Getting sober in a drinking relationship
March 4, 2008 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Is it really possible to get and stay sober while your partner continues to drink?

A couple of weeks ago I had an unfortunate evening of drinking that led to a blackout. It served as a real wake up call that I have a problem with binge drinking. It's been two weeks tonight and I've not had a drop. I am struggling with the notion of permanent sobriety versus just trying to moderate.

My question is mostly about the fact that my partner (who lives in across the country and we see each other a couple times a month) continues to drink socially and occasionally has one too many - like tonight. Hearing my partners intoxication on the phone is difficult for me. It makes me cringe and generally uncomfortable. Is it possible for me to maintain sobriety and be in this relationship if my partner drinks?

If you have thoughts/feeling/suggestions on moderation versus complete sobriety I would love to hear those too. I honestly enjoy a good pint and a lovely cocktail and am usually fully capable of having a drink or two and calling it a night. But there are occasions when I just keep going.

I'm not ok with AA/12 step programs due to religious content and someone has suggested Rational Recovery. I'm checking it out and it seems to be a decent option.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
H'm. I'm not sure how strongly it relates (since it sounds like you're saying that you both struggle with alcohol) but in college I dated a guy who was a social drinker. I, full of excitement at being in college and on a very heavy drinking sports team, drank. A lot. I never blacked out, but I got very drunk every weekend and usually at least once during the week. He didn't like me drinking. At one point he said very plainly, "You're smart, and I can't stand how stupid you sound when you're drunk. I won't spend time with you when you're drinking."

And he didn't. He would stay for the first drink (or two) and I could choose: either spend the evening with him, limiting my alcohol consumption, or go all out and get drunk. He didn't guilt me about it, and was fairly implacable when in my drunk state I decided I wanted to talk or snuggle, or anything.

So, some weekends I got shitfaced with my friends, and sometimes I stayed sober and hung out with him. It worked fine for us; I think you just need to have good boundaries, and be ok with him making his own choices. If drinking remains a major issue for you, or if simply dating someone who drinks is enough to make it difficult for you to stop drinking, maybe you need to reconsider the relationship.

Good luck with everything.
posted by arnicae at 11:00 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

If it’s difficult for you to stop drinking...then yes. Most addiction guides promote being out of a relationship for 9 months when trying to find sobriety for a single person. So looking at this guideline and being that you’re not married to this person, possible failure here.
posted by thomcatspike at 11:42 PM on March 4, 2008

They don't have a problem... you do. A lot of people drink, and whether they have a problem or not - if you want to stop you will just have to handle it. Otherwise it's all just hot cock. It's pretty easy not to do something when it's not around. The true test is when it's in your face...

That being said, maybe mention what you're doing so they don't inadvertently 'rub it in' your face :) Good luck with everything - positive steps - are exactly what the name suggests.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 1:36 AM on March 5, 2008

Yes, it's possible. My husband quit drinking ahead of me, stayed dry about two years before drinking moderately (if you can call 3 drinks a year moderate). I kept drinking, behaving unpleasantly, all that sort of thing. He was very tolerant. Much much more than I would have been under the circumstances. Now that I've been not drinking for two years myself (except for about 1 glass 4 times a year, about), those three drinks he has annoy me when he has them all in a row, so I encourage him to do it elsewhere, if possible. I wonder how my dry friends put up with me all this time, to be honest. Drunk people are so obnoxious and boring, and sloppy and smelly and - well you know.

So yeah, finally, it's two different issues. You being alcohol free does not require anyone else to be. You can do this alone, you just keep on having days where you don't drink any and it becomes normal. On the other hand, if your partner is a twit when they're drunk, and that bothers you, it probably will continue to bother you. It'll probably bother you even if you never miss drinking again.
posted by b33j at 3:48 AM on March 5, 2008

Tell your s.o. that you don't want to talk with him when he's drunk. I barely drink (because I'm not a fan of it in general), and I don't like being around drunk people, or talking to drunk people. When I had friends who thought that getting drunk was a good idea, I would just not accompany them to the places where they got drunk, and not really interact with them until they sobered up. And I told them, point blank, "I don't like drunk people, they make me uncomfortable, and I don't find them amusing or interesting or anything of the sort."

