I stopped drinking 5 years ago but my partner still drinks. When I started to delve into this issue, I found that there are numerous drinkers who ditched the booze – but their partners did not. I found that I was part of a tribe of sober women and men – some who battle with the fact that their partners still drink, and others who have come to terms with it and live in simple happiness. The reality is, however, that some marriages disintegrated for this very reason.
Then suddenly there I was, last week, sipping huge cappuccinos with my friend – who has stopped drinking, but her partner still drinks. She called me in distress because she had decided to leave him. She had decided to escape the toxic patterns of drinking, then accusing, then criticising, then disconnecting.
We stirred the froth on our coffees and sipped quietly. Sonia * was clearly in a dilemma. She stopped drinking 3 years ago – but her partner is stuck and has not changed. And to make things worse, the previous night he had managed half a bottle of whiskey on the rocks. Then he started to criticise her unhappiness and grumpiness.
“Why don’t you just leave, then?” he demanded. She could not leave. No money, nowhere to go. So, she decided to move into the spare bedroom. Next morning, her partner was contrite and wanted to start again. Needless to say, the story continues…
For many people, it happens every time. For Sonia, it creates ongoing stress in her life. She was worried that she WAS unhappy and grumpy and that this showed in her face and demeanour. It seemed to me that Sonia was growing and discovering her way in her midlife, but her husband was clearly stuck. Behind the alcoholic curtain. Yet again, every marriage deserves a chance, and it takes two partners in a marriage to get help.
The Story of our Lives as Drinkers then Non-Drinkers
When I stopped drinking 5 years ago, my partner stopped drinking – during the week. He still drinks during the weekends. Is that a problem for me? Should it be a problem for me? I think that it all depends on the circumstances, the history of the relationship, the history of my own drinking – and all the emotions involved.
I have been thinking back to how I was when I met my husband: we worked for the same NGO and met up at after-work evenings in local Johannesburg pubs. We drank and got drunk; during weekends we drank and got drunk. When we got engaged and moved to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, we spend weekends braaing and exploring country restaurants – drinking beer and wine all the time.
“It’s hard having a partner who drinks most evenings,” commiserated Molly. “I used that as an excuse for a long time. I still wish he didn’t drink as I would prefer a home free of alcohol. I have made that request a few times, but he won’t conceive of it at all.” Molly has been on and off her wine for 15 years. She is vulnerable to triggers where she believes that alcohol is “a turning away from her deepest longings.”
Our Partners are NOT Us
Molly’s partner is not like her. He is not drawn to alcohol like she is. Her husband is a moderate drinker who can leave a glass half full and go to bed! “I have had to overcome my resentment of his easy relationship to wine…. he used to tell me he missed the companionship of me sharing a glass with him. But that’s stopped. At one point, I was stuck in a cycle of not getting past 2 months sober.”
Molly then packed the alcohol away in the garage and was forced to change her habits. She now makes herbal teas after dinner, she studies a lot and she chooses to massage her children’s shoulders at social braai evenings to keep her hands busy. The things we do to fit in. Have you stopped drinking but your partner still drinks?
Jim told me his story. “My wife and I were big drinking buddies until I stopped. Initially, I hated the fact that she was still drinking and felt holier than thou, to be honest. We had a few arguments about it and I eventually saw the light – that it is her problem if she continues to drink. As we know, only she can change that.”
Jim still pours his partner drinks and if she gets funny or argumentative after or during drinking, he backs off and says he has to “walk the dogs, or feed the birds, or whatever”. This way, things are much calmer. It is funny yet revealing that Jim’s wife stockpiled booze when she realised that Level 3 Lockdown did not include alcohol!
Avoiding the Situation When Only One of You Drinks
How does that feel? One partner drinks so the other partner avoids the situation? That sounds so familiar to me! When I stopped drinking, I avoided my partner and his need to drink. When I asked him why he drinks, he said he likes it. I watch him surreptitiously during weekends, his big 3-day binge. I watch the wine glass reaching his lips every second, like a child sipping orange juice.
