Can You Be Sober in a Relationship With Someone That Drinks?
Sobriety and recovery are delicate. As anyone that has, or is experiencing it will tell you, no matter how far along in recovery they are, the “subject” never fades or disappears. In fact, as the pressures of life continue to mount, so can the challenges and temptations. But we are a society bombarded with information, and with that comes several misconceptions about how someone should live in recovery. And while easily found in black and white in a simple Internet dive, most of these misconceptions oversimplify the complexity of life in recovery. As clinicians, we must dispel or clarify these misconceptions to help patients and their families understand what to expect in the months and years after going to treatment.
You may be wondering why this topic has come up on our blog. Recently, the media has highlighted a high-profile split, churning the gossip pages and weighing in on what otherwise should be a private and controlled conversation between two people and those closest to them. Instead, fame and notoriety, coupled with our societal hunger for “spilled tea,” has forced a debate that many of us in the recovery community grapple with every day. Can one spouse/partner remain sober when the other is not? While most of us are not of the same social profile as the couple in question — Joe Manganiello and Sofía Vergara – this core issue is most certainly the same.
Do Celebrity Relationships Matter When We Discuss Sobriety?
It’s virtually impossible to equate a celebrity relationship with that of an average couple. To the outside world, these are people void of “human” problems like financial issues, body image stresses, boring jobs, and an uncertain sense of identity or purpose. But past the glossy, airbrushed images, this can’t be further from the truth. Imagine the same “human” problems, just magnified under the pressure of the world’s lens. And then compounded a thousand-fold when everyone with a keyboard can weigh in.
Just like the rest of us, celebrities are human. And human behavior, regardless of station in life or fame, has similar highs and lows. For celebrities, strangers freely take it upon themselves to comment on the relationships, sometimes with misinformed or incomplete information. These online busybodies ultimately disseminate ideas that may not be productive for others in the same or similar situations. We make examples of people with real human problems, yet we chastise them when they try to sort through them in front of the world.
Lastly, these celebrity relationships are often unwitting models for “normal” or “ideal” relationships. This is especially true for younger generations that have grown up watching and possibly idolizing these celebrities. It is, therefore, very important to have these discussions, hopefully setting a stage where everybody gets the appropriate information and understands that factors unknown can impact couples, both famous and not. Of course, we must weigh this against the backdrop of learning and eliminating stigma regarding mental health and addiction treatment.
According to media publications, Joe Manganiello has been sober since 2002; for over twenty years. First, it’s important to celebrate this sobriety. Twenty years is a fantastic achievement, as we all know — and it’s twenty years in an industry where pressure, availability, and temptation are everywhere. On the other hand, his spouse of seven years, Sofía Vergara – by reports never in recovery – is said to have continued drinking throughout their marriage. We do not know if her drinking was moderate or excessive, and the details do not matter for this conversation. The larger discussion is whether or not the drinking habits of one spouse can affect a partner who has committed to sobriety or is in recovery.
In such situations, one will likely never know the true or complete reasons behind the dissolution of the marriage; however, the press is discussing differences in lifestyle as a reason why the couple split. In addition to making this assumption, which may or may not have been validated by either spouse, some conclude that a relationship like this can never work and that the outcome is all but determined from the beginning.
Let’s Dive In
It’s essential to say that one’s status in recovery is not the only, final determination of whether a relationship will succeed. And indeed, there is no definitive answer to whether these relationships can be more or less successful than those of two people in recovery or two who drink. Ultimately, there are so many variables in personalities and relationships that it would be impossible to make a definitive conclusion. Can we say, however, that two people with different social habits, especially when one may have previously abused a substance, is challenging? Absolutely. Is it a dealbreaker?
We Don’t Believe So
Liza Piekarsky, LMHC, CAP, NCC, and Director of Clinical Outreach at The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, comments, “Of course, being in a relationship with someone in recovery can present with challenges just like being in a relationship with someone who has a mental health diagnosis or is diagnosed with cancer and the other partner is not. No matter what the “diagnosis,” relationships take work.”
Let’s break down the keys to a smooth relationship between someone who drinks and a partner that is sober or in recovery.
Are you Compatible & Do You Share Common Goals?
In any relationship, the question of compatibility and shared goals is absolutely crucial. This is true whether one of the partners is in recovery or not. But compatibility is very much subjective. Some couples who seem to have a toxic relationship may believe they are, in fact, compatible. How many times have you heard the adage (or excuse?) “Opposites Attract!” Others that have a very “normal” relationship, by societal standards, may be experiencing turbulence behind the scenes. Compatibility, therefore, is very much in the eye of the beholder.
Shared goals are somewhat easier to define and discuss. As such, a couple with similar or shared goals that has openly and honestly discussed how they intend to get there will necessarily have an advantage in their relationship. With shared goals, they should be able to look at possible impediments and make changes to eliminate those hurdles. When a partner’s drinking habits impede these goals, both parties can decide on the best path forward.
