Last Updated on April 23, 2021
Long-term sobriety can be challenging—but it’s even more difficult when your spouse and loved ones continue to drink. Socializing with people who are drinking, having alcohol in the home, and even the smell of alcohol are common triggers for people in recovery.
So, what happens when you get sober and your spouse still drinks? Is the relationship doomed? Is sobriety when your spouse drinks even possible?
The answer will be different depending on your personal needs, and your own unique relationships. In some cases, such as having a partner who is addicted to alcohol, the strain may be too great. But in many situations, it really is possible to stick with sobriety, and still spend time with loved ones who drink.
Below, we’ll discuss some helpful strategies—including boundary setting, communication, and options other than total abstinence. And if your partner is wondering how best to support you in recovery, check out our recent article:
Understand Your Triggers
Knowing and understanding your triggers is one of the strongest tools for maintaining recovery. Which people, places, objects, or emotions trigger your desire to drink? Which ones are manageable at this point in your journey, and which ones do you need to avoid altogether?
We can’t always control our external environment. But knowing what strategies work for you in advance can make a big difference. For example, if you find yourself overwhelmed in the presence of loved ones who are drinking, can you take a walk and remove yourself from the situation? Can a regular mindfulness practice help you resist cravings when your partner drinks in the same room?
The better you know your triggers, the easier it will be to set necessary boundaries, develop effective backup plans, and identify situations you should keep away from.
Once you know what feels safe for you, and what doesn’t, it’s important to be firm about that, and let the people in your life know.
For example, if having your drink of choice in the house triggers you, you might ask your spouse if you can agree to keep that drink out of the house. Similarly, don’t feel guilty about saying “no” to social invitations that involve drinking if you feel uncomfortable, or leaving if things get too intense.
In general, no matter how someone else feels, you have the right to prioritize your recovery. This can be difficult, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to please others, or you are very social. But this kind of boundary setting is actually perfectly healthy, and essential to living and socializing with others who still drink.
On a similar note, it’s important to communicate openly and clearly with the others in your life about your decision not to drink.
Speak with your spouse at the start of recovery—and regularly throughout the process—about what you’re going through, what kind of support you need, and what they are experiencing on their end. If you still socialize with friends who consume alcohol, make sure they know you aren’t drinking anymore, and what they can do to have your back.
Remember that your loved ones might not know when their behavior makes you uncomfortable or upset. This is especially true in early sobriety. Rather than harboring resentment, express your feelings in an empathic and non-accusatory way. Avoid judging or blaming, use “I” statements to describe how you feel, and give them room to respond to you.
It can take time for everyone to adjust. But remember, also, that people who care about you should have no issue being helpful and understanding around the healthy changes you’re making in your life. If you find that your friends or significant other are not honoring your boundaries, respecting your choices, or supporting your recovery, it may be time to reevaluate those relationships.
Don’t Focus on Other’s Behavior
Although it’s absolutely reasonable to ask for support, it’s not reasonable to ask others to quit drinking. You can’t force someone to make a change they aren’t ready to make. Trying to do so will only lead to arguments, resentment, and stress, none of which are helpful to your recovery.
Unless the behavior of others around you directly harms you, try not to focus on it. Do not create extra stress or worry about things beyond your control. Focus on what you can do—like setting healthy boundaries, communicating your needs, and managing your triggers.
Other Helpful Strategies
On top of the above strategies, there are many things you can do to care for yourself in recovery—making staying sober when your spouse drinks that much easier. These include:
- Replacing unhealthy habits with healthy alternatives (e.g. journaling, swimming, biking, painting)
- Spending time with supportive friends and family members and/or support groups
- Exercising and eating nutritious meals
- Getting enough rest
In social situations involving alcohol, you can also try:
- Holding a cup of water, soda, or a mocktail to limit drink offers and occupy your hands
- Having a response ready for when people offer you a drink
- Bringing along an ally to help you stay on track, or having a friend you can call if things get difficult
Maintaining your physical and mental health makes it much easier to make healthy choices and live a positive life. And if you know you’re likely to be around people who drink, having a plan and a support system can make things less stressful.
Moderation as an Option
Another thing to consider if you have a partner or loved ones who still drink, is whether you’d prefer abstinence or moderation. For a long time, the only option offered to those addicted to alcohol was to quit completely. However, the past few decades have brought changes to alcohol treatment. It’s now possible for some people to relearn to drink moderately.
One advantage of this is that it lets you sidestep the stress of maintaining such a hard boundary—with such stark definitions of success and failure on either side. Anti-craving medications can help you limit your consumption, or cut back gradually. You may be able to have that “one beer” without triggering full relapse. This can diffuse the tension and allow you to maintain your recovery around people who still drink.
There are people for whom quitting completely is necessary, or simply feels like the best fit. But for others, total abstinence can feel impossible to achieve, resulting in hopelessness, discouragement, and feelings of inadequacy. This can be especially true if you’re surrounded by people who drink. If moderation is possible, and will allow you to live a healthier life with the people you love, it’s worth considering this option.
Prioritizing Your Recovery
It’s important to recognize that, no matter how hard you try, there may be some situations where your relationships make recovery impossible. This can be heartbreaking, and leave you facing difficult choices.
Having a robust support system, joining a program, and trying moderation can help you battle through this. But you may also need to consider whether it’s really possible to stay with your partner in this situation, or continue to socialize with some of your friends and relatives.
If your partner is addicted to alcohol, it’s best not to try to force them to quit if they aren’t ready. Doing so will only complicate your recovery. It’s a hard call to make, and up to the individual. But if your health and well-being depends on changing your drinking patterns, you’ll need to prioritize your recovery—even if this means leaving the relationship.
For this, and many other reasons, cutting back or quitting alcohol can be extremely challenging. The good news is, it’s easier than ever to access support for alcohol addiction. Online coaching can give you tools to navigate relationships with others who still drink, while prescription medications can help you pursue moderation, or control cravings if you quit completely. Finally, advances in telemedicine mean the whole thing fits in your pocket—through an app on your smartphone.
Learn more about how programs like Ria Health can help you change your drinking habits, without turning your life upside down. Get in touch with a member of our team today, with no obligation to join.