When we enter our journey into sobriety, all of us have a different relationship status. Some of us might be married, some in a committed relationship, and some of us might be single. No matter what your relationship status is when you decide to get sober, romantic relationships can be complicated. I get asked all the time to write about my experience with this, so here it goes.
The only way I can really give any advice is by simply sharing my story. It’s important to understand that no two person’s experiences are ever going to be the same, and there will always be exceptions to the rules. My experience with relationships in sobriety have been both amazing and tragic.
The first time I tried to get sober was in the fall of 2008. Dressed in the best intentions, I walked out of my first treatment center with the confidence that I had “beat” this thing and was about to live my best life. When I entered that first treatment center, I was 24 years old and single. My last relationship had lasted about 5 years and involved both my boyfriend and me in active addiction.
I’ve never really been good at being single. When I was actively drinking/using, however, I didn’t sleep around. I have always been a serial monogamist, but that has had its own set of unhealthy qualities. Bottom line – I never liked being alone. For the longest time, much of my worth came from what relationship I was in and if I felt loved enough by another person. It was extremely unhealthy and played a large roll in keeping me messed up for so long.
So, back to 2008. I was newly sober and the world seemed like a new place without all the chemicals I used to use to distort it. I was going to twelve-step meetings and meeting lots of new people – including a man.
This guy (whom we will call “Jack”) was also in early sobriety and had been in and out of at least six or seven other treatment centers by the time we met. He was kind, handsome, and made me feel beautiful. I always needed someone to make me feel beautiful.
To me, it seemed like the perfect Hollywood movie. Two troubled souls, who had found each other while trying to better themselves, work to get better together in recovery and ride off into the sobriety sunset. They live happily ever after. The end.
In my story, not so much.
Jack and I began dating, and I was really happy. We had fun together. We laughed and did all sorts of things together – sober! It was so refreshing. I kept staying involved in my recovery program, but Jack said he didn’t need meetings anymore. Then, at about one month into our relationship (and me at about four months sober), I couldn’t get ahold of Jack. For about two days, he wouldn’t answer his phone, which was extremely unlike him. Finally, he did. He was coming off of a binge and had relapsed.
I was devastated.
I should have taken that opportunity to see that Jack still needed to work on himself. I should have seen that a relationship, in the midst of us both trying to save our own lives, was not the best thing. But in my mind, I needed to stay with him. I needed to be with him. Jack was so sad about his relapse. How could I leave him? What if it had been me? I would have wanted him to stay with me if I had relapsed, I thought.
So, I stayed with him. And at the same time, I both consciously and unconsciously put Jack before my own recovery. I stopped going to my Saturday meetings which then made it easier to stop going to my Sunday meetings. Which made it easier for me to stop calling my sponsor. Which led me, shortly after Jack, to also relapse.
I wish I could tell you that somewhere in the chaos, one of us decided it would be best to be away from each other and get well. But, when you have two sick people in a relationship together, the decisions made are not usually going to be the best ones. Instead, we continued to date for another year and were married in April of 2010.
Fast forward to December of that same year. December 7th, to be exact, was the day I finally surrendered to this thing and made the decision to give sobriety a try. On the day that I made that decision, Jack was in his ninth treatment center. I decided to give this thing everything I had and hoped and prayed that once Jack came out of his treatment center, we would do this thing together.
Once again, that’s not how the story turned out.
Jack continued to relapse. Somehow, in the midst of constantly being around a husband who was consistently either drunk or high, I maintained my sobriety. The heartbreaking decision to leave Jack came after a year of trying to make it work. When I celebrated my one year of sobriety in 2011, I was finalizing our divorce.
I wish I could tell you that Jack fought this thing and got better once I left him. But about three years later, Jack was found dead in a hotel room from a drug overdose. In the war that Jack had been fighting with himself for well over a decade, Jack lost. It was awful news to receive and heartbreaking for his family.
