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I'm Newly Sober but My Partner Is Still Using

By Sarah Ratliff 11/13/16

Unfortunately, many people return from treatment to homes where drug and alcohol abuse are still very much in the picture, thanks to the substance issues of their partners.

I'm Newly Sober but My Partner Is Still Using
Should I stay or should I go?

In a perfect world, a recovering person fresh out of rehab would return to a 100 percent drug- and alcohol-free environment.  

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Unfortunately, many people return from treatment to homes where drug and alcohol abuse are still very much in the picture, thanks to the unaddressed substance issues of their spouses or romantic partners. 

If this is your reality, you may be scared to death about what the future holds and uncertain of what to do next. There are no easy answers to your fears and concerns, and you should beware of anyone who suggests there are.

High Stakes and Hard Choices

A relationship clouded by substance abuse is never completely healthy. This is especially true when both partners are using or drinking problematically. 

In a perfect world (there’s that phrase again!), each of you would get clean and sober at the same time and work to rebuild your connection afterward. But when you’ve gone through rehab and your companion has not and has no desire to stop using, you have no choice but to follow a different path. 

If you decide your future is too precious, your present too fragile and your past too scarred by painful memories, you might decide to call it quits and no one would blame you. In fact, that may be what many of your friends and family members would advise. 

”Why put your mental and physical health at risk,“ they might ask, ”by staying with a person who hasn’t evolved with you? Who helped enable the unhealthy behavior that led you into the abyss of substance abuse in the first place?”

These would be offered as rhetorical questions, but you might answer them anyway. You’ll recall the great times the two of you shared, before drugs and alcohol interfered. You may regret your previous role as your partner’s enabler and feel a responsibility to make amends. And you may believe strongly in your companion’s ability to eventually overcome his or her addiction. Or, if you have children, you may feel you owe it to them to keep trying to make the relationship work. 

Are these good enough reasons to remain in a dysfunctional home, given your struggles with drugs or alcohol?. You must think about and evaluate your situation carefully, to make sure you understand how a troubled relationship can undermine your commitment to sobriety. If you are in therapy or attending meetings, your clinician or peers will be able to give you an objective point of view.

But ultimately, the final choice is yours. It’s your life, your health and your recovery, and you have to decide what’s best for your future.

Sensible Strategies for Mutual Recovery 

If you’ve decided against giving up on your relationship despite your companion’s continued substance abuse, be prepared to face some daunting challenges. 

Here are some suggestions to help you increase your odds of success, both in your recovery and in your loving campaign to convince your partner to join you on the other side of chemical dependency. Note that these suggestions assume that your partner wants to stop using too. 

• Put your recovery first and your partner’s recovery second. Attend all your group meetings and therapy sessions, be diligent about your exercise, meditation and yoga routines, watch your diet and your sleep habits and make sure you have the personal time you need to relax, refocus and reflect. You won’t be able to help your partner at all if your recovery regimen fails.

• Insist that your partner establishes a timetable for their own recovery: The relationship has no chance of survival if your companion is unwilling to make an effort to change. There has to be a mutual commitment to recovery, even if the two of you are at different stages on your journeys to wellness.

Set boundaries and ground rules related to drinking/drug use in the house. Just because your partner is still using doesn’t mean they have to do it in front of you. If they insist on doing so, it means they don’t respect you and aren’t doing everything they can to support your healing. 

• Arrange “sober nights” or choose shared activities that leave no openings for drug or alcohol use. Give your partner glimpses of what a healthier life looks like. They’ll have a stronger incentive to change if they know you can still have fun together without drugs or alcohol. 

• Talk about what you’re doing and ask for feedback at your 12-Step, SMART, or other recovery meetings. Your peers and your sponsor will have valuable input to share, and many will have gone through (or will be going through) the same situation. 

• Form a mutual aid society and keep the lines of communication wide open. Let your partner know what kind of support you need as you work to stay clean and sober, and encourage them to speak openly and honestly about their needs as well.

• Embrace forgiveness like a long-lost friend. Try not to judge your partner or yourself. Addiction is a disease and not a sign of weakness or bad character, and dwelling on past mistakes won’t let either one of you find health or peace. Forgiveness isn’t always easy, but that doesn’t make the effort to forgive any less empowering.

• Remember that every addict is different and no one’s road to healing is exactly the same. Don’t expect your partner to think, act or respond the way you did when you finally accepted the truth about your substance abuse. Be open to different plans for progress.

• Don’t play therapist at home: You’ve undoubtedly gained valuable insights during your meetings, work with counselors, and addiction specialists. Nevertheless, you should leave treatment to the professionals. Offer love and support but encourage them to seek help from a true expert as soon as possible.

• Own your own enabling behavior and do your best to change it. Together you co-created an environment where mutual substance abuse flourished. In therapy you’ll learn to identify enabling behavior so you can eliminate it from your relationship.

• If you want your partner to change, you have to model a better way. Lecturing, preaching and guilt tripping won’t work. People change when they decide it’s time, and the best way to influence your substance-abusing partner is to model something better—a different way of living, loving, learning and growing. Eventually they will notice and be inspired.

• Broken promises are a bad sign, and there should be consequences. Missed appointments with therapists, failure to follow up on phone calls to rehab centers—these are the actions of a person who’s trying to humor you and isn’t serious about fighting their substance abuse. You shouldn’t accept any excuses for this type of behavior, or have any illusions about what it means.

• Don’t set ultimatums unless you really mean it. Your patience can’t be unlimited, and there may come a time when you have to take a firmer stand on your partner’s commitment to a drug- and alcohol-free future. But if you give them a deadline to seek help, you must be prepared to leave if they can’t or won’t honor it. 

• Consider a trial separation if staying isn’t having the desired effect. If, after a few days or a couple of weeks, your efforts to help are having no obvious effect, or if you feel your recovery is under strain and duress, it might be a good idea to leave temporarily to see if that makes a difference. 

• Never, under any circumstances, allow drug use or alcohol abuse to be used as an excuse for verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse. When you’re abused by someone who claims to love you, the only alternative is to leave immediately. 

• Even if your partner agrees to go to rehab, recognize that your relationship still needs help. Couples/marriage therapy should be a part of your shared aftercare regimen. A relationship that survives substance abuse may be strong and resilient, but that doesn’t mean no damage was done or that serious issues don’t exist that still need to be worked out. 

“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

Will you stay and fight for your relationship? Or leave to preserve and protect your newfound sobriety? 

This is one of the toughest decisions you’ll ever have to make, and it’s especially complicated if there are children involved. In the end, everyone will lose if your recovery fails, or if your partner is unable to find the courage to fight against the insidious addiction that threatens your family.

If your instincts tell you it’s time to say goodbye, and that your recovery won’t have a chance if you don’t, your final choice will be obvious. Painful, but still obvious. 

But if you do decide to give it one last try, to invest your emotional resources in trying to help a person you cherish escape from the prison of addiction, do so with no illusions. 

Give it some time, but do so with a sense of urgency, and make sure your partner understands that while you love them unconditionally, your support is conditional and requires a deep and sincere commitment to eventual sobriety. The two of you will not be able to rebuild your relationship—or your lives—unless drugs and alcohol are left behind for good.

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Sarah Ratliff is a corporate America escapee turned eco-organic farmer, writer and activist living in Puerto Rico. Much of her writing focuses on organic farming, addiction and mental health, racial equality, feminism and politics. For more about Sarah, please see her website: Sarah Ratliff or find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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