Ask Katie: My New Girlfriend Doesn't Get Why I "Can't Just Have One"

Ask Katie: My New Girlfriend Doesn't Get Why I "Can't Just Have One"

By Katie MacBride 09/05/16

New advice columnist Katie MacBride on how to reveal your drinking history to a new partner. 

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Help! My New Girlfriend Doesn't Get Why I "Can't Just Have One"
Does she need to know?

I'm 18 months sober, a process that has been incredibly difficult but also incredibly rewarding. I'm in a new relationship, and the woman is great, but she doesn't get it. She sees me as a responsible, controlled person, and wants to know why I can't have "just one drink." I don’t know that I want to go into my whole drinking history with her, but I also want her to understand that I’m not doing the sobriety thing casually. How much information should I divulge? 

Congratulations on 18 months! You’re encountering a struggle that all recovering addicts face at some point (though that makes it no less challenging): how can someone I care about, who isn’t an addict, understand what addiction is like for me? How do I explain the inexplicable separation between the responsible, controlled person I am sober, and the distinctly uncontrolled booze monster I become when I drink?

This can be especially difficult when it’s a new romantic relationship. When we first start dating someone, it’s natural to want to show off our shiniest, best selves—something that usually doesn’t include reciting a laundry list of our worst moments. If someone seems skeptical about the importance of our sobriety, though, it might be tempting to give them the list. What could serve as a more convincing example of why we shouldn’t drink? It’s not an ideal situation: either show off your most charming self, ignoring an important part of your life, or unveil the skeletons in your closet and risk her running away. Fortunately, those aren’t the only two scenarios. 

When you say this woman “doesn’t get it,” what do you mean? That she’s never been close to an addict before, so she doesn’t understand how there’s no such thing as “just one drink?” Or does she believe that having “just one” is a matter of willpower and that anyone should be able to do it? 

If it’s the former—that she simply doesn’t understand how addiction works and is genuinely curious as to why you can’t have “just one drink”—you can explain as much or as little as you’re comfortable with. We don’t necessarily have to be community educators about addiction, but we often find ourselves in the role, simply by forming relationships with new people and being honest about ourselves. Whatever analogies you make to try to explain why you can’t have just one—be it an allergy or a switch that flips in your brain after the first drink—is up to you. While she may not totally understand it, she will have to accept the fact that, for you, “just one drink” isn’t an option. 

If she accepts that, she may or may not be interested in learning more about addiction. That’s her decision. Some people aren’t particularly interested in how addiction works, and that’s fine. If you started dating someone who was diabetic, you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to explain how insulin shots work or how their pancreas functions. You would only need to understand and accept that your new partner has certain dietary restrictions and medical needs. As addicts, we are used to functioning in an all-or-nothing binary: divulging everything about ourselves or nothing at all, and it’s all too easy to forget the middle ground. 

If this woman expresses an interest in trying to understand what it’s like to be an active addict, literature can be an amazing resource. Give her a copy of Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, Augusten Burroughs’ Dry, or another addiction memoir you read and relate to. Let someone else tell her the story of their addiction so that you don’t have to get into your own dirty details if you don’t want to. As the relationship continues, your stories may well come out at some point—but for now, it might be easier to offer her someone else’s experience. 

If she’s the latter of the two types, all's not lost, but you do face more challenges. If she believes that anyone should be able to have just one drink, can she accept your choice to abstain regardless? Can you accept her belief that you have willpower you’re choosing to not exercise? Maybe. And if it’s very early in the relationship, there still might be an opportunity for her to learn about addiction and for her opinion to evolve. 

The bottom line is this: she doesn’t have to understand why you can’t have just one drink, but she does need to respect it. It’s a choice you made that has improved your life. That should be reason enough for anyone who has your best interest at heart. If challenging your decision to stay sober is more important to her than respecting that decision, this may not be the woman for you. At that point, the conflict isn’t about addiction—it’s about trust and respect. You’re right, sobriety is a difficult and rewarding journey. Surround yourself with people who support you on this path.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. If you have any general advice questions email her at [email protected] with Ask Katie in the subject.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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