Quitting alone: What happens when your partner still drinks

One of the biggest hurdles in sobriety is quitting when a spouse isn't on the same path.

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When I decided to start this newsletter, the topic I’m going to write about today was one of the topics I imagined sharing. This is the number one question people on this journey have and one of the first stumbling blocks people run into when they decide to quit drinking. This was certainly true for me and my story as well. The topic we’re going to open is what to do when your partner still drinks.

This isn’t just my story. I want to be mindful in sharing the details of my path because this isn't just about me. I also know this is an important topic and it’s something that kept me stuck for years. The reality is, very few couples make this decision together. Typically, one person decides to quit drinking and the other, may or may not be supportive and is likely not on the same page.

Here's how it went for me…John and I met when we were in middle school at 4H camp. This is true and what’s crazy is I knew from the minute I met him that he was my person. We essentially grew up together. We went to the same middle school and the same high school and like a lot of high school kids, we experimented with alcohol. Our drinking stories intertwined all the way back in high school and were built brick by brick through college, after getting married and into adulthood. It’s safe to say that John has been my drinking buddy for well over 20 years. That’s real and that’s a lot of history.

What started as an infrequent hobby on the weekends, grew to share a bottle of wine daily after work and with meals at home. We shared a love of wine. We enjoyed drinking wine, collecting wine, learning about wine…hell, our wedding was even wine-themed complete with engagement photos at a winery stomping grapes! I would say part of our identity as a couple was around wine. Because I had grown up with parents who drank wine daily, at first, I didn’t question this slow escalation of consumption. I assumed adults drank and because of what I saw growing up, I assumed adults drank daily. But sometime after our wedding and prior to having kids, I remember asking a coworker how often they drank because something in the back of my mind was questioning if this was in our best interests.

In 2009 we welcomed our first daughter Wren into our family. She was both the best thing that had ever happened to us and also the hardest challenge we’d ever faced as a couple. Wren had severe colic and didn’t sleep through the night until 9 months old. On top of sleep deprivation, I unknowingly suffered from post-partum depression. I eventually sought out help and thankfully accepted relief through anti-depressants but during that time I also used alcohol to cope. This is a big transition in my drinking story because it’s when someone turns to alcohol as a coping mechanism, that it actually changes the chemistry in the brain on how you view alcohol. No longer was alcohol an innocuous substance to be consumed for fun with others, it became a necessary coping mechanism for life’s challenges.

It’s important to note that I had no idea this was happening at the time, it’s only now when I look back that I can see so clearly where things started to go sideways. The interesting thing about this timeframe is also the lack of conversation around or acknowledgment of my drinking. If someone in my life was concerned, it was never expressed to me. That’s not to pass responsibility or judgment, that’s simply to say that alcohol was truly not on my radar as a possible danger.

Fast forward through two more daughters, many moves, and massive career reinventions that both John and I turned to alcohol to help soften, and we found ourselves in a toxic web of our own making. I shared some of my story in an early newsletter, so I am going to spare a lot of the details here. What’s important to know is that we’ve been together for well over 20 years (married 15 years), we’ve gone through all of adulthood together and alcohol has always been involved. When I talk about changing behaviors and identities and foundationally changing relationships, this is the story I am walking through.

In 2020 I found myself isolated at home, raising a newborn, homeschooling our two oldest, and coping with COVID-19. During that time, John and I coped with the stress the only way we knew how – through alcohol. As was the case with many others around the globe, it very quickly became evident that this was not a healthy coping mechanism but was near impossible to change. In September, we decided together to stop drinking. We had no idea what we were doing but we honestly thought we were done. John had reached a point where it was slowly taking over, and he didn’t like what he was experiencing. It was hard but we quit together. I can’t divulge all the details of what we were living through, but I will tell you that I started seeing a counselor after realizing I couldn’t keep getting by on my own. I think like a lot of people who experience difficulty, it wasn’t one thing, it was a million little things. I can’t put my finger on something that “happened” or a straw that broke the camel’s back. What I can remember is that I felt hopeless. I remember just knowing that I needed someone’s help to work through the difficulties I was facing silently.

We stopped drinking for 50 days; it was the longest we had ever gone together or individually without being pregnant. During that time, we went on vacation to Arizona and experienced our first sober trip together. We felt amazing and often discussed all the incredible changes we were feeling and experiencing. But we also wondered if this was something we wanted to do forever. That November we decided to break our