I'm not sure how to help with the temperance/moderation issue, but the annoying partner issues should be solvable by setting some hard boundaries.
posted by that girl at 5:38 AM on March 5, 2008

I am sober and have had sober, social drinkers and full on addicts as partners. Having an addict was really hard and ended the relationship, but because of the ancillary behavior, she didn't drink that much around me. The social drinker was OK, but I don't like having alcohol in the house and I didn't like it on her breath.

But there is no hard and fast rule. Some can get sober with a drunk for a parter and other can not no matter how supportive their partner is.

That you are asking the question at makes me wonder if you already think that you, today cannot stay sober and stay in the relationship.

let me also say that the hoop that AA wants you to jump through can be a good deal wider than you think. Feel free to MeMail.
posted by the anticipation of a new lover's arrival at 5:43 AM on March 5, 2008

i have been sober for 2+ months and my gf drinks, and so do all her friends

i just pound coffee, but am as comfortable and have as much fun as before

more fun in fact!

the first week of the experience she was quite drunk, I had her by the belt loop and she was talking to me and looking toward me when we were about to cross the street. she started to walk out when it turned red, looking at me. just then a taxi blew the red at about 50, and I credit my sobriety with my awareness, which allowed me to pull her out of the street

since then I have felt pretty good about how aware i feel when sober. I quit do to health issues - booze was making me very sick, and so i am now grossed out by the idea of drinking it's not too hard for me to avoid. i truly have no desire for the stuff after a year of getting quite sick after drinking even a few

for me it is just trying to have as much fun as possible. it does get annoying to deal with drunk people having fun playing a game or goofing off, cause stuff just isn't as funny when you're sober! but i deal

my tip would just be to really open up and get into the carefreeness of drunkenness, but while sober, it's quite a liberating experience. you can let loose around drunk people, but with the awareness of a sober person, it's really a nice feeling
posted by Salvatorparadise at 6:22 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Since you live far apart it shouldn't be too difficult to set boundaries, and only interact with your partner when they're sober. If they care about you, they'll understand your need to get well, and keep their distance when it would be harmful to you. If you have a hard time staying away from the drink when others around you are drinking, you'll definitely need to keep that distance from your partner when they're drinking.

As far as moderation versus complete sobriety, not too many problem drinkers are able to successfully moderate for very long. I think you probably know you're going to have to seriously think about complete sobriety. Rational Recovery does have some good concepts, I would recommend reading that book. Best of luck and strength to you.
posted by Koko at 6:25 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

how long have you been a "problem" drinker? just how bad a problem is it? a single blackout, taken as a wakeup call, isn't quite the same as repeated blackouts that you just cant seem to stop happening, to the point where your life is spiralling out of control and stuff.

personally, i overindulged in quite a few things in high school, enough so that i felt the need to be clean and sober all through college (which was actually more fun than you might think!) but eventually i had a girlfriend who smoked occasionally, i fell off the wagon, overindulged again... till after about a year of trial and error i found some balance, and became a moderate user of a select number of inebriants i was comfortable with.

anyway, my point is that, 20 years down the road, i'm glad i tried the moderation route. with a bit of effort, i managed to reign in my addictive personality without having to completely stop. a few concrete rules helped a lot - only once a day, or week, never on my own, never EVER on the job, etc.

basically, i don't know your whole story so i dont know if this is appropriate advice, but - are you really sure you need to go whole hog, get on the wagon, and dump (or even antagonize) your girlfriend who gets drunk occasionally on the other side of the country? a few self imposed limits, if you can keep them, and a level-headed discussion with the SO along the lines of "i'm trying to cut down, can we not get plastered around each other?" might be enough. only you can tell if this will work for you, but if you havent given it a shot, you might try it before you go all 12 steps.

your going to have to learn to deal with watching people drink one way or the other anyway.
posted by messiahwannabe at 7:55 AM on March 5, 2008

Short answer: yes. I've known a fair number of people who did this, at least for some length of time. Of course I've known others for whom the relationship with a drinker needed to end.

