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The Pleasures (and Perils) of Sober Relationships

Why it's often hard to maintain solid relationships when you're struggling with sobriety.

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Romancing the Stoned? Thinkstock

By Kristen McGuiness

02/09/12

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There’s an old joke in recovery circles that goes: how do you know when a date between two sober alcoholics has gone well? Punch line: They move in together before it's over. But not all sober relationships are of the shotgun nature; for many who find love on the AA campus, sober relationships can mirror the rest of world—meaning they’re hard, scary, and (usually) worth the effort.

Bryan is a recovered insurance agent from Houston who, at 42, is 10 years sober and recently married to a woman he met in AA. For him, romance and recovery can be a highly successful combination—if done right. “I think it’s much easier dating a fellow alcoholic,” he says. “First of all, we share a similar lifestyle. There is nothing worse than having to ask someone to brush their teeth before you kiss them because they’ve been drinking. And second, it’s much easier to date someone who speaks the same language.”

Bryan thinks about it for a second before adding, “Some will say it’s two mentally ill people going out with each other, but I think many of us that are sober can work through our disease in order to have a healthy relationship.” 

According to Melody Anderson, a family and addiction expert in Los Angeles, if both parties are working a solid program of recovery, they can have even better chances than non-alcoholics of a successful partnership. “All relationships are difficult—that’s just a fact,” she says. “But if the sober couple uses the tools of the 12 steps and applies them to their relationship, they can find themselves in a better partnership than most. Though they might have a higher sensitivity to critical comments, they also have access to tools that can help them to be both loving and kind and honest. It can be fantastic.” 

"I just have to remind myself that I am not the Grand Designer of this world; if I was, I would stop famine in Africa, end all war, and make my boyfriend hang up his clothes every night."

While Bryan admits it hasn’t always been easy, he now believes that when both people are in the program, “they’re more willing to work on themselves. They also usually have friends and sponsors and people they can get support from—a lot of whom are also in successful sober relationships.”

But what happens when only one person in a relationship is working a program of recovery and the other one is not? Ryan, a 32-year-old post-production editor in Hollywood with long brown hair and piercings, is seven years sober but over the years has found that meetings “aren’t critical to my sobriety.” He still has a strong support group around him and tries to practice the principles that he learned in AA, even if he doesn’t agree with all of them. He has been with his fiancé Jill for three years, and admits that “the hardest part is being with somebody who thinks they know what I should be doing and who analyzes what I am doing: she can have her program and it may not be my program and I can have mine—or lack thereof—and it might not be hers.”

For Jill though, standing on the sidelines is tricky. A graphic designer with 11 years of sobriety and a Bettie Page look, she struggles with what she calls her “Alanon issues.” “It’s hard,” she says, “because I feel like I know what he’s supposed to be doing and that’s when I find myself analyzing whether he’s doing it or not.” 

Dr. Deborah Sweet is a psychologist who treats addiction and trauma. She is also 23 years sober and married to a fellow sober alcoholic. As she explains, “The biggest challenge in sober relationships is allowing the person to work their own program and not trying to control what they do even when we think we know what’s in their best interest. When I want to suggest that my husband calls his sponsor, I have to remember that he has his own program. There is nothing wrong with making a suggestion but I have to practice letting go.”

Jill wishes she could. But she struggles with the fact that “alcoholics can be stubborn and we always think we what’s right.” Yet she also admits that underneath her desire to control is a fear that Ryan may relapse. “I try my best to live one day at a time—you never know what tomorrow will bring,” she says. “To me, keeping my program and my partner’s program separate is the most important thing.”

Relapse is, of course, an all too real concern. “If both people are in recovery, there is always the possibility that a partner could relapse,” says Dr. Sweet. “Each couple needs to decide how they’re going to handle that. I know some couples for whom relapse is a deal breaker. That’s it. For a long-term relationship in the program, you’re probably going to see the best success when one or both partners have at least five years sober and when they both have a sponsor, a network of friends in recovery, and have worked the 12 steps. Ultimately, it’s all about narrowing the odds.” While she adds that “two people with 30 days sober might make it, chances are, they will need more time and to have gone through the program to find a healthy relationship.”

Anderson agrees, explaining, “There is always the timing element. I continue to see people with less than one year who don’t even have one step under their belt try to get into a relationship. And basically, it’s a disaster. ” 

For those with time however, relationships can still be daunting. Priscilla is a 29-year old nurse from Bridgeport, Connecticut with five years of sobriety who has been with her current boyfriend, who is also a recovered alcoholic, for less than two years. “I love my boyfriend but when it comes to restraint of pen and tongue, it’s so hard for me not to want to tell him everything that’s on my mind—good and bad,” she confesses. “I just get so worked up about things and then it comes out at him. I end up feeling—and looking—crazy and that’s not who I am.”

Melody Anderson admits that one of the challenges in sobriety is walking that line between honesty and cruelty. “In sobriety, we can talk to someone else before we vent our anger at our loved one and we can bring in a spiritual power that we can turn to for guidance,” she suggests. “Essentially, we can bring in our support systems—whether it’s spiritual or someone we trust in recovery. The issue is to put a pause between the frustration and anger before going to the person [we’re angry at]. We have to think the comment through all the way to its consequences, just as we would play the tape on having a drink or taking a drug.”

According to a Hazelden article on relationships in recovery, there are some solid steps that sober alcoholics can take to have better partnerships: “Get on the same ship by sitting down and having a conversation about your vision for your relationship. Write it out in present tense (e.g.. We meditate for 10 minutes each day. We treat each other with respect. We attend meetings together.). Post it somewhere easily viewed each day. Then commit to steering your ship together.”

Despite his fiancé’s fears, Ryan feels that the principles he has taken away from his time in Alcoholics Anonymous are what help him to have a healthy relationship. “I try to practice willingness, honesty and open mindedness,” he says. “I don’t need to be in a meeting or to talk to another alcoholic for that. I still call my friends from the program—even if it’s just to bitch and complain.”

“If each person is working their own program, whatever that means for them, a lot of things can go more easily,” says Dr. Sweet. “There’s more opportunity for balance—with money, with how they spend their time. One of the biggest benefits of being in a relationship with another recovering alcoholic is that they can find support within their fellowship groups or by turning to a Higher Power. They can then take the pressure off that they don’t have to be the one another’s everything.” 

Priscilla has learned that ultimately, the most important element of her relationship is faith. “The minute I start trying to control things is the minute that it stops working,” she says. “I just have to remind myself that I am not the Grand Designer of this world; if I was, I would stop famine in Africa, end all war, and make my boyfriend hang up his clothes every night. And as long as I know that in my heart I am with the right person, I need to have faith that the small stuff is just that—small stuff.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about old timers in AA and sober travel, among other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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