What Happens When Your Partner Quits Drinking?

By Dorri Olds 04/05/17

“Without the usual crutch of alcohol or drugs to lean on, loved ones may find their partner irritable, difficult to talk to, sad, anxious, or frustrated without any obvious explanation.”

Couples sit on a bed, back to back, expressions grim.
Once somebody gets sober we want everything to be beautiful forever after but life just doesn’t work that way.

People with addiction tend to be oblivious to how their behavior affects loved ones. Putting down the drugs or alcohol is the first step but it is not a relationship cure-all. Romantic partners can be unprepared for the difficulties they will encounter after their loved one no longer uses a substance.

Lois Wilson, the long-suffering wife of AA’s cofounder, Bill Wilson, said that after he quit drinking—something she had always hoped for—she became disgruntled. She had dreamed of the time he would finally get himself together but now that he was sober, she became bitterly discontented. “It seemed I saw nothing of the man I had tried to help,” Lois said. He was always with his AA cronies who helped him to resist alcohol. “I guess I was jealous,” Lois admitted, “and resentful that these strangers had done for him what I could not do.”

Relationship expert and author, Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, told The Fix, “Many spouses I’ve worked with have had a lot of resentment once their partner got clean—resentment they hadn’t allowed themselves the luxury of feeling before, in the ‘fight’ to get their partner sober. Spouses of recovering addicts also feel a lot of distrust and fear. They want to know their partner’s every move, to be sure he or she is not relapsing.”

Next, I reached out to addiction and recovery expert Al J. Mooney, M.D., co-author of The Recovery Book. “Early recovery must be a selfish effort but family members, especially spouses, who suffered so much during active addiction, are often confused when the self-centeredness of the recovering addict continues. Recovery meets the most success when addict and spouse work on their own personal care as the top priority so the relationship can rebuild eventually with two healthy individuals.”

Dr. Mooney explained a common misconception, “A spouse can have an erroneous idea that once he’s sober, everything will be fine. But it can be two to three years before an individual’s recovery is really to the point where there is enough growth for relationships to be healthy. That is very confusing for families, especially those that haven’t received any orientation as to how you need to have two healthy individuals before you can have a healthy relationship. Families can be so good at codependency that they dream about the day their partner gets sober, when life is going to be great. They don’t realize how sick they have gotten by sticking with an alcoholic through the turmoil.”

Mooney’s words rang true when I spoke with with Mary* (a pseudonym). “My boyfriend came from a very conservative, religious family. When we first got together, he was extremely charming. He said he didn’t agree with his evangelical background. He was addicted to different substances. He said his parents thought drinking was a sin. He couldn’t stop drinking, so his denial rejected the religion. But when he wasn’t drinking, he became manipulative and emotionally abusive. By the time I could see that, it had already affected the way I saw myself. He began quoting bible passages at me. He began to object to me hanging out with my friends. It happened so gradually, I couldn’t see that what was happening was abnormal. In hindsight, there were plenty of times where I should’ve said, ‘I don’t have to put up with this.’ But I have a tendency to try to save baby birds. I suggested he try AA, counseling, rehab, a retreat. But he would recite bible verses at me.”

So, why did Mary stay so long? “I had invested so much time in our relationship. I always try to give people room for their beliefs. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. His dedication to God made it seem like he was trying to better himself. I didn’t realize how warped it was, how controlling and cult-like his family and their religion was.”

How did she extricate herself? “I think the only reason I got out of that relationship was that I got very sick. I was so sick that school was considering suspending my degree because they didn’t think I’d be able to finish my course work. I went to live with my nearby aunt and uncle. Thankfully, after six weeks of bed rest, I was able to get back to school and do my dissertation. Having that space away from my boyfriend, and being tended to by loving family and close friends, changed me. Nobody knew what my relationship had been like, but I could see the difference after being treated so well. It wasn’t a clean break but the distance helped. I finally saw that he had two problems: alcohol and religion. I had kept so much hidden but now my current boyfriend knows everything that happened. I’m in a much better place.”

Mooney talked about chapter 26 in The Recovery Book, “We describe how important it is to give the newly sober person some breathing room. Everybody likes a quick fix—once somebody gets sober we want everything to be beautiful forever after but life just doesn’t work that way. Many couples don’t manage to stay together. When a sick alcoholic has an unmanageable life, the spouse often takes total control of the home, kids, the wallet, everything. So, often times when somebody returns to health after active addiction, their spouse is very uncomfortable when all of a sudden, they’re expected to give up the checkbook, give up control of the kids. The self-reliance the spouse had developed to deal with the alcoholic, is threatened and that can be very uncomfortable. It’s easy to point your finger at somebody but it is a family illness. All these factors play into the difficulty of building a healthy relationship after sobriety.”