I'm not ok with AA/12 step programs due to religious content

This is really too bad, because it's the bread and butter of Al-Anon. There are a lot of MeFi threads on the 12-step programs, many in response to people who said "I know I could use a 12-step program but I'm an athiest, what do I do?" Rational Recovery exists but there are many fewer groups than the Anonymous groups offer. But the important thing to know is that there are a lot of people in the Anon. groups who are non-religious. "Higher Power" is a concept that's rather necesary to the program, but it's intentionally non-specific. "Higher Power" is anything you want to construe it to be - anything you believe has more power than you do. It could be the forces acting on the universe, causing it to expand. It could be the ocean, trees, or some other part of Nature. It could be your own spark of will to thrive and be healthy and happy. It could be the combined power of the group gathered together to improve their lives. The Anonymous groups are full of athiests, agnostics, and seekers - the purpose of the H.P. is really to get you to understand that you do not have to control, manage, fix, or run away from anything because you are not in charge of the entire world.

Al-Anon (which is for anyone affected by another person's drinking) would be a good place for you. Those groups contain a lot of people who are with a spouse or SO who drinks problematically. (Could also be a parent, child, sibling, friend, boss - anybody). So much of the discussion focuses on one simple and very important concept: They are them, and you are you. Their choices don't have to be the same as your choices. You're in a position to judge what you need, but not in a position to judge what they need. That's for them to work on. If you don't want to drink, don't drink. If your SO does, that's their choice, and not something you can expect to control. That doesn't mean you have to put up with behavior you don't like - because your choices are yours, you get to set the boundaries you need. Like not talking to him when he's drunk, as suggested above. Or like not going out to places where he plans to drink. Maybe you change your get-togethers to spend more time outdoors or at the movies instead of in bars and restaurants. Maybe you have a new rule: no booze in your house. It's all up to you and the boundaries are different for everyone - highly individual.

You can apply a lot of this thinking without the support of a group, but damn if their experiences don't help a whole hell of a lot. You could also try a counselor, who might do the same thing, but I think the power of hearing a lot of different voices talk about how they faced similar things is irreplaceable.

One thing that happens a lot is that when you get better, the person you love starts to get better, too. That doesn't mean you do it to help them, but by helping yourself, and getting a better set of boundaries, and taking care of your own needs, you remove a lot of pressure and judgement from the other person and all they're left with is a look at their own behavior, which is sometimes a motivator. Meanwhile they can see you doing better and it looks pretty good. On the other hand, not everyone will ever stop drinking (or needs to by anyone else's measure). So be prepared for any outcome, and just take care of yourself first. Do what you need to do.
posted by Miko at 8:41 AM on March 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

It's difficult, but possible. As a person who is getting sober, you learn to avoid activities that promote drinking, and you find that includes just about every party, work/school social function, unfortunately. However, these occasions do go on and you have to steel yourself to the fact that although others can drink at them, you can not. It's not easy at first but it gets easier with time, until you learn that you can have a good time without alcohol. You also learn to choose which events you wish to attend, knowing that others will be participating in alcohol and you will not. And finally, you learn how to tolerate the drunken, loud and idiotic behavior that your fellow partiers exhibit. Good luck!
posted by Lynsey at 10:24 AM on March 5, 2008

I ended my marriage two years after I got sober because the changes sobriety had brought to my life made it impossible to live with someone who wanted to spend most evenings and his entire weekend sitting on the sofa drinking.

Buying the alcohol for him in the weekly shop never bothered me because he drank vodka and my poisons were beer or wine, so the booze didn't 'call' to me. But once I realised just what a great big wide world I'd been missing through drinking, I wanted to be a part of it. He didn't. So we split up.

