How to Get Sober When Your Spouse (or Partner) Still Drinks or Uses
by Michael Walsh
Navigating relationships in recovery
Getting sober is no cake walk, and it’s even more difficult when your spouse or significant other continues to drink alcohol or use drugs. [updated March 2023]
So, what happens when you get sober and your spouse or partner still drinks or uses?
- Is the relationship doomed?
- Is it fair to ask them to stop?
- How can I set healthy boundaries in recovery?
- Is it even possible to stay sober with a husband/wife/partner who drinks/uses?
The answer will be different depending on your personal needs, and the dynamic of your relationship. In some cases, such as having a partner who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the relationship may become too strained.
BUT in many situations, it really is possible to stick with sobriety, and still remain in a relationship with someone who is not sober.
Below, we’ll discuss some helpful strategies, including:
- Knowing your triggers
- Setting healthy boundaries in recovery
- Using clear communication, and
- Stepping into self-responsibility
And, if you’re looking for some extra motivation to help navigate the rough waters of early recovery, check out the post I did last week on awakening your “Bigger Yes” for some fuel to stoke your sobriety fire.
Knowing your triggers
Knowing and understanding your Triggers is one of the best tools you have when it comes to maintaining your sobriety.
This awareness is highly relevant when deciding how to navigate relationships in recovery.
If you aren’t super clear on your triggers, these questions can help get your wheels turning:
- Are there certain places that trigger your desire to drink or use?
- Are there certain situations that make you crave drugs/alcohol?
- Have you noticed yourself turning to drugs/alcohol to cope with certain emotions?
- Do you find yourself prone to drinking/use around certain people?
We can’t always control our external environment.
But becoming familiar with the places, people, and scenarios that trigger your desire to drink or use, and knowing which strategies work for you can make a big difference.
For example, if you find yourself overwhelmed in the presence of a loved one who’s drinking, can you take a walk and remove yourself from the situation?
The process of identifying your boundaries in recovery involves some experimentation, so remember to be patient with yourself (and the relationship) when you first start out.
For many people, they’re able to be around a partner who has a drink or two, but they don’t want to be around noticeable intoxication, because it activates that little “devil on their shoulder” that says:
“I miss that cloud 9 feeling.”
It’s also important to remember that your triggers in recovery will evolve - what feels like too much today, may feel manageable six months down the road.
- Are there certain triggers that feel manageable at this point in your journey?
- Are there certain triggers you know you aren’t ready to face yet?
If you feel overly sensitive at first, that’s OK. That’s often what prioritizing your sobriety feels like in early recovery!
This self-protective behavior ultimately leads to a much more expansive way of life in the long run.
Healthy boundaries in recovery
Once you know what feels safe for you, and what doesn’t, it’s important to be firm about your decisions, and let your partner know what you need.
For example, if having drugs or alcohol in the home is a trigger for you, ask your partner if you can agree to keep drugs and alcohol out of the house. And on a similar note, don’t feel guilty about saying “no” to social invitations that involve drinking or using if that makes you feel uncomfortable.
In general, no matter how someone else feels, you have the right to prioritize your recovery.
But this can be difficult, especially if you’re a people-pleaser.
As Laura McKowen discusses in her book “We are The Luckiest”, early sobriety truly is about birthing a new life. Just as an expectant mother puts up boundaries around her body and environment in pregnancy, you have to protect your new sober life.
These kinds of healthy boundaries in recovery are essential to maintaining sobriety while living and socializing with others who aren’t sober.
I often get asked by clients about what is fair to ask of a partner, and my answer is that it comes down to three interlaced components:
- Understanding your needs
- Asking your partner if they’re able to meet your needs, and
- Making the tough decisions that follow
While these steps look straightforward on paper, they’re usually pretty messy in real life, BUT clear communication makes the entire process a heck of a lot easier.
The reason communication is so important is because people can’t read our minds.
It’s our responsibility to get clear about what we want and need, and to communicate that to our partner in the best way we know how.
Whether you’re super excited about your new sobriety, or feeling uneasy about the change, it’s important to acknowledge that the change impacts your partner too.
Having a sober partner is a new experience for most people, and it can be confusing to navigate. So be sure to talk with your partner at the start of your recovery about why this change is important to you, and check-in regularly throughout the process about how you can support each other through the transition.
The goal is to encourage an honest two-way dialogue, so that the relationship can evolve alongside your sobriety.
Things you might ask your partner include:
- Do you have any interest in joining me in sobriety, or in cutting-back?
- How does this change make you feel about our relationship?
- Do you have new interests you’d like to explore together?
- Are you comfortable keeping drugs/alcohol out of the house?
- If you don’t feel motivated to join in sobriety, how often do you think you’ll drink/use?
- Do you feel comfortable limiting your drinking/using to times I’m not around?
Tough patches are inevitable.
When you feel your feathers start to ruffle, take a moment to breathe. And then try to express your feelings in a non-accusatory way:
- Avoid judging or blaming
- Use “I” statements to describe how you feel, and
- Give them room to process & respond after you’ve shared
It can take time for you both to adjust, but remember that the people who truly care about you should WANT to be supportive about your decision to make healthy changes.
Ultimately, if you find that your significant other is not respecting your choices and honoring your boundaries in recovery, it may be time to reevaluate the relationship. It could be a sign that they don’t care for you the way you’d like them to, or that they’re not capable of meeting your needs because they’re dealing with their own struggles.
Although it’s absolutely reasonable to ask for support, you can’t force someone to make a change they aren’t ready to make.
And trying to do so will lead to arguments, resentment, and stress – none of which are helpful to your recovery.
The truth is, it can be easy to get stuck pointing our fingers at things that everyone around us is doing to jeopardize our sobriety, but true power lies in owning our individual choice in the matter.
One powerful choice you have is whether to stay or go. There are times when it becomes clear that removing yourself from the relationship is the best option.
It can be heartbreaking to decide to temporarily separate or leave relationships in recovery, but oftentimes it’s a necessary step in a person’s healing journey.
Hashing it out with a professional
Whether it be a single session, or regular weekly meetings, recovery coaching serves as a safe place to unpack your worries and frustrations before tackling hard conversations with your partner.
I help my clients navigate relationships in recovery on a regular basis. It's a lot less scary when you have an experienced guide to help you sort things out.
I’m an accredited Addiction Recovery Coach offering worldwide virtual support. If you’re interested in exploring 1:1 recovery coaching to help you cut back your drinking or stop drinking entirely, I’m happy to answer your questions.
I offer a no-charge consult call to anyone who has questions about their own substance use, or the substance use of a family member. These calls are completely confidential with no pressure to make a decision before you feel entirely ready. All it takes is a desire to make positive changes and a commitment to being honest with oneself along the way.
I’d also like to invite you to read more about my personal story here.
If you’re ready to explore the potential of working together, I’d love to chat. Michael is based in Victoria British Columbia Canada. The other Recovery Coaches on the team are based in Nanaimo, Vancouver British Columbia Calgary, Edmonton Alberta, Toronto Ontario, Montreal Quebec, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Because we all work virtually — we can work with anyone no matter what city, province or country around the world. We have clients all across Canada and the USA, Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, New York City, Denver, Nashville, Berlin, Tel Aviv, London, Singapore and Australia.