Q&A Part 2: Do couples get sober together?

Editor’s Note: Welcome to part two of our series, Questions & Answers. This series will attempt to cover topics and/or questions which have been raised by readers. Feel free to submit your own questions, and we’ll see what we can do about addressing them.

Do couples get sober together, or should they just work on themselves?

This question could mean a few different things, so I want to be sure that I address each potential meaning. The question could be, if two people in a relationship are both battling addictive and/or compulsive behaviors, should they get sober together? It could also be, if one partner struggles with chemical or process addiction issues and their partner is codependent, should they get sober together? Alternatively, one might ask why they should do any work ‘getting sober’ when their partner is the one who is addicted.

The simple answer is that if one person in a relationship is seeking recovery, chances are exceptionally high that the other person should also be pursuing their own recovery. But sometimes we simply have to settle for one person taking care of themselves while the other partner remains uneducated, uninformed, and unwilling. Or, in all honesty, sometimes we just have to wait for them to become willing because if there’s one thing we know, it’s that an unwilling participant is unlikely to be productive in their own recovery.

To be clear, while couples should get sober together, that quite explicitly means that they should work on themselves at the same time. Still foggy?

The only person I can change is me. The only person you can change is you.

In recovery we talk about sides of the street. We are each responsible, and truly only capable, of keeping our side of the street clean. It’s tempting, particularly for the codependent, to try to keep the other side of the street clean for our partner, but that’s not actually something we can achieve if we desire to maintain any sort of healthy sobriety.

We are there to sweep off our side of the street, realizing that nothing worth while can be accomplished until we do so, never trying to tell him what he should do. His faults are not discussed. We stick to our own. (Big Book 77-78)

That means that we are responsible for the damage created by our own actions. Period. We are not responsible for the damage created by the actions of others. We are not responsible for picking up the pieces after someone else in our life speeds through like a whirling dervish leaving debris in their wake. We are not responsible for preventing someone else from wreaking havoc in their life or the lives of others. We are responsible for our choices. Our actions. The damage we have caused or inflicted.

I am responsible for me.
You are responsible for you.

It doesn’t matter what the struggle is, if you and/or your partner are dealing with chemical or process addictions, you need help. Go to meetings. Make phone calls. Work the program. It might be drugs, alcohol, love, sex, gambling. shopping, relationships, food, or anything else. There are groups for that. There are meetings for that. Find a meeting. Work on yourself. Get better.

With regard to the addict or alcoholic in your life: You didn’t get them drunk; you can’t make them sober.

That goes for everyone and everything.

Everyone has to work on themselves.

A lot of calls come into my office that are made by partners or concerned relatives. One of the primary questions I ask everyone who calls my office is, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” This matters. A lot. More than most people know or realize.

If you want the best for your loved one who is struggling with addiction or compulsive behavior, the best thing you can do is take care of yourself. There are meetings for you. There are programs for you. There is help for you. There are others who have been where you are who are ready to share with you. Do the next right thing for you. You can’t make anyone else change their behavior and expect life-altering outcomes, but you can become the healthiest you imaginable.

Regardless of where you fall in the spectrum of addict or codependent or perceived normie partner, there is help available to you. You have to find it. You have to make an effort. You have to do the work if you want to change – if you want to get better, be better, do better. And, yes, of course life and recovery will be marvelously more successful if both partners are working to better themselves, but taking care of yourself is not the selfish thing you might think it is. There’s actually nothing more selfless than realizing your true potential rather than continuing to wade through the garbage of your codependency, complicity, or otherwise comorbid behavior.

Few of us come to Al-Anon hoping to change ourselves. More often we come because everything we have done to solve our problems has failed, and we have run out of ideas.

We come to Al-Anon for many different reasons but we stay for only one – we want our lives to get better. (How Al-Anon Works 6-7)

If you’re the partner, Al-Anon may be your best option. There are other types of meetings you might benefit from: Nar-Anon, S-Anon, ACoA, etc. But each of these meetings serves the primary purpose of speaking truth into our lives. These meetings provide opportunities for us to hear our story from other people. We can find hope and healing and truth and wisdom and peace in these rooms. And believe it or not, we partners might also benefit from attending Open Speaker meetings. That will give new insight and a new lens through which we might better understand the addict or alcoholic in our own lives.

Those meetings also have the ability to benefit the compulsive(s) in the relationship. I’ve never met an addict who wasn’t codependent. Just something to consider. You run the risk of offending hardcore codependents who feel like addicts only belong in their own meetings, but offending someone isn’t gonna stop me from becoming a happier, healthier person.

Do couples get sober together?

Yes. Kind of.

And meetings don’t have to be the only component couples pursue toward sobriety. Couples can also benefit from therapy or counseling sessions in both a one-on-one environment and as a couple. Professional help does not replace going to meetings and actively participating in the recovery community, but it can certainly augment working the program. In fact, many of us have the luxury of benefiting from therapists and counselors who are themselves in recovery.

If you need to go to a meeting that your significant other isn’t in to get sober, do so. Don’t limit yourself by feeling that you can’t share openly and honestly because a certain someone is in the room with you.

Do your thing.

Keep your side of the street clean.

Together you can become better people.

There’s no time like the present, especially since all we have is right now.

But be prepared for change. Be prepared to be a different person on the other side of recovery. Acknowledge that if and when one or both of you become different people, it might not necessarily strengthen your relationship. But that’s okay. Staying in that relationship might not be the best thing for you anyway.

What matters is that you’re working to take care of yourself. You’re working to be a better person. You’re trying to be healthy. You’re working to be the person God wants you to be.

So, yeah, couples get sober together, but they do so by working on themselves.

– Alex Walker

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