These days I find that I have no problem at all mixing with 'normal' drinkers - like many sober alkies I find it baffling that someone can order a pint of beer and leave a couple of inches at the bottom of the glass. WTF is that all about? But on the rare occasions I've found myself in the company of a practising alcoholic, it's made me very uncomfortable. It's not that it's made me want to drink or anything like that, but I see the Jekyll & Hyde transformation that alcohol does to the alcoholic brain and it's ugly.

Oh, and I am an atheist, and sober in AA just over 9 years.
posted by essexjan at 11:54 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

My father has been sober 17 years now and my stepmother keeps alcohol in the fridge.

However, my roommate in college for four years was in recovery as well; one night we had people over and they left a half-bottle of wine in the fridge. She woke me at 4 a.m. begging me to take it to the dumpster.

So obviously, everyone is different. No standard answer will work for you except do what is best for yourself to maintain your sobriety if that is your priority.

As with all life changes, things get easier with time. My dad relapsed twice before gaining full sobriety; he is a happier, different person than he was when he was drinking, and he knows it's worth it to stay sober now.

Your tolerance for drunk people may change as your sobriety progresses; if for now you feel it will trigger drinking or cause resentment, you have to choose between that and your relationship, from the way it sounds.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:14 PM on March 5, 2008

Yes, IF you are committed to the change. That people drink is a reality and that you might be around them when they are drinking is a reality. And that you have a problem with drinking is a reality. So you have made the choice to retire from the sport- that decision must come from within you, and cannot depend on the actions of others to validate your own decision.

Whether this particular relationship can survive is a different question; sometimes people grow apart. And sometimes the grow closer. Communicate your concerns, try to work through it and hope for the best.
posted by gjc at 5:31 PM on March 5, 2008

I drink socially, and I had a partner in recovery. He claimed that my drinking didn't affect him, but he was really sensitive to the smell of alcohol. I didn't drink around him often because it felt rude, and because, in truth, I didn't really believe him when he said he didn't mind if I drank.

Ultimately, you have to get sober for yourself, so your boyfriend's drinking is not going to be the thing that stands in your way. You are going to need him to be supportive, though, if he's going to stay with you, so he has to agree not to drink around you for a while if it makes you uncomfortable. If he can't agree to that, then he doesn't care enough for you.

As for AA - I agree that it's creepy and religious and totally unscientific and cult-like. I went to a few meetings with my partner and was weirded out. But you don't go there for all that - you go there to meet other people and to get support. Support is crucial, and AA is the easiest, cheapest way to get it. It's just a bunch of folks helping each other, in the end. Go to the meetings with a mind to take what's useful and forget about what's not. You may decide you're not an alcoholic, or you may decide that you caught yourself just in time. You don't want to wait until your problem gets so bad that there's no question that you're an alcoholic.
posted by footnote at 7:06 PM on March 5, 2008

Go to the meetings with a mind to take what's useful and forget about what's not.

That approach is so common and expected there's even a AA saying for it: take what you need and leave the rest. No one will force you to do otherwise.
posted by Miko at 7:10 PM on March 5, 2008

My dad is almost at his 10 year sober mark, which I'm extremely proud of him for. My mother is a definitely social drinker, has one or two extremely low-booze drinks a night, maybe more if they go out. They don't go out nearly as often as they used to, but they're also older no, obviously (early 50's). There have been some changes in our family, we don't go to the same events anymore because they remind my dad of drinking beer all day, but really it has only helped my parents' relationship. My dad is currently sponsoring 3 newbie recovering alcoholics, who check in with him daily, rely on him for support, etc. He's a chairman in the local AA community. My parents still hang out with the friends they used to drink with, but now my dad has a whole new circle of friends. My being around alcohol isn't a big deal for my dad-he's been a sales rep for Miller Beer for 30ish years-he goes into bars and liquor stores 8 hours a day. Kind of ironic, but I guess if I worked at Subway for 30 years, I'd be tired of sandwiches.
posted by whiskey point at 1:44 PM on March 6, 2008

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