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What Happens When You Get Sober, But Your Partner Doesn’t?

If you've quit, can you stay with a partner who isn't ready to get sober?It takes two to tango, but you can’t make your partner recover with you.

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If you’re in recovery, can you stay with a partner who isn’t ready to get sober?

When one spouse drinks, but the other doesn’t

In an ideal world, everyone around you would be supportive of your plans to quit or moderate your drinking or drug use. They would encourage you, help you, and be happy to enter recovery right along with you. Imagine how helpful it would be if drugs and alcohol would just disappear from this world once you decided to quit!

But we don’t live in an ideal world, we live in reality. And in reality, you’ve probably been hanging out with people who used drugs or drank like you did. And just because you’ve decided to make a change, doesn’t mean they will. This can be hard to navigate. It’s even harder when the person who is still drinking or using is your significant other. The saying goes that it takes two to tango, but you can’t make your partner recover with you. If you’ve gotten into recovery but your significant other isn’t ready to quit, setting healthy boundaries and communicating clearly will be key to successfully staying sober.

I had a relationship that hurt my sobriety

I was with a guy on and off for much of my young adult life. We got into a lot of trouble together. When I came home from rehab, he had moved out of his own apartment and was now living in my apartment since he didn’t have a home of his own. And was growing weed in my apartment (and smoking it every night).

He didn’t support my recovery program and got jealous of my new friends. Despite my best intentions to stay sober, I began smoking weed with him in the evenings, and eventually went back to my hard-partying ways. (I didn’t even like weed!)

It isn’t easy to cut people out of your life, but I would not have been able to achieve long-term recovery if I were still with that guy. If you’re newly sober and people surrounding you are heavily involved in unhealthy behaviors, you do need to consider how maintaining a relationship with them in sobriety will (or won’t) serve you.

My story isn’t unique or even especially rare. Often when we’re using substances in an unhealthy way, we have unhealthy boundaries. Building healthy relationships in recovery takes time.

Understanding triggers: A crucial key to early sobriety

Triggers are internal feelings or emotions, or external people, places, or things that cause cravings for drugs or alcohol. I still have songs that remind me of dancing all night, high on drugs. If I glance at an ad for a drink presented in a certain way, it will look good to me. For just a second. Those songs and alcohol ads are triggers. There are a lot of everyday things can either trigger cravings or remind me of using in a way that makes me irritable and annoyed. It’s important to get to know your triggers, and also know that you might not yet understand everything that triggers you.

Once you identify a trigger, you can set boundaries around it. For some folks, having alcohol in their house is triggering or just uncomfortable. Those people may set a boundary that they won’t have alcohol or drinking in their home. For one person I know, their conflict pattern with their girlfriend had been: fight, storm off, apologize by sharing drugs. They had to set boundaries around what kinds of behaviors would make them feel safe when they were arguing and making up.

Identify your triggers so you can be smart, set healthy boundaries, and set yourself up for success. To get to know more about your external triggers, like the people around you, check out this Workit Health course, unlocked from the Workit program just for you: Homies, Haunts, and Habits.

Clear communication: Ask your partner for what you need

In early sobriety, it can be hard to know exactly what you need from other people. Why? Because it’s hard to know what you need from anyone, even yourself. This is why dating is often discouraged if you’ve just gotten into recovery. It takes time to figure out who you are and what you need without chasing a constant buzz.

But what if you’re already in a relationship? The best thing to do is communicate honestly about what you need, with no expectations for them to change their behavior. Don’t stew in silent resentment while your partner drinks or gets high as usual, unsure if you should speak up. They might have no idea it’s affecting you or making you uncomfortable. To them, it’s business as usual. So talk to them (when they’re not under the influence) about what you’re feeling. Use “I” statements, and avoid judgy, blaming language.

Set clear boundaries. Boundaries are the lines you draw around your time, money, personal space, sex, interactions, etc. to protect your well-being. They could be things like, “I can’t have drugs in my car,” or “I’m willing to kiss you only if you haven’t been drinking,” or “I need you to respect my recovery group meetings and know that I won’t attend anything that conflicts with that time slot.” Boundaries are personal, so you will have to decide for yourself what yours are, based on your own triggers and your relationship. Once you set those boundaries, stick to them—boundaries have to be maintained.

Questions to consider: How is your relationship with your partner now that you’re in recovery?

  • Are you able to connect with your partner now that you’re in recovery? Or did you need the effect of alcohol or drugs to feel butterflies?
  • Is your partner putting you at physical risk, or participating in any sort of criminal activity? If so, this directly affects your ability to stay safe, happy, and healthy.
  • Do you and your partner have fun doing things together other than drinking or doing drugs?
  • Are you able to communicate with each other sober?
  • Could either of you be struggling with other mental health issues? Many people who struggle with addiction also struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health struggles.

Mull over these questions. There are no right or wrong answers. If you need a second opinion, talk to a trusted coach, counselor, sponsor, friend, or family member (not the partner in question). You can go to a 12-step meeting or a recovery group and share about the situation. People have been there and will be able to relate.

Solution strategies: Ways to cope with a partner who is still drinking or using after you’ve quit

  • Clearly communicate the support you need from them.
  • Set boundaries of what you are able to be around. If those boundaries aren’t honored, leave the situation.
  • You can ask them to quit or slow down, but remember you have no control over another person’s behavior. Don’t expect them to change because you have.
  • Consider seeking further support for yourself around their addiction. Having a loved one struggling with addiction is hard. You could try Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or one of the other support options for friends and families of people with substance use disorders listed here. You can also message your care team in the Workit Health app to request Workit Health courses around family.
  • If things aren’t working, be willing to break it off. Sometimes, you outgrow relationships in recovery. Moving on doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Maintaining a romantic relationship can be challenging even without the pressures of substance use disorder and recovery. Whether you can and will stay with a partner who still drinks or uses is up to you. I can’t make that decision for you. I’ve known people (with partners who respected their recovery) who have managed it. I’ve also known people who have realized it would not work for them. I can only urge you to prioritize your own safety, health, and happiness, whatever you choose.

Kali Lux is a consumer marketing leader with a focus on healthcare and wellness. She has over a decade of experience in building and operating metrics-driven brand, demand generation, and customer experience teams. A founding member of Workit Health’s team and a person in recovery herself, she’s passionate about fighting stigma and developing strategies that allow more people access to quality treatment at the moment they’re ready for help.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. Workit Health, Inc. and its affiliated professional entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.

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