Open, honest, and regular communication is a cornerstone of any relationship, especially with diverging habits and social activities. A lack or breakdown of communication in the relationship is one of the most significant barriers to a happy and full life with a long-term partner. Honesty and communication do not necessarily mean that you, as the drinker or alternately the sober partner, have to discuss or demand to know everything that happens during separate social occasions to your spouse. Instead, it means examining the relationship and bringing potential pain points to the fore to address them before resentment or anger takes hold.
The Timing of the Relationship
The timing of a romantic relationship after recovery is crucial. In the Manganiello-Vergara case, the relationship occurred over a decade after one partner became sober. And the relationship lasted about seven years. While no definitive playbook exists to understand when a romantic relationship is appropriate after sobriety, this seems to have been “long enough.” Of course, we caution anyone early on in their recovery – let’s use one year as an arbitrary number – to be very careful in approaching their romantic relationships. In an ideal situation, romantic relationships would be avoided until the patient feels more comfortable in their sobriety. We encourage you to visit our recent blog discussing when it is appropriate to have a relationship after recovery.
For Partners That Drink Alcohol
As a partner to someone sober or in recovery, you have several hurdles to jump. First is guilt. Many partners who continue drinking, even if it’s not problematic or excessive consumption, may do so with some trepidation. If you have discussed this with your partner, and you agreed that your drinking is an acceptable part of your relationship, then take that at face value. For one, drinking with guilt often separates you from your partner in social situations, both physically and emotionally. Second, this regular guilt may breed resentment and, ultimately, a decline in the relationship.
It’s also not a good idea to assume that your partner is fine with “all” drinking, especially if you tend to overindulge occasionally. It may be helpful to resolve to discuss this with your partner regularly. Separating the social and family aspects of your behavior and entering your discussion more unemotionally can change the tone and remove unnecessary barriers.
With that said, it’s important that you know about substance dependence and addiction and how it affects your partner. That understanding will make it easier for you both to have these discussions. Attending support groups or programs with your spouse or long-term partner may also be helpful in this regard.
As an aside, while the core of your relationship is between you and your partner, you cannot discount or ignore your partner’s family and friends. Remember that they likely went through incomprehensible hardship and pain as their loved ones navigated the low points of their life. These friends and family members will almost undoubtedly be very protective. It’s important to remember that they will likely have a say in your relationship to some degree, for better or for worse, and you can try to help them be a positive influence in your relationship. You may not see eye to eye with these “stakeholders,” but you can certainly attempt to discuss your or their concerns for the betterment of your relationship.
For the Sober Partner
You likely find yourself in a balancing act. On one hand, you must think of yourself, your continued sobriety, and the relationships that you have probably spent a great deal of time repairing before you ever met your partner. On the other hand, your partner likely represents a solid rock or foundation upon which you can build your future. You have made significant choices – many that have gone against the grain of societal acceptance. If you’ve been in recovery for a while, you can probably look back and think about how uncomfortable it was to tell new friends and acquaintances that you don’t drink. If you are in early recovery, you may be experiencing this in real time. These are the kinds of experiences that everyone in recovery must deal with and overcome.
It’s important to take a good look within and understand why you’re starting a new relationship. If you believe you are ready and that you can handle a partner that drinks, then you must take them as they are. You cannot judge them, and you cannot become resentful. It’s easy to bring their drinking into the relationship, especially when other underlying issues are causing problems. However, you must allow that person to be who they need to be, just as they need to give you the same grace.
Of course, there will be some relationships in which you believe the drinking is excessive or has gotten worse. In these cases, offering your help and advice may or may not be the best course of action. This is a great time to turn to your family, therapist, support group, or sponsor to understand the best course of action. Bringing up someone’s drinking problem, especially when you are in recovery, may look like virtue signaling. In an ideal world, your partner may take it as true concern and reflect upon their own actions. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to know the outcome of such a discussion.
That said, while your experience with substance abuse or addiction may have been problematic, traumatic, or even devastating in so many ways, your recovery will be very useful to any relationship. Part of that perspective you’ve developed is the understanding and acceptance that others have different experiences, different needs, different habits, and may or may not evolve over time. You have been coached on how to cope and on how to communicate, and these skills are crucial in any relationship, especially now with a partner who drinks. You also have the choice not to start — or continue — the relationship.
What’s the Answer?
Unfortunately, there is no right answer for any relationship after treatment because. in the end, it is about two people at the core. “Successful” characteristics and habits of one couple are as impactful to them as “divergent” habits and activities of another couple. And while, to some degree, the work needed to make these divergent habits compatible is greater, this is not to say that such a relationship cannot work or is doomed to fail.
The most important advice we can offer is that patients take their time before starting any emotional relationship, romantic or otherwise. We also suggest that patients prioritize their support system by coalescing resources from their treatment center, support system, outside support groups, and family and friends around them. Creating that base level of additional support can help in the ups and downs of any relationship and hopefully make both partners better able to adapt.