I am fortunate that my husband chose to do the January Challenge and now, with no alcohol freely available in South Africa, he is still sober. I am wondering if he will drink again when the laws are lifted. And whether he will go right back there, to the 3-day binge drinking?
Megan Peters (The Temper) reckons that she was terrified to tell her drinking partner that she had stopped drinking. I mean, they had met during drunken times and got together during binge drinking weekends together.
When I came to him and said, “I’m quitting drinking for a while,” he was shocked. He told me that I was overreacting and being dramatic. I remember being crushed that he wasn’t immediately supportive and proud of me. In fact, he was defensive, telling me that I shouldn’t expect him to quit just because I did. I was so raw and exposed. It felt like a slap in the face.
Megan’s story has a happy ending: her partner became super proud of her and bragged about her achievements to all his buddies. Thing is, he still drinks and she still has to cope with alcohol in their home.
For Brenda, it was all about a boyfriend who loved alcohol when she stopped drinking. She was not a big drinker, but she did drink when she met this guy, to please him and fit in. Then she stopped drinking after a Tribe Sober workshop and things changed.
Saving the Other or Surviving the Guilt
During their 3-year relationship they broke up several times, due to issues of addiction (he moved from alcohol to smoking dagga and a vape). They drifted apart and she realised that she had been trying to help her partner to stop his addictions.
“I miss this guy, but I know it is the right thing to do,” Brenda said of their final break-up 6 months ago. “For me, it’s a good example of how changing my behaviour had a positive effect on him and he also stopped drinking for a while. But by then we had split up. He is never going to stop the weed. I don’t like the smell or taste of it, so it had a huge impact on my experience of him.”
She recognises that this boyfriend is just the way he is. “Maybe I was too harsh on him? At the moment, I am happily single and enjoying my sober journey.”
Kerry Neville (HuffPost) also left her partner who drank while she battled with sobriety. Because she was riddled with guilt, which equates to shame.
When I got sober, I didn’t ask my then-husband to quit drinking. In the foggy, shame-filled logic of early sobriety, I felt guilty. After all, he had moved the booze from a locked cabinet (which I easily picked open with a kabob skewer) to some other super secret place in support of my recovery.
After a few months, he asked her if he could bring some booze back into the house. She agreed. But what she did not realise is that her home would be packed with bottles of hard liquor again. “The cabinet was reassembled with the delicious clutter of scotch, gin, vodka, ouzo, tsipouro, brandy, kahlua, rum, tequila, and wine. It was mostly fine, except when it wasn’t.”
She talks about the intimacy that gets lost between the bottle, the boozy breath and her increasing rigidity, thanks to her battle with sobriety. It is not surprising that her husband found another woman and the relationship ended. She was no longer that girl who met her husband all those years ago and drank and had sex and forgot what happened the night before. She started to realise just how much she had changed.
“What was becoming clear, too, was that the “me” who had married my husband, who had spent years and years drinking at ports of call all over the world, and waking up hungover and ashamed in these places, was no longer able to sit on the couch and pretend that his drinking with me was okay. Alcohol muddies intentions.”
Kelly lives alone now and allows her sober self to indulge in other tastes like fresh oranges and sweets. She works out to clear her irritations and gives her kids and dog plenty of hugs. Life does go on. Some of us stay with partners who still drink even when we have stopped drinking. Others move on. It takes hard work and inner knowing.
Take this Good Advice!
I think that the best advice I have read around this topic is from This Naked Mind. Annie Grace is lucid and honest when she says that every relationship demands compromise, regardless of whether one partner drinks or not. And marriage involves loving someone for who they are.
My advice: Make it a priority to keep your marriage and your friendships together as you navigate this massive change. If this is the focus, rather than changing their behavior, than the reality is there is a much higher chance of their behavior changing!
Read her four tips for survival in a marriage when only one partner drinks – it can be done!
Remember that it takes 60 days to change a habit. Have you thought about persuading your partner to do the 66-day challenge? Just a thought…
*Names have been changed.