How to Support a Partner Who Is Sober, When You Still Enjoy a Drink

supporting a sober partner

It’s often noted how much drinking culture is embedded into the “Aussie” experience. We are known as a nation of drinkers, incapable of enjoying a special occasion, sporting event or a Tuesday without a tipple.

From an early age, we are exposed to all sorts of inadvertent messages that the natural way to celebrate a milestone or to relieve stress after a trying day/week/incident is with a drink or two, either at the pub or in the comfort of our home.

Over the course of the pandemic, people — not just in Australia, but worldwide — have simultaneously reported both drinking more to cope and taking a step back to reevaluate their relationship with the drop, creating a slew of new terms for people who are trying to decide what place alcohol has in their life.

‘Sober curious’ and ‘sober lite‘ have become ubiquitous and there is now a booming market of alcohol-free drinks with sales of such beverages in Australia doubling between June 2020 and June 2021, making it one of the fastest-growing categories.

While we may applaud our friends, family or co-workers for kicking the booze — whether it be for Dry July or for good — when it comes to our romantic relationships the situation can become far more complicated, especially if we still enjoy a tipple. If the decision to quit drinking is born out of addiction, it can feel much easier to support than if it simply stems from wanting to make healthier choices.

“There are lots of reasons why it can be difficult for someone when their partner decides to stop drinking,” says Amber Rules, a psychotherapist and counsellor at Sydney Addictions Recovery.

“It can worry someone that their partner will no longer participate in “fun” with them, it can feel like a criticism of their own drinking or can shine light on some problematic drinking behaviour of their own, and sometimes partners resent the idea that they will have to stop themselves to support their partner.”

Adds psychologist and founder of The TARA Clinic, Tara Hurster, “Sometimes when someone close to you chooses to change their relationship with alcohol it forces you to look at your own relationship. That can be confronting for some because you may not like what you see.”

Breaking Up With Booze

For some people, however, it can simply be that they crave the shared experience of unwinding with their partner at the end of a workweek over a glass of wine.

It’s not hard to understand why this practice feels so desirable —  we are constantly fed the message, through films, television shows and social media that no romantic experience is complete without a drink in hand. Watching a gorgeous sunset? You’ve got to have a cocktail. Enjoying a winter weekend escape? How could you not share a glass of red by the open fireplace? Did one of you just get promoted? It would be rude not to pop open some bubbles.

When Lisa’s* husband was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, the decision for them both to stop drinking as he got better was a no brainer. However, now that her husband is cancer-free and drinks occasionally and in moderation, Lisa says she sometimes wishes he would indulge in a Friday night glass of red with her.

“I’d love to be able to buy a nice bottle of wine sometimes to end the week but seeing as I would only have one glass myself, I can’t bring myself to spend $40 on a bottle that will go waste,” Lisa says.

“It would be so great to be able to share that end of week experience with my husband but sometimes I feel like he doesn’t understand or approve of me wanting to have a drink to unwind.

“You know those couples that you see, and it’s the wife opening up a bottle of red and them sitting and sharing it while they talk about their day? I envy those relationships a little bit. On the plus side, we’ve not had to spend money restocking our bar cart in about five years.”

The feeling of disapproval, whether perceived or real, is one that Claire* can relate to, as her husband, who comes from a sporting background, only enjoys a single drink a couple of times a year.

“The bar (no pun intended) is so low that having two drinks makes me feel like a boozer,” she says. “If I ever want a wind-down wine after work I get ‘the look’.”

However, Claire also notes the pros of having a predominantly teetotal partner, citing saved money, always having a designated driver and the equal division of parenting as some of the benefits.

“It also encourages me to not use alcohol as a coping tool when I’m having a tough time,” she says.

A Part of Our Identity

So why is alcohol pretty much the only drug that, when you give it up, people can be affronted?

Says Rules, “I have often thought that people find it challenging or personally affronting when someone says they are quitting alcohol. I think it brings up feelings of guilt, shame or worry that they mask with derision or ridicule. It holds a mirror up to their own problematic drinking and that can be very uncomfortable.

People also forget (or don’t understand in the first place) how dangerous alcohol really is. Statistically speaking, you’re much more likely to die from alcohol use than drug use, and you’re much more likely to have alcohol-related illness and injuries than drug-related.”

