Alcohol use disorder can put a strain on any long-term relationship. If your spouse has decided to stop drinking, you may be overjoyed. “But,” you may be wondering, “what should I expect as they begin the recovery process?”
Many spouses of heavy drinkers harbor the hope that, if their spouse would only quit, everything might return to normal. But while a renewed, healthy relationship is possible after addiction, the truth is that the process often takes time. The recovery journey will often involve a lot of personal work for both of you, and a lot of permanent change.
So, what is the best way to prepare for this process, support your partner, care for yourself, and honor your commitment going forward?
Below, we’ll discuss what to expect as your spouse readjusts to life without alcohol, common challenges, and how to support your sober partner.
Phases of Recovery
Alcohol abuse significantly impacts a person’s brain and body. When your partner quits drinking alcohol, they will likely go through phases such as acute withdrawal, and Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) as their system rebalances itself.
Acute Withdrawal (Detox)
Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to physical dependence, resulting in withdrawal, or detox, when alcohol leaves a person’s system.
Mild symptoms can begin within six hours of the last drink. These include:
- Shaky hands
- Anxiety or depression
- Irritability or agitation
- Mood swings
About five percent of people experience delirium tremens (DTs) during alcohol withdrawal. These severe symptoms usually occur 48-72 hours after the last drink, and include:
- Racing heart
- Heavy sweating
- High blood pressure
Severe withdrawal symptoms may require medical supervision. Those who don’t experience severe symptoms need a quiet, comfortable environment, plenty of fluids, nutritious food, and time.
Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
Once the initial withdrawal period has ended, your spouse may begin to show signs of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). The symptoms of PAWS are mostly psychological, and related to addiction and mental health. This syndrome can last for several months to a year, and often fluctuates in severity. Up to 75 percent of people in recovery from alcohol experience this issue to some degree.
PAWS can happen for several reasons. For one thing, many people use alcohol as a coping mechanism. In early sobriety, difficult mental and emotional issues may come to the surface, and need to be dealt with. Simultaneously, alcohol use can cause long-term changes in brain chemistry. The rebalancing of a person’s nervous system—including many neurotransmitters that regulate anxiety, stress, and depression—can take time.
Symptoms of PAWS include:
- Replacing alcohol with new coping mechanisms, such as food or internet use
- Poor impulse control and impatience
- Mood swings
- Decreased libido
- Difficulties with anxiety or depression
- Isolating from loved ones
- Extreme, constant fear of relapse
- Nostalgia for drinking days or resentment about recovery
- Fatigue and low energy
- Anger and negativity about recovery, which may be expressed toward loved ones
- Self-obsession in the form of either superiority or low self-esteem
- Ongoing sense of uneasiness or restlessness with life
- Feelings of jealousy toward people who do not struggle with addiction
Ongoing support from counselors or therapists can help reduce the symptoms of PAWS when your spouse stops drinking. Exercise, a nutritious diet, sleep, finding healthy hobbies, and participating in support groups are also beneficial. Finally, some medications for alcoholism may help the brain rebalance itself after quitting drinking.
Emotional Challenges in Recovery
When you’re living with someone who has an alcohol use disorder, it can often feel like their addiction comes first—even before your relationship.
Once your spouse stops drinking, maintaining their sobriety can become the new main priority, bringing its own challenges. Your newly sober partner may need to receive counseling, attend support groups, engage in healthy new hobbies, and spend time on self-reflection and growth. Of course, you can do many of these activities together, and share in the healing process. But it can be hard to continue to feel like the focus is on them, and their addiction.
Additionally, you and your spouse will need to recover from the trauma of alcohol use disorder. Your spouse may need to work through feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt—and any emotional or mental challenges that fueled the addiction. And for you, feelings of sadness, anger, and resentment won’t vanish overnight. You may also feel emotionally depleted from caring for them, which can make the process more difficult.
Healing from the Impact of Addiction on Your Relationship
Despite the emotional challenges of early recovery, healing is possible for you, your spouse, and your marriage as a whole. Here are some key things to keep in mind as you go through this long term process:
As your spouse focuses on sobriety and recovery, it’s important to attend to your own healing too. Seek the support of friends and family members, or discuss your feelings with a support group or a professional. Spend time on activities that you find rewarding and restorative, like yoga, journaling, walking, painting, or reading.
Remember that your physical, mental, and emotional health are all connected. By loving yourself first, you’ll find it easier to fall in love again as your spouse stops drinking. You’ll also have the strength to set healthy boundaries and more easily navigate the surprises and challenges of recovery.
This is an essential part of recovery for both you and your spouse. Understand that you’re both working through complex emotions, and that rebuilding your connection may take time. For many couples, it’s helpful to think of the relationship as new. In some ways, you’re getting to know each other all over again, and you’re building a new dynamic for your marriage.
Gradually work on communication and trust. Build new memories in the present by trying new hobbies or fun activities together, or even simply going on dinner dates. Try to talk and enjoy one another’s company without putting too much pressure on the relationship going “back to normal” after your spouse stops drinking.
Communicate in Writing
Of course, this doesn’t mean that either of you should repress or avoid the feelings that arise during addiction recovery. But repeating the same arguments and rehashing the same grievances can hinder the healing process for both of you. Consider keeping a journal, or even writing letters to each other.
A journal is a great way to work through and process your feelings. It also helps with reflection and self-awareness. If you feel the need to vent, but don’t want to dump your emotions on your spouse or start an argument, turn to your journal and write out whatever you’re feeling.
Writing letters to each other is also a helpful strategy. You don’t even need to share them with your spouse. But the simple act of writing down what you want to say without interruptions or argument, and being able to look at it again later, can help you clarify your feelings. This can improve your communication in person, and reduce your chances of saying something damaging in the heat of the moment.
Support Your Sober Partner
Along with self-care, it’s also important to have some clear ideas of how you can support your partner’s recovery. The following things can go a long way:
- Take time to learn about addiction as a disease
- Give them the space to focus on recovery
- Continue to practice patience
- Work on your own healing
- Come up with fun, substance-free activities the two of you can share
- Understand that some aspects of your lifestyle may need to change once your spouse stops drinking. (You may need to attend only alcohol-free events for a while, etc.)
Starting a New Chapter
Your spouse’s decision to change their drinking habits is certainly a cause for celebration. Recognizing the problem and deciding to address it is a huge first step, and takes a lot of courage. Understand that while recovery will be challenging for both of you, rebuilding a healthy relationship is very much possible.
Shift your focus from “returning to normal” to “starting a new chapter.” Give yourself and your partner time to heal, and don’t expect change to happen overnight. By practicing empathy, patience, and healthy communication, you can create a sober and healthy marriage.
If your partner is interested in cutting back or quitting alcohol, but hasn’t found the right treatment option, Ria Health may be able to help. Our online program offers evidence-based alcohol addiction treatment, including anti-craving medications, recovery coaching, and support groups.
Best of all, the whole thing is accessible through a smartphone app. Your spouse can get all the help they need from the comfort of home—without attending a treatment center.