What if the addict doesn’t get sober in a recovery program or with some kind of therapeutic help? Mooney said, “That’s what we call a ‘dry drunk’ or ‘white knuckle sobriety.’ Remember, the disease of addiction is more than just the drinking and taking drugs. The disease is what lies underneath, what drives them to use. When somebody just stops drinking or doing drugs, it’s like if you and I just stop breathing. For a few seconds, it’s fine but after a minute or two, life gets really, really hard. You get anxious, restless, because if you’re an alcoholic your body needs the alcohol, unless there is recovery that replaces what the alcohol had been trying to treat. Without treatment, people become control freaks, they become angry, resentful, they have a short fuse. Lots of pathology comes along with just sobriety without recovery. There are plenty of people who go to treatment and hear about recovery but never implement it into their lives.”

This white knuckling was illustrated when I spoke with Susan* (a pseudonym). She never had a problem with drinking. “If I’m out with people and they’re having drinks I’m usually the driver. My ex-boyfriend is a recovering alcoholic but he’s certainly not a recovering asshole. [Laughs] We met through friends. He’s really funny and we’re both big nerds and we made the same references to things. We seemed to have a lot in common. If you’re not in a relationship with him, he’s one of the most fun people to hang out with.”

The first time he went to rehab it didn’t take. The second time it did. But, Susan said, “He only went to a men’s group meeting on Tuesday nights. His job seemed to take the place of alcohol. He works for a radio station as an on-air personality. He’s the news, weather, and traffic guy. He began putting all of his energy into that. He was working so much, he stopped going to his men’s meetings.”

Did he have a sponsor? “Yes, and I guess he talked to him but I never knew if he did or didn’t. Looking back, I can see he had anxiety issues. I don’t know how to separate his anxiety issues from his alcoholism. My therapist said it’s probably a chicken and egg situation. His anxiety could have been one of the reasons that he turned to alcohol in the first place—that, and the fact that both of his parents were alcoholics. I don’t know for sure if his annoying behavior was from being an alcoholic who never dealt with his emotional issues, or if it was ongoing emotional issues from not dealing with his anxiety.”

Was he in therapy? “Oh God, no! And I have a master’s degree in psychology. That used to piss him off. Anytime I said anything about psychology, he said, ‘Stop trying to analyze me!’ His insecurity was too much. I said the same kinds of general things about psychology to other people and they never got upset.”

Suzette Glasner, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of The Addiction Recovery Skills Workbook, told The Fix, “I’ve worked with quite a few individuals for whom the road to recovery posed more challenges to their relationship than they expected. For those who use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for other underlying problems—depression, anxiety, and general dissatisfaction with life—some of their raw emotions come bubbling to the surface once they get clean and sober, especially in the early phases, when the brain and body are undergoing a delicate healing process.”

Emotions in early sobriety can be intense. “Without the usual crutch of alcohol or drugs to lean on,” said Dr. Glasner, “loved ones may find their partner irritable, difficult to talk to, sad, anxious, or frustrated without any obvious explanation.”

It can be difficult not to take things personally. “For some addicts in early recovery, being reassured or comforted is helpful or talking with a partner may be therapeutic,” Glasner said. “But for others, communicating can feel smothering. I’ve worked with some for whom the addiction placed a comfortable distance and both partners became accustomed to leading fairly separate lives. Then suddenly, in recovery, one partner found renewed interest in his girlfriend, but to her, that felt demanding and overbearing. So, he felt lonely and rejected but she felt smothered and chose to end the relationship.”

Two people who are committed to working things out, can get through the ups and downs. As with any relationship, a couple can grow stronger by learning to navigate challenges. Glasner suggested reading about addiction and recovery. Helpful websites include: National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.

“If you’re in therapy,” said Glasner, “have your partner attend with you once or twice to learn about what each of you are working on. Have open dialogues about what would be most helpful when the newly-sober alcoholic feels triggered.”

During calm periods, it’s smart to plan how to handle flair-ups before they happen. The newly-sober partner will hopefully be able to thank their partner for being patient. Relationship difficulties are normal as you try and figure out how to be happy together. And, thanks to Lois Wilson, Al-Anon is an excellent option.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.