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Portrait of emotional young couple hugging each other tightly, boyfriend and girlfriend embracing sitting on couch, reconciliation after argument, love you so much, strong affection in relationships

You Are Sober and Your Partner Is Not: Can You Make It Work?

Portrait of emotional young couple hugging each other tightly, boyfriend and girlfriend embracing sitting on couch, reconciliation after argument, love you so much, strong affection in relationships

Many couples in recovery are celebrating their relationship around Valentine’s Day, but for couples in which one person is sober and the other person isn’t, it may be yet another moment where that difference becomes glaring. It’s an issue that will not go away, and if a couple is going to survive, it is something they have to revisit periodically.

Is your partner a drinker or drug user while you’re trying to stay sober?

Scenario: Dinner

Let’s say you reserved a table at an upscale restaurant on Valentine’s Day, the kind of place where wines are paired with meals on the menu or a sommelier is on staff to come and speak to you about choosing the right vintage for each course. You, of course, can decline and turn your attention to the food. Can your partner do the same?

Some couples have an agreement where a single glass of wine with dinner is not a big deal. But what is the agreement if that one glass turns into two or three? How will it be handled if that drink is traded for a joint? What if your partner feels compelled to lie about how much they have had to drink in order to avoid “breaking the rules”? How do you respond if your partner is tipsy or drunk, and how often do you have to handle that situation?

Scenario: Friends Who Use

If your partner is a drinker, it is likely that their friends are drinkers as well. In the situation in which you are out with your partner and their friends, how is it handled if they are sharing a pitcher of margaritas? Drinking over dinner? Heading out to the bar? Drinking beers while watching the game at your house? How do you feel at those times, and how does your partner feel?

Scenario: Prescription Drug Use

For the treatment of pain after an accident or surgery, prescription painkillers are very often the norm. While you will have to discuss your past addiction history with your prescribing physician and make a plan to either circumvent or significantly minimize your use of any addictive painkillers, your partner may not have the same compunction. As a result, you may end up with heavy painkillers staring you in the face when you open the bathroom cabinet in the morning. If your partner is treated for chronic pain, this will be an ongoing issue. Have you discussed how you will handle this scenario in order to minimize your exposure to the temptation to relapse?

Making It Work

When you are in recovery and your partner is not, communication is everything. As your connection deepens and grows, and especially at every stage of “taking it to the next level,” you will need to discuss how you both feel about your continued sobriety and their respect and support of your growth in recovery. It is just as important as talking about money, children, religion, and goals. Even if you have come to an agreement in the past, it is a good idea to reconnect on the issue repeatedly to make sure that your recovery is prioritized and both people feel respected. Here are a few tips to help you in that process:

  • Create personal boundaries. If you do not like it when your partner drinks around you, you need to say so. Do not feel you have to say that you are fine with things that are not working for you, and the same goes for your partner. Both of you must strive for honesty, even if it means taking a second look at whether or not the relationship is going to work long-term.
  • Maintain those boundaries. It may feel easy in a romantic moment to agree with everything your partner says about how best to handle your recovery and their continued use of substances, but in the moment, if it turns out that you really are not okay with how things are being handled, it is important to speak up before it becomes a trigger for relapse.
  • Hold onto your sober friendships. It is easy to lose perspective when you are in a relationship. What is normal and what is okay can feel subjective when you are inside it. Continue to hang out with and spend time with your people in your sober community. You will need their support no matter how things unfold in your relationship.
  • Know that nothing is more important than your recovery. Continue to go to therapy. Continue to attend 12-Step meetings. Continue to volunteer. Continue to see any needed mental health treatment professionals and take medication as prescribed. No matter how great your relationship makes you feel, it is your continued engagement with your sobriety that will truly keep you going for the long-term.

How are you making things work with your non-sober partner?