Setting Boundaries in Sobriety

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Setting Boundaries in Sobriety

By Victor Yocco 10/04/18

Sobriety doesn’t come with a handbook. If it did, you’d have to be sober first to read it.

Image: 
Tensed man sitting while woman lying on bed at home
My relationship with Jill was one of the few things from my drinking days I wanted to save. At best, it was hanging by a thread. ID 94102255 © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

People with addiction issues are not used to setting boundaries, especially when those boundaries involve behaviors we have reinforced for years.

I spent years violating boundaries as a drunk. Particularly when it came to relationships. Piss me off and I’d become belligerent. Let me drink all night and I’d throw up on your carpet. Invite me to a party and I’ll embarrass you in front of your friends. Weddings? Absolutely! Sign me up as the drunkest attendee. For drunks, the people who let us violate their boundaries are the ones we come back to over and over again.

I chose to become sober and dry after drinking made my life unbearable. My fiancé Jill didn’t make that choice. She didn’t have to; she wasn’t experiencing the same struggle with alcohol abuse I was. Drinking was ruining my personal and professional relationships. I spent my days trying to make up for what I destroyed at night. She had a glass or two of wine when she felt like it and functioned fine the next day.

***

Sobriety doesn’t come with a handbook. If it did, you’d have to be sober first to read it. Perhaps I would have learned about being a decent sober person if I had gone to an in-house treatment program. I did my sobering up in the wild, so to speak. My changes, positive and negative, took place in front of everyone around me.

Jill and I were blindsided by boundary-setting issues early in my sobriety. Our relationship was one of the few things from my drinking days I wanted to save. At best, it was hanging by a thread. We agreed to stay together while I tried to get a firm grasp on sobriety. She gave me support and encouragement as I experienced little successes: one day sober, one week sober.

I appreciated Jill's support. We never discussed the specifics of what I’d need from her. I wouldn’t have known what to ask for anyway. I intended to go to AA every day for the first 90 days and I was seeing an individual counselor and going to a weekly all-male support group. I was bursting at the seams with support; I was exhausted from so much support.

Jill drank wine. Not my drink of choice. I was the typical Philadelphia-living, bearded, tattoo-covered, craft beer drinker. The higher the ABV the better. The more ounces the better. Wine? No thanks. I hadn’t asked Jill to stop drinking or to keep alcohol out of the house but she had naturally done so, initially. I assumed we had an unspoken agreement.

A couple weeks into my sobriety, we had plans to spend a relaxing afternoon and evening together. I was leaving work early to watch a Team USA World Cup soccer match, an event I would have typically used as an excuse to overconsume alcohol on a weekday. Just like football games, tennis matches, holidays, and days ending in a y.

However, my newly-sober-person plan consisted of spending time watching soccer and eating takeout Thai food with Jill.

Jill sent me a text asking if I would pick her up a bottle of wine on my way home from work. It was a reasonable request on the surface; she didn’t have a car, so it was easier for me to pick up the wine on my way home. Pennsylvania has interesting liquor laws: you can’t walk into any random gas station or grocery store and grab an alcoholic beverage; there are special stores for buying wine and spirits and separate bottle shops where you can purchase beer.

Jill’s request didn’t offend me at first. She knew I didn’t drink wine and she was supportive of my sobriety and told me she was proud of me. I knew her request for a bottle of wine meant we were likely going to have sex that evening. I had no issue with that – of course I could bring her a bottle of wine.

On the way home, I picked up the finest bottle of $10 red wine I could find. I guess we weren't going to watch soccer after all.

We had the kind of evening you can only have when you are in a relationship that’s starting to heal after a long period of damage. You know, sexual healing? Jill had a glass of wine or two over the course of the night. I found out later Team USA had won their game.

Everything was perfect.

Until it wasn’t.

There were a couple things I hadn’t told Jill about my trip to the wine store. First, I had broken out into a panic while I was in the store. I’m no stranger to anxiety attacks, but this one hit me hard.

Making matters worse, I chose to get her wine from a store directly across the street from the meetinghouse for the AA group I was attending. I felt like I was sneaking behind enemy lines as I came and went from the wine shop. I expected to see someone I knew from meetings standing outside smoking. I bent my head down and rushed back to my car.

