Relationships 101: When One Person Gets Sober and the Other Does Not

There’s nothing unusual about the consumption of alcohol on a first date. Let’s face it, this can be an extremely unnerving experience and a shared bottle of wine or a couple of martini’s can be just the elixir that will get you through those first date jitters. It can help you to lower your guard and move quickly past that initial nervousness and neurosis (to say nothing of what it can do to jump-start sexual intimacy).  Where it needs to be of concern is if and when alcohol and/or drugs become one of your common interests and one of the very fun things the two of you bond over.  

Allow me to paint you a picture.

In the fiercely competitive world of today where everyone is working crazy, ridiculous hours just to break even, Mary and Bill like to unwind after a hard day with a cocktail, perhaps a nice glass of red wine to compliment their dinner, and maybe even a couple of puffs of the highly touted, now-legal, medical marijuana everyone’s going crazy over.  On the weekends, they really like to whoop it up and will party with friends on one or even both of the nights. There’s also the possibility that someone will host a Sunday brunch or football barbecue. Mary and Bill are young and virile so why not? Now living together, they’ve settled into this routine and it becomes a fairly regular pattern.

Some time passes and before they know it, Mary and Bill are married and expecting their first child.  One kid leads to a second which leads to a third and in the blink of an eye, it’s five, ten or fifteen years later.  And still, they’re both going along with nearly the same pattern of work hard, party harder.  The trouble is, now they’re not doing it because its fun, adventurous and/or exciting.  Now they’re doing it because it’s habit. It’s what they do.

Recently, Mary has been recognizing the pattern and sees that the days of simply pairing a nice Cabernet with her prime piece of sirloin are long gone. It’s no longer about complimenting her meals and or the occasional martini to cut the edge. It’s about self medicating. Even worse, she realizes that not only is it negatively affecting her emotionally, but her relationship, her job, her health, and even worse, her children who’ve had to endure her and Bill’s childlike, asinine behavior on one too many occasions.  Mary sees that her drinking is accomplishing many things and none of them are positive.

Mary notices that her and Bill are fighting more and more and if there’s even a hint of alcohol involved, the fights are more heated, angry and mean.

In the morning when the dust settles, Mary decides she can’t go on like this for another minute. The substances (whatever they may be) cannot be working in her favor and she say the words — “I want to stop.”  Only Bill doesn’t see any problem. Bill can’t envision a life any different from the one he’s been living and tells Mary she’s free to do what she wants but he’s not stopping. But he’ll support her in any way possible (with the exception of giving up the booze).

Mary talks to a friend that’s been working her sobriety for years now. We’ll call her Alice. All drinkers typically have an Alice in their life. She’s the one that they’ve been mocking ever since she abandoned them for sobriety. The one they’ve jokingly been referring to as a “quitter.”

Suddenly, Mary feels that Alice’s lifestyle and choice doesn’t seem so foolish. In fact, it looks pretty damn tempting.

Alice tells Mary her story, perhaps about her own rock-bottom, and invites her to an AA meeting. Before she knows it, Mary is sitting in a room listening to people describe her same story, only with the clarity and insight of someone whose realized that there’s more to life than wondering where your next buzz is coming from.  Suddenly, Mary finds herself going on a regular basis. She has a sponsor. She’s reading the book and working the steps. Before she knows it, it’s thirty days later and she’s being applauded and rewarded with a little plastic chip. The kind of gesture that years ago she might have laughed at. Now she finds incredible meaning and inspiration from it.  There’s nothing easy about it but she’s committed to doing it. Thirty more very long days and she’s at sixty. Then ninety, six months and before she knows it, a group of people who a year ago were strangers are suddenly singing Happy Birthday, giving her love and presentingher with her first cake.  All while Bill–doesn’t.

Here’s a sobering fact for you–  The odds of relationship failure dramatically increase when one partner decides to sober up and the other does not.  This can be a very dicey time for partners in any committed relationship whether romantic, friendship or business. It does not dictate that the relationship is over so please don’t panic. Just that things are going to change and this change needs to be recognized.

Imagine if you will two parallel lines running alongside one another and that one of these lines represents Bill and the other Mary. These lines indicate that both are moving along in essentially the same emotional place. Now give Bill a drink or a hit of weed. Yes, just one drink or just one hit. That’s all it takes for these lines to diverge. And you need not be some kind of geometry scholar to understand what this means in terms of how Bill and Mary can relate to one another.  The line representing Mary will stay flat and even.  Bill’s line will start to move upward and away from hers. This is a fairly simple way of illustrating the way these two people are moving apart from one another in every way. What’s worse, it can take time well past the point where the intoxicated partner sobers up for the lines to rejoin one another because as anyone whose ever consumed alcohol or drugs will attest, it takes a little doing before you feel completely like yourself again.

So now the obvious questions are: what can be done should you find yourself in this predicament? How can your relationship survive when your partner and you so fundamentally disagree on something so significant? How can you get your partner to see the light and join you in this path of new sobriety and enlightenment?

The answers are not so obvious but the great news is that you are not alone. The most important thing is that you continue to work your own sobriety program and possibly consider getting into Al-Anon (another 12 step group for people who are in relationships with addicts). You can also continue to invite your partner to join you and discuss how your sobriety is benefiting you. Truth be told, this probably won’t matter because as you know, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. But know that as you focus on your own well-being, the rest will either fall into place, or it won’t. If it doesn’t and you find it’s unmanageable, that’s when you have to start asking yourself some much bigger questions such as how it serves you to be in an unmanageable relationship.

A couple of films come to mind relating directly to this topic. Even from a purely great movie-going experience, they’re worth seeing. DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick (both nominated for Oscars for their performances). And WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN with Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia. These are both great films, each tackling this subject of how relationships are forever changed when one person sobers up and the other does not. DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (directed by Blake Edwards) was released in 1962 and plays like it came out last week. As always, Jack Lemmon is the perfect every man; a PR exec who lets his job of schmoozing and partying with clients get the better of him.  WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN (written by Academy Award winning writer Ron Bass (RAIN MAN) and now Senator Al Franken) tackles the subject matter in a slightly different fashion. More  from the angle of a co-dependent person suddenly losing his identity when his alcoholic wife sobers up and develops a greater sense of self.

As you know, people will only stop using when they are ready and outside of a full-blown intervention, there’s nary a thing you can say or do to force them to do it. It has to be addressed from a place of concern; both for yourself and them. Not in the form of accusations and attacks. Interventions are a scary prospect because they are typically a last and final attempt to motivate the most lethal addict into becoming sober. If that person refuses the help, they are cut off from their relationships completely.

This conversation will be continued in an upcoming installment.

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