Getting Sober Together
How to Find Sobriety as a Couple: Both People Want It—How Do They Get It and Make It Stick?
A guy I once sponsored (I’ll call him “Zach”) reached out to me via a local AA Intergroup outreach. At the time, I was taking new sponsees left and right because I needed the constant influx of support I received in my own recovery in helping others find their way.
Zach was a different case though—for one, he was significantly younger than many of the other guys I was helping. The 24-year-old journeyman boilermaker was in a serious relationship. (I’ll call her “Alexis”.) The couple had been dating for nearly two years when I first met Zach.
Freshly out of treatment for a serious opioid addiction (heroin) and alcoholism, Zach let it slip one of the major issues putting him at risk for another relapse was his relationship.
“It’s Alexis. She’s still using; I just know it,” he said.
“How do you know it?” I asked.
“It’s f$*@-ing obvious. Track marks. Nodding.”
At the time when Zach and I connected, he had been clean and sober for about two months. He was regularly attending NA meetings and was living in a sober house in the city. His commitment to Alexis was palpable, if for only the reason that he spent the majority of his free time with her. Zach was fortunate in that he still had his job, which kept him busy during working hours. The remainder of his time he spent either at the sober house and in meetings, or he was hanging with Alexis.
I tried to stress that Zach had to focus on his own recovery first. That he needed to be “selfish” in the sense that, if he didn’t work on staying clean, his relationship would only suffer, and his own sobriety would continue to hang in jeopardy. He agreed with me, and I could see that he really wanted a new life, but he still tried to manage Alexis’ own struggles along with his own.
It didn’t work.
I only spent a little over three weeks trying to help Zach. Then, he fell off the map. Last I heard, he and Alexis had left the area together. Zach was no longer sober. Beyond that, I don’t know what happened to either of them.
Although I’ve only had the opportunity personally to help one other guy who was in a relationship with another person trying to get sober, Zach’s case makes it abundantly clear that when you mix one recovery with another, it’s like shaking a vial of nitroglycerine: it’s bound to explode.
It begs the question though: are there principles you can look to if you’re trying to get sober while your partner is as well? Does it ever work? And what pitfalls should you look out for? Here is a simple list of the most important essentials for laying a foundation to find recovery while you’re in a relationship.
1. Your Commitment to Sobriety Comes First
I met Alexis only once. She was only a little younger than Zach. She shook my hand politely and honestly seemed committed to her relationship with Zach. You could tell the two loved each other deeply. But that very love is what I believe caused Zach’s additional obstacle to staying sober himself—he didn’t want to give up Alexis.
And, unfortunately, Alexis didn’t want to give up her drugs.
You can easily see the problem, right? In some ways, Alexis was having an affair on the side. The love she had for Zach was split with the love she had for heroin and meth. Something had to give. Eventually it did with Zach’s subsequent relapse.
So the first thing you need to do for yourself is realize that your commitment to sobriety has to be #1 in your life. If it’s not, everything else will just fall by the wayside—that includes your relationship. There’s no way around it. If that means giving up your relationship for the sake of your recovery, then so be it. Your health needs to come first.
2. Things Outside Your Control? Nearly Everything!
This point should be “well-duh,” but it’s amazing how we delude ourselves into thinking that we can change another person’s behavior. The stark reality is that there is very little in this world that’s in your control.
Human beings don’t like feeling out of control. Interestingly, I believe that’s one of the reasons behind why we got into using drugs or alcohol in the first place. A pill, a joint, or a drink, well . . . they’re like magic. You take something external and you put it inside of you, and POW—everything is all tickly and fun. The illusion of control is what made us gravitate toward chemicals. The unfortunate reality is that our drug-of-choice quits working the way we want it to. So we use more. That’s addiction.
How this translates to your relationship is that your recovery is your own, but so is your partner’s. The sooner both of you learn to let go, the easier you’ll find living with each other becomes. It’s counterintuitive—letting go to find real control and sustainable management. But it works.
3. Getting on the Same Page
I won’t mince words—your chances aren’t good.
According to SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration) “Relationships Matter!” webinar program, a “series on women’s behavioral health that explores the role of relationships in the lives of women experiencing mental health and substance use issues,” women in a relationship with a partner who continues to abuse drugs or alcohol have nearly twice the rate of relapse than single women (source).
The fact of the matter is recovery on its own is difficult enough. When you throw in a boyfriend, girlfriend or fiancé who’s using into the mix, trying to manage everything is bound to spell disaster.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. People in relationships where both partners are actively working it will discover that there are potential advantages for two people in recovery.
For one, you know how low you can go, because you’ve both been there. Secondly, you “speak the same language” of recovery, no matter what treatment modality you’ve chosen for yourselves. Whether you elect to try medically-assisted treatment, or simply take advantage of a straightforward assessment together, it means that you’re beginning to get on the same page.
A relationship is all about the give-and-take. If one partner is taking more than they’re giving, it’s not going to work. However, if both people are truly committed to their sobriety, you might just discover that the connection between you will grow stronger, not weaker.
So, there’s always hope!