I used to love almost everything about drinking. I loved coming home with strange bruises and dirty ankles from dancing like a fool on filthy floors. I could make a scene and everyone laughed instead of shunning me. I treasured the community of it, the stink of the bars, the club lights. Stories about a crazy night were always the best hangover cure. I remember it made me feel free.
But drinking is fun until it’s not. In my late 30s, I cut back because it started to pick at my depression and anxiety like a teen with a pimple. Soon after, at a Halloween wedding, a relationship sparked with an old friend. And though I loved him, it was clear his unhealthy relationship with substances was not only unsustainable, it was sometimes disastrous. After only four months of dating, I peed on a stick, saw two lines, and suddenly had some serious decisions to make.
Watching someone I love turn into a stranger because of his substance use disorder kind of killed my hankering for a cocktail, so I have stayed sober since.
I’d already stopped drinking to encourage him to do the same. It didn’t work at first but, after the positive pregnancy test, he ramped up his recovery efforts. Right before the birth of our son two and a half years ago, he found a recovery program that worked for him.
The time in between his heavy drinking and sobriety was a tough education I never thought I’d receive but one for which I am grateful. It helped me make one of the most important decisions of my life. Watching someone I love turn into a stranger because of his substance use disorder kind of killed my hankering for a cocktail, so I have stayed sober since. I don’t feel like a martyr for quitting, even though not drinking can be a challenge for me. I continue to abstain because I know that not having booze in the house or on my breath is best for our family. Besides, SUDs aren’t exactly known for making anyone’s marriage or partnership stronger or more satisfying.
While I have decided to stay sober for the long haul, some partners decide to only do so for early recovery when it’s most imperative to have a sober partner; Some, not at all.
Dr. Ruth J. Reibstein is the director of the Partial Hospital Program Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., a two-week outpatient program for newly sober patients whose families receive support and a role in their recovery. In her program, counselors might suggest to patients and their families that they should remove alcohol from the home for a period of time. She says it doesn’t often dawn upon them that the environment might have to change or that a partner might best help out by not drinking or using. “Why put up those stumbling blocks?” she asks. “You’re forming new habits and the brain is getting used to a different way. Having less cues to use in your environment is helpful to the healing process.”
If a partner says they want to quit drinking to be supportive, the person in recovery should trust them. Just because they can’t imagine quitting voluntarily doesn’t mean that their partner has the same attachment to the intoxicant.
Another reason willing partners may not quit is because those in early recovery often make the mistake of saying, “‘No, I don’t want you to change, that’ll make me feel worse. Please drink in front of me.’ Or having birthdays or celebrations at home, ‘Please, let’s keep doing everything we did before.’ And that’s not, in my opinion, really advised.” Dr. Reibstein says. “I find that the more educated family or friends are the more compassion there is.” And that compassion is what helps partners decide if quitting in support is necessary. If a partner says they want to quit drinking to be supportive, the person in recovery should trust them. Just because they can’t imagine quitting voluntarily doesn’t mean that their partner has the same attachment to the intoxicant.
Dr. Leena Mittal, a perinatal psychiatrist and addiction specialist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says that for women in heterosexual relationships, it is almost imperative that their partners quit with them. “For everybody to have a supportive partner, it’s helpful, but for women it’s clear there’s a bigger impact on sobriety based on interpersonal and relationship factors,” she says. “Women are socialized to be interconnected. Their relationships with their families, friends, children, are what drive them.” These aren’t absolutes, she says, but she has seen and studies have shown patterns marked along gender lines.
“For everybody to have a supportive partner, it’s helpful, but for women it’s clear there’s a bigger impact on sobriety based on interpersonal and relationship factors.”
What is key to the success of all relationships regardless of whether they are hetrosexual or not, Dr. Mittal says, is that recovery is a shared goal for both partners. Recovery involves transparency and honesty with oneself and their partner. “Addiction hides in secrets,” she says. However, a “mismatch in expectations” can create resentment. If a supportive partner decides to stop drinking, it needs to be for the common good, not just for the other person. Though she notes that “a lot of people find that when they stop drinking, other things improve in their lives too, whether it’s physical, emotional, or financial symptoms.”
Katie* is a 44-year-old stay-at-home mom of three children, ages 2, 11, and 14, who lives in New Zealand. She has been married for 24 years to a man who decided that if he expected her to stop drinking then he should also stop. They started that process when Katie was pregnant with her now 11-year-old. After two years of sobriety, her depression caused her to seek a counselor and group therapy. “I told [my therapist] that I was an alcoholic. She didn’t think I was because I managed to give up by myself.”
At the time, they were living a quiet life on a friend’s farm where one of her daily tasks was milking a cow. “I felt like I could manage a beer, so as a couple, we decided to start with low alcohol beer. It didn’t take very long for me to get into the wine, then the vodka, then the hiding it,” she recalls. “We feel it was the worse decision we made.” And that her husband managed to quit before she was able to caused her stress. “I feel guilty and embarrassed. I do remember him saying to me one day after I had had a few of those hidden wines, ‘You could at least share.'”
The support of her husband has only had a positive effect on her recovery and things have evolved in that dynamic. “After six years of sobriety, he will have a beer once in a while if we are at friends’ and when he goes away on a boys weekend he will have a few. We don’t under any circumstances have alcohol in our house,” she shares.
If a supportive partner decides to stop drinking, it needs to be for the common good, not just for the other person.
Dr. Reibstein says that down the line, the parameters of the partner’s drinking can be reassessed by both people in the partnership. It’s a constant negotiation. “It does change over time,” she says. “It has to be a day at a time decision about what is going to be most helpful.”
What’s most important is helping a partner in recovery create new, healthier routines, like going to a dance class or cooking meals together. “We can’t wrap the person in bubble wrap,” Dr. Reibstein says. “They will be exposed to cues. But the cues we can cut down on, we should do that as much as possible.” If there is a relapse, the whole family has to deal with it, so it’s good to have a plan that keeps everyone safe.
What’s most important is helping a partner in recovery create new, healthier routines, like going to a dance class or cooking meals together.
It’s sometimes hard to know if I’m being supportive or taking on too much of my partner’s recovery. Dr. Reibstein says it’s easier to be involved in a healthy way if someone like me gets support and education through Al-Anon or another program. “This is stressful for you, as well,” she says. “You’ve got to control what you can and not control what you can’t. With support, time, and practice, it gets better.”
There have been particularly stressful parenting days in the dead of winter where a warm, dimly lit bar seems like the only place to recharge, but I know that’s not true. I practice using tools I’ve learned in therapy, by reading the research, and through watching my partner’s recovery. I think about my partner’s struggle and how much alcohol is a threat to my son’s happiness, and that motivates me to also take it one day at a time and stay on this sober ride in solidarity.
*Katie is anonymous.