sober questioning

‘What Can I Do to Support My Newly Sober Partner?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Ana:

My boyfriend is newly sober. I know there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer here, but I’m curious: What were some of the ways you wish you had been supported? I’ve found Al-Anon but so far most of the significant others I’ve met have talked about their decision to leave the alcoholic in their life, and I don’t want to do that.

Dear Ally Aspirant,

I’ve loved my share of alcoholics: romantically, platonically, and as family. While some may disagree with my particular assessment, I’ve found loving an alcoholic to be as — and in some ways even more  — difficult than being one.

As an alcoholic, all I have to do is stay sober. Sure, that’s a tough job in and of itself, but it’s well defined. I’m either drinking or not drinking, using or not using. When I am in a relationship with an alcoholic, what’s my role? How do I know if I’m helping or not helping? Where’s the line between support and enabling?

Let’s talk about the people you’ve met in Al-Anon — and your sense that their solution was to leave the alcoholic in their lives.

Al-Anon, for those reading who don’t know, is a companion organization to Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12-step program for those who love an addict or alcoholic in or out of recovery. But you don’t need personal experience with Al-Anon to have been in the situation you’ve described.

When we love someone struggling with addiction, “then you should leave” echoes everywhere: You hear it from friends, from therapists, from popular culture. During a time I was in a relationship with someone who had a hard time staying sober, it felt as though that was the only real solution anyone talked about — everything else added up to life hacks, not serenity and certainly not sobriety. (The life hacks can be helpful, though; they’re coming up later.)

Then I was lucky enough to sit down with a counselor who had also been on both sides of these kinds of relationships. She asked me to think about my relationship in the exact same way one would approach recovery. Not that the relationship was an addiction, but that my relationship was something I could only live one day at a time.

Did I want to break up with him today?, she asked me. I told her no. “Then that’s all you need to know … for today,” she said. “Tomorrow, you get to decide again.”

That simple insight gave me intense relief. I could let go of other people’s judgments of me. And I could stop judging myself! I could finally take a full breath. I could focus on the day-to-day realities of being in a relationship with an alcoholic — the day-to-day realities of my own existence, even! — rather than worry and fret over the terrifying prospect of relapse or the equally terrifying idea of breaking up. To be clear, I don’t mean that I decided I would leave if he relapsed. All I decided was that if he relapsed, well, then I would get to decide then if I wanted to stay. For that moment, that day, I loved him too much and believed in him too much to turn away.

Eventually, he did relapse. And I did stay … until I didn’t, but that’s a story for another time and, frankly, not the point, so never mind, forget I said it.

I do not want you to hear this as yet another person suggesting that leaving is the only or the eventual solution. What I hope is that you hear in this story how much power you have over your own life and your own decisions. Sure, that’s the only thing you have power over — but what power it is.

Now on to the day-to-day stuff. Here’s what I appreciated in my early sobriety:

  • Not drinking around me — and not making a big deal about not drinking around me. Chances are if you ask a newly sober person, “Is it okay if I have a drink?” they will say yes even if they mean no — and even if they mean yes, they may yet regret saying yes. So just don’t.
  • Not asking me how my recovery “was going.” Is this obvious? It should be obvious.
  • Allowing me space if I got squirrelly. Being newly sober means feeling stuff you had numbed out before, and most of those feelings are bad. I was grumpy as hell and picked fights with people I loved for no reason at all besides picking a fight is easier than feeling. What worked best to fend me off: “You seem really grumpy! Maybe let’s revisit this later.”
  • Being understanding of the time I was or wasn’t spending working on my recovery. Neither “Oh, come on, you can miss one meeting” nor “Shouldn’t you be at a meeting?” are helpful.
  • Inviting me to stuff where eating and drinking weren’t the main events: bowling, crafting get-togethers, a walk, a yoga class, book club, volunteering, thrifting, museum visit … being friends with a newly sober person can actually be kind of fun!

That said, being in a close relationship with someone newly sober can be as touchy and as confusing as being close to someone active in their addiction. The freshly emerged, raw emotions I referred to above take some time to cook. We are often a mess emotionally, financially, and/or physically, and it can be hard to watch us sort through that. Further, I cannot guarantee the result of that experience will be what you want it to be; sometimes you don’t get “back” the person you thought you lost. Usually you get a better person, but they aren’t the same.

I know I had to figure out who I was without booze. My close friends and family anchored that rediscovery. They served as boundaries to and reminders of who Ana was at her best — and just, you know, who Ana was. They didn’t do that by talking to me about my behavior or watching out for me; they were just there, loving me without letting me push them around. I can’t tell you what they got out of that time in our lives; what I got out of it was so precious I never want to have to do it again.

‘What Can I Do to Support My Newly Sober Partner?’