When my boyfriend decided to get sober, I remember having two very opposing and very strong feelings; one was relief, the other was fear. I had fear that my partner would now be fully sober and aware of just how much I drank as well, aware that I also used drinking to excess as one of my only coping mechanisms to navigate life at 33 in a big city.
Two months later, I would begin my own sobriety journey — but I was nervous about what this would mean for our relationship. I hadn’t heard many stories of couples surviving one partner getting sober, let alone both partners getting sober at the same time. Now, at 18 months sober and with a partner at 17 months sober, I could not be happier or more in love. Having a relationship-centered in recovery has been one of the most special, challenging, and rewarding experiences of my life. Here are 6 lessons that I learned along the way to getting sober at the same time as my partner.
1. Hold space for processing the difficult emotions that will surface together.
When we are newly sober, we have A LOT of new emotions and we haven’t always solidified our new, healthy ways of processing and coping with all of these feelings. Our partners who are getting sober at the same time are experiencing this as well — meaning there are lots of opportunities for triggering each other.
Keep in mind that your partner’s rush of emotions early on are not about anything you did right or anything you did wrong. These emotional ups and downs just go with the territory of being newly sober — try not to fight or “fix” the emotions. Surrender to them together. The way you build trust again when newly sober is by holding space for these big emotions instead of reacting to them. When you don’t try to fix each other or take each other’s emotional state so personally but instead simply hold space, something magical happens. You will learn how to help each other process and work through the difficult feelings instead of magnifying and staying stuck in them.
2. Have separate sober friends.
It’s great to have a partner who is also sober but it can put unnecessary stress on the relationship if they are the core of your sobriety. You don’t want to miss the incredible joy and support that comes with sober friends. My sober friend network is made up of mostly women and gay men, and his is mostly sober men.
This may be different for other couples. These are the people you lean on when you’re having those big emotions, the people that get it and want to help. These are the people that you get to show up for. The sober community LOVES to connect. You can do this in 12 step meetings, sober meet-ups, slide into DMs on sober Instagram, or simply start being open about your sobriety in your everyday life and see who you attract. It is seriously worth putting in the effort to seek out sober friendships outside of your relationship. There is nothing else like them. Sober friends are fiercely loyal, understand what you’re going through like no one else can, have good boundaries, and are overflowing with wisdom and life experience.
3. Have a sober dating plan.
Take some time with your partner to get on the same page with just how much personal space and time each of you needs in those early months of sobriety. I call this having a Sober Dating Plan. For us, this has been quite a process over the first months and years. Don’t take it personally if your partner needs more or less time or space to focus on thriving in sobriety than you need. Be supportive of their process and ask them to support you in yours.
A Sober Dating Plan will look different for every person and couple. For me, I took some months away (with little to no contact) until I had 90 days of sobriety. On my 90th day, we met with a therapist that specializes in substance use disorder. Afterward, we spent many months “dating” again — living apart and spending one date night together a week. Currently, at 18 months, we are looking for a condo together (that has plenty of room for personal space). For other couples, this may be too much or too little, or they may have obstacles around living and child arrangements. What worked for my relationship might not be right for yours. Maybe you want to try out other strategies, such as no phone/texting contact when you aren’t together in person, sleeping in separate rooms for a few months, or doing your own thing on the weekends. The important thing is to spend these early months focusing on getting to know yourself as a sober person.
4. Acknowledge that your sobrieties will look different.
Whether you use a 12-step program, sober coaching, or any other process for sobriety, the day to day of recovery looks different for everyone. Even the year to year looks different for everyone. We shouldn’t expect two people to have recoveries that look the same just because they are in a relationship.
This was a hard reality for me to grasp at first and was an especially important concept for me to work through. He leaned on a sponsor, step work, and sober men that he found in recovery. I leaned more on meetings, books, podcasts, and therapy groups to address my trauma. Try not to get too caught up in what your partner is doing for their recovery. You will both be changing and growing in different ways during this process. The goal is that you both will rise to meet each other on higher ground; trust them to take the path that is best for them to get there.
5. Replace the shame of past drinking behavior with the new intimacy of sharing honestly.
Alcohol is literal poison to your body — and can be a figurative poison to relationships as well. When couples do a lot of drinking together, it’s natural to have some turmoil in the relationship about things that were done or said when excess drinking was still a part or your life. It’s also natural for both partners to carry shame and secrecy around their lives before sobriety because we still live in a society that shames the person and resulting behavior, instead of the drug and culture.
I used to be afraid to confide fully in my previous partners for fear that they would react strongly, take things personally, or be ashamed of me. In my current relationship, difficult things took place before we got sober. But through our recovery, we each owned our parts and vowed to do better — to really listen and understand where each other was coming from and change our actions. In this new sober relationship, we didn’t react strongly or take things personally. And most of all, we were never ashamed of each other.
6. Learn how to lighten up and have fun together!
Getting sober can be a heavy thing, and it can feel awkward or inappropriate at times to laugh and find joy again. Do it anyway! Consciously think about ways you can bring laughter into the relationship.
Sometimes, relationships can get sort of tense and serious before recovery. But this is the new sober chapter of your relationship. You don’t have to keep carrying that tension just because you have been carrying it for years. The best and most hopeful thing about getting sober is that it’s a new beginning. Sobriety is hard work, but you guys get to decide what your new sober relationship looks like. Make it fun, make it forgiving, make it hopeful — and don’t take yourselves so seriously!
The true gift of having a partner who is sober and in recovery too is that he gets sobriety. So in turn, he gets me. He never reacts in judgment or tries to “fix” me. He smiles and says, “I get that, me too.” And the more this happens, the more our trust and our bond grows. Some of the most intimate, heartwarming, and fun times I have with my partner are when we are honestly sharing about what things were like when we were still drinking. How sad, dark, hopeless it was even though it seemed fun and bright sometimes too. He gets all of that. And he gets recovery too!
His sobriety makes mine stronger. He’s constantly sharing things he learns in his recovery with me and it’s nice to go to bed at night with someone who is truly on this journey with me. These conversations about drinking and sobriety have strengthened our relationship in a way that little else could.