In the midst of the painful separation/divorce from Jack, I managed to grow in ways that I never would have imagined. And, I managed to stay single for a while. For a little over a year, I focused on myself and my sobriety. I kept my life pretty simple. Work, meetings, and recovery functions. That was it. It was what I needed, and it worked for me.
So, after going through all of that, SURELY I didn’t meet my now husband in the world of recovery, right? Wrong. But it has been an entirely different experience.
My current husband and I began dating after I was over a year sober and he was nine years sober. We were both dedicated to our recovery and had both previously been in relationships with another person in active addiction. We knew what was at stake, and we were cautious.
We were married in 2014 and have an awesome marriage. He is my best friend, my rock, and we have never seen each other under the influence. We have only known each other sober, and continue to work our programs of recovery to keep it that way. We have been through a lot together. With me being almost 8 years sober, and he at almost 16 years sober, we are constantly learning from each other. Our recovery, in this situation, has made our marriage stronger.
So, I realize that these are only two, out what could be several different, scenarios.
I have friends in recovery whose partners are not alcoholics/addicts. For some of them, their spouses still drink sometimes. It doesn’t bother them. For others, being around a drinking spouse (alcoholic or not) is bothersome. So their significant other agrees to no longer have it in the house.
Some people in recovery do better being in a relationship with someone who is not also a recovered addict, and some prefer to be in a relationship with those who are like them.
No matter the scenario, my opinion is that there must be one common denominator amongst any of these relationships.
What was the difference between my current husband and my former’s husband relationship? Why did one work and the other one didn’t?
When I entered into my relationship with Jack, we were both in the beginning stages of getting well. That, along with seeing countless others do the same thing I did, has taught me that we can’t really offer anything to a new romantic relationship when we are still discovering who we are. How in the world can I contribute anything to a relationship when I am basically an infant in recovery? Everything is so raw and new that I think it’s too difficult to make the necessary decisions for a healthy relationship. Add another person in early sobriety to the mix, and you’ve successfully created a recipe for disaster.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes. I am not going to claim that in the history of recovery there have never been two newly sober people that didn’t stay sober, stay together, and have a great life. I will say that the only time I have really ever seen that is when it was a couple that was already married and made the decision to get sober together. I have actually seen that a few times, and it is really beautiful. That being said, I’m not God and anything is possible. I only write from my experience.
What about the people that are already in a committed relationship when they get sober? What if their partner/spouse is not an addict? Can that work?
Once again, I’ve seen it go both ways.
Usually, one of two things happen. Either the spouse is completely supportive of this person’s desire to get sober, or they’re not.
Why would someone’s spouse not want them to stay sober? It happens more often than you would think.
Sometimes the partner/spouse gets upset with all of the time their newly sober partner spends away from home at recovery meetings or functions. I’ve even had friends whose husbands were so fed up by the end of their drinking careers, but after their wives got sober for a while, they told them that they missed when they were drinking…because they were more fun.
Recovery changes you. It has to. Once you abandon your old ideas and really give sobriety a go, you won’t be the same person. That can negatively affect any relationship because even positive changes can be hard. However, I have seen LOTS of relationships get through it.
At the end of the day, maybe it all comes down to motives. Why am I in this relationship in the first place? Am I with this person because I really love them, or am I using them like a drug to fill a spiritual hole. Ask yourself the question, “can I be alone?”
I realize that when there are children in the mix, this situation becomes even more complicated. I have no experience with that. Honestly, it’s all complicated. So here’s how I keep it simple. I put my sobriety and spiritual life first, and then everything else seems to fall into place. When I do the next right indicated thing, everything works out the way it’s supposed to. Notice I didn’t say how I WANTED it to. Change is hard. Relationships are hard. Growth is hard. But growth is not meant to be comfortable. We can use this new way of life to have loving and unselfish relationships with people. I see relationships blossom in recovery all the time. It’s a beautiful thing.
But it’s usually only going to happen when two people are spiritually fit and emotionally well.
I read a quote one time that said: “far too many people are looking for the right person, instead of trying to be the right person.”
I can get on board with that.