“When something is considered part of a culture, it links in with your identity,” says Hurster. “Add to that, if you feel you are known for being the person who drinks the group under the table or has the best dance moves at 2am, then the idea of potentially losing our friendship circle or our notoriety can be really uncomfortable.”

When You Are the One Who Quits

In the case of Sasha*, she found that while she was perfectly comfortable deciding to stop drinking for the benefit of her mental health, her partner proved to be anything but supportive.

Sasha found that life was intrinsically better and she was happier than she had felt in a long time after cutting out alcohol. “I became more confident, people actually liked me for me. Each day, I felt more and more cemented in myself and who I was,” she explained. But for her partner, her new lease on life was an “issue” that he just could not seem to overcome.

“On the surface he was supportive, but underneath he was consistently belittling the experience. [According to him] I wasn’t as fun, I was boring now. I now put pressure on him (to go for a walk on a Sunday btw!) I criticised him too much, made him feel less than etc.

“It grew and grew and he started to drink more and more and that came with a litany of abuse from him of how I had no feelings and that I was a sociopath (I can only think it was because I was no longer down that drunkard path where everything seems important). It also came with the paranoia that apparently I was meeting other guys during my 6am sunrise walks. Then it got physical and I got out with my family support.” 

While Sasha’s experience is both heartbreaking and extreme, she says that the support she desired was really quite simple.

“I would have loved to have been supported by him in embracing the new experiences I was having,” she said. “Absolutely no need to stop drinking as well, but loving me as I changed.” 

In cases where you are the one who is going alcohol-free, Rules suggests approaching your partner with some reasons why you’d like to stop, and ideas about how they can support you while expecting that it might take them a bit of time to understand your choice.

“If it becomes difficult, it can be really useful to speak to a couples counsellor to help you negotiate these choices,” she says.

“If your partner is firm about not wanting to change their behaviour to support you, it could be time to reevaluate the relationship, and don’t forget that this says more about them — and their relationship with alcohol — than it does about you.”

How You Can Help

“It’s a complex change for some people, and partners have to navigate the meaning and fears that their significant other’s choice might have on them,” says Rules.

“It’s important for both parties to discuss how to proceed when one person continues to drink, and how they can support each other with the transition.

“The drinking person may need to accept that the non-drinking person might have different needs, such as changing the way they socialise and who they socialise with. People will need to renegotiate some of the unwritten rules of the relationship and this may be challenging.”

Hurster urges couples where one person has stopped drinking to remember that, as with most things related to relationships, communication is key.

“Talk with each other about what has driven the person’s decision to remove alcohol from their life and what it would mean for them if you chose to continue to drink,” she says. 

“Sometimes having an unbiased third party can be helpful here to facilitate and mediate these conversations. I love the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS), a national free phone line available 24/7 that can provide on-hand counselling, information and referral options for people experiencing concerns with substance use and their friends or family.” 

Alternatives to Alcohol

As Hurster points out, and as we have reported on previously, there are so many drink options these days that don’t contain a drop of booze.

“Check out the mocktails list and non-alcoholic drinks paring at restaurants and bars,” see she says. “Gone are the “I’ll just have water, thanks” moments. You can be as fancy as you want to be and no one is going to know.” 

Adds Rules, “You might like to change plans to accommodate the non-drinking person. For example, if you buy a holiday package with unlimited free meals and drinks, it could help to reconsider this. Or, if you’re going out to a bar, you could set a finish time, so that the non-drinker knows when they’ll be able to leave.

“Sometimes, the non-drinker may elect to skip some social events and the drinking person may sleep in a different room when they arrive home, so as not to disturb the non-drinker (and refrain from smelling like alcohol when they come to bed).”

Hurster also recommends exploring fun activities that allow you and your partner to have a laugh as well as trying something new or exploring different ways of doing what you have always done.

‘Just like variety is good in the bedroom, exploring other date night experiences can be just as exciting to keep the spark alive,” she says. 

*names have been changed for privacy reasons.

If alcohol is becoming a problem for you or someone you know, you can find a list of resources through LifeLine by calling 13 11 14 or by clicking here.

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