To hell with them, I thought at the time. If someone sees me, I’ll tell the truth. I flashed back to the time my middle school friend told his parents the open beer he was holding was for a friend. Not a believable story then, still not a believable story as an adult.

No one from the group had seen me, but mentally the damage was done. I tend to ruminate on things until they drive me crazy and I spent the next few days stewing on what Jill had asked me to do. How rude. How disrespectful. Didn’t she understand my position? How absurd I should have to say that I don’t want to go into a wine shop as an alcoholic.

I decided I needed to tell Jill about my boundary issue when I picked her up from work that Friday. Every Friday I’d pick her up from the University of Pennsylvania campus where she worked, we’d get Indian takeout and go home to Netflix.

“You really screwed me over the other day,” I started the second she sat in the car.

“What are you talking about?” She asked.

“Why did you think it was OK to ask me to pick you up a bottle of wine?”

“You didn’t have to say yes. I could have gotten it myself.”

Our conversation spiraled into an argument.

“I don’t want that poison around me right now. What would I have done if someone from AA saw me?”

“I won’t ever ask you to pick me up wine again. That’s easy.”

“Oh, I’m beyond that,” I told her.

“Are you asking me not to keep alcohol at home? That’s easy too.”

“That’s the least you can do.”

“You can’t ask me never to drink. That’s too controlling for me. I’m a grownup.”

“Fine. I’d appreciate you not doing it around me for a while.”

We drove home without getting our food.

***

I told the story of the bottle of wine and our argument at my next men’s group meeting.

“I’d say I did a good job setting my boundaries,” I proudly told Counselor Gary and the group.

“You did a piss poor job setting boundaries,” Gary replied. “You willingly crossed your own unstated boundary. And then you got mad about it.”

“At least she knows now what I won’t stand for,” I shot back

“You don’t have a right to tell her what you won’t stand for. I’d say you have a lot of work to do on yourself before you get to that point. Especially with Jill.”

“Why should she get to drink still if I can’t? How will we get along?” I asked.

“You can remember she’s an adult and she can do what she wants. That includes choosing to stay with you. You should focus on that, and not nit-picking behaviors she has no idea rub you wrong.”

“I have boundaries, damn it!” I said.

“Right. That’s new for you. That’s new for the people around you. People can’t read your mind. You’re responsible for setting your boundaries. You’re responsible for maintaining them. Not Jill.” Gary shut me down.

I sat, arms crossed and unreceptive the rest of the session. Gary’s words stung. I was responsible for setting my boundaries? How could I do that? I drove home wondering how I could verbalize the things I was feeling.

***

I worked hard as my weeks of sobriety turned into months; hard at my work, hard at my relationships. Jill and I turned a corner. We found a way to work with each other and communicate our needs.

We set some basic boundaries, ones that would have made sense to a sober outsider. I would never be asked to handle alcohol in any way. No purchasing, no opening a bottle, no carrying a drink to her across the room. The tradeoff, although Jill didn’t ask for it, was that wine could exist in our house without upsetting me. She could have a glass of wine at a dinner out and I wouldn’t feel affronted.

Other boundaries were a little less perceptible. We had to negotiate the boundaries needed for a healthy relationship. I communicated my needs to Jill more often. She began to open up more to me about her needs. We found ourselves more in periods of harmony as we strengthened our bond.

Gary was instrumental on my end. He provided an unbiased view of my unacceptable behavior. He gave me feedback on how I could approach situations without sabotaging them. He coached me on identifying situations I wasn’t comfortable with, and how to better communicate them to my friends and family before things got out of hand.

Today, Jill and I are married with a three-year-old daughter. I recently passed the fourth anniversary of my sobriety. Parenting and being a husband are rewarding and challenging roles that require setting and respecting boundaries. It’s something I’ve gotten better at in my sobriety and something I’m thankful for the opportunity to continue improving.

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Victor is a researcher and author living near Philadelphia. He writes and speaks on topics related to UX research and design, and recovery. He has written for A List Apart, McSweeney's, Internet Tendency, Vox.com and many others. Find Victor at his website or on Twitter.

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