anything, attending Al-Anon is a wonderful option, and something I encourage people to try.
Although 12-Step might not be for everyone, there’s something encouraging about being around a group of people that “get it,” and your partner may be able to meet some friends who understand where they’re coming from.
I also think it’s incredibly important to look for sober people who’ve stayed in their relationships, if that’s your goal. It’s very easy for people who aren’t in a partnership or have left theirs to tell you, “Just leave, they will never understand.”
I had many, many people tell me my marriage wouldn’t survive. But I found someone early on who had multiple years of sobriety and had stayed married, which was a godsend. I was able to talk to her about my struggles and she was able to share her wisdom with me. Our friendship was a big part of my early sobriety and gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going.
3. Give Marriage Counseling a Try
Marriage counseling has absolutely saved my relationship. But it wasn’t a smooth ride in the beginning.
Initially, my partner didn’t want to attend. He felt like this “quitting drinking thing” was my issue, so why should he have to attend counseling? So, for the first few months, I went alone. Although I think it’s best for both partners to attend, I’m glad I went even though he didn’t. Slowly, he started to see my positive changes and became much more open about attending.
We actually went through two marriage counselors before we found one that worked well for us. If the first therapist isn’t compatible with both of you, try another one. Don’t give up. We found a counselor that also had addiction and recovery experience, which was very important as we worked through our issues.
4. Try New Things Together That Don’t Involve Drinking
One of the hardest parts of getting sober in a relationship was figuring out how to hang out together without alcohol. It’s embarrassing to admit, but before I quit drinking, 80% of our time together involved alcohol. Whether it was a cocktail hour or a BBQ with friends, drinking was almost always a part of it.
When I quit, we had to find new activities to do together. Although it was awkward in the beginning, we ended up realizing how much fun we can have together without alcohol! We’ve gone hiking, mountain biking, eaten amazing dinners, gone on vacations and more. Turns out, we really like spending time together!
5. Have Grace… for Your Partner and Yourself
Sharing your life with an intimate partner always has its challenges. Add in a major life change like quitting drinking? It can be very difficult.
I had quite a few expectations about how my partner should support me, and when he didn’t meet my expectations, I felt like our relationship was doomed to failure. My partner and I had been together 11 years before I quit drinking, but for whatever reason, I thought we should both be able to automatically adjust to this different life. I’d spent so many of those years hiding my drinking and being dishonest about my wants and needs. It was going to take time and work to undo all of that damage.
Gaining back that trust and opening our lines of communication didn’t happen in the first month or six months. Instead, it took a lot of time and hard work on both of our parts. That work didn’t start right away and it didn’t happen in big pushes. We had to chip away the crap, little by little, day by day. I sometimes it felt like we’d take one step forward just to end up taking two steps back.
But one day I looked at my partner and realized we were happier than we’d ever been. With love and lots of patience, we made it to the other side.
Getting sober in a relationship can be difficult, but I want you to know that it can work, as long as you’re both invested and willing to grow and learn together. Be honest, find people who understand, do the hard work, be patient… and, most of all, don’t drink! Just know that no matter what, you’re a better partner when you’re sober.
Although it can be a hard road, it’s always worth it.
For more of Megan’s story and advice on getting sober in a relationship you can listen to her here on the HOME podcast.