Becoming Sober in Relationships: How Do I Talk To My Partner?

I’m delighted to share Michelle April’s guest blog here on Sobersistas. Michelle is an Individual, Couple and Family Counsellor, Art Therapist and group facilitator with a private practice in Ottawa, Ontario.

A question came up on the Sobersistas Facebook page that piqued my interest. I will paraphrase here: “I feel that I cannot tell my partner what I am going through in trying out sobriety. Anyone else feel that way?”

This question describes the honesty that surfaces when you decide to face life sober. My question to you is: What makes it hard to tell your significant other? If you are up for the task, this is worth exploring.

It is difficult disrupting patterns; to do so is cultural trailblazing. I met my would-be future partner at a pub. It was at the beginning of my new, exciting, toast–filled life in the country. I entered a drinking culture. My future partner was a part of this culture. He was a tick burrowed into its flesh. I would end up with a drinker. I fell in love with his work hard/play hard manly man-ness. I fell in love with him. He was my hometown, my wolf pack. The wolf pack never changed because I said, Hey! Change now! I had to change. Period.

In psychology, and in particular in a systems-based approach to therapy, it is common to look at all the “thirds” that hinder or that help a couple to stay glued together. Alcohol is the third in a relationship that involves excess alcohol. If a couple comes to me for counselling, I become a positive third. A third can be a family cat that makes low communication and intimacy between individuals in a couple, acceptable. When the cat dies then what? The pattern is disrupted.

So, returning to the original question above, questions to investigate this further might be: What has alcohol contributed to the relationship, either positively or negatively? While drinking, was it easier to avoid my actual feelings with my partner? What kind of culture am I in that stigmatises the non-drinker? How enmeshed am I in this culture that I feel out of sorts as an individual, sober person? How enmeshed (read codependent) in my relationship am I that I have difficulty being myself, a fluid and changing individual?

By becoming sober in a drinking home, you are a disrupter to the pattern, to the homeostasis that is your family system. In the couple relationship, this means your partner does his/her thing (drink) and you do your thing (be sober). The change made by one partner will have one of two effects on the other partner who is plagued by alcohol:

1) it will make the other drinking partner pause and wonder what to do about his or her own behaviours around the topic of alcohol, or

2) it will cause insecurity in the drinking partner who was still in the comfortable status quo until you came along with your sobriety.

Insecurity might look like fear; fear that you might surpass him or her in terms of growth and that you might want to leave one day. Both one and two may happen – likely in reverse order.

Tips on how to be with your partner when you are disrupting the drinking pattern:

Keep the change about you

If you stop drinking and (s)he is drinking, know that this is your partner’s choice to drink. If it feels like your partner is rubbing alcohol in your face (and not to disinfect your face), then leave the situation. Go do another activity.

Speak from your own position only

Use language that resembles this: I need, I want, I feel. For example, you can say to your partner, I want to be sober. I’ve never tried it before and I’m curious. Please don’t bring me wine on Friday nights as you always have. Or I need to choose sober environments for a bit. Enjoy your night at the pub, I’m going to a movie with Jane. Or I feel disrespected when you tease and wave the alcohol in my face. A person is in the wrong if they attempt to deny how you feel. Ultimate words might be: I feel as though I’ve made good changes in my life and I need to move on from you because I find it difficult to be with someone who is drunk every day while I am sober. I don’t begrudge your choice, I don’t want to begrudge my choice by staying.

Don’t be afraid to ask for space

If you tend to over drink, you may drink because you are too nice and too giving and have cause for ‘winding down’ with several shots of single malt whiskey. Communicating need for more space might look like: Darling, I am going to need more space in the coming weeks for self-care as I practice being sober. It means I will need frequent baths, it means I will be away more evenings as I go to the gym more often, it means less time spent with you. Please know that this is not a reflection of how I feel about you. I love you and there is a chance I might love you even better with all this self-love that I intend to provide.

Don’t speculate about your partner’s feelings

Do ask ‘How do you feel about my sobriety?’ When you see insecurity come up. Or, What do you need to feel safe in this new world? For example, we can become a bit righteous while doing great things like quitting drinking, smoking cigarettes or mainlining crack. As fun as it is to tell people off from the high-up perch of sobriety and good health, don’t say, you are just jealous because I’m figuring this life out while you wallow in beer you big, hung over, jerk!

Exercise compassion for both you and your partner

Change is hard. Be especially compassionate if you see your partner grappling with the changes. Struggle means your changes are having an impact. You are seeing markers that the system is being jostled. Inside the grown man or woman you identify as your partner is a scared child that turned into an adult and maybe reached for a beer to self-soothe. If the scared child appears, then good work is happening. Be compassionate.

When you disrupt the pattern for yourself, you inadvertently disrupt the system. I noticed my partner mirroring me as I have made changes over the past ten years. For example, when I joined the gym, I could see my partner becoming interested in fitness. He bought runners – for running! He never ran, but it was the thought that counted. This endeared me to him even more. When I stopped going to the pub, he 95% stopped going to the pub. I never once said, don’t go to the pub you unsupportive bastard! Okay, I might have said that a long time ago. It didn’t work, and that is why I am providing these tips that do work. Make your own changes, speak from your own place, take the space you need, don’t tell your partner how (s)he feels, and be kind.

Enjoy your sobriety. It’s yours. You own it.

Michelle April is an Individual, Couple and Family Counsellor and Art Therapist and group facilitator with a private practice in Ottawa, Ontario.

Much love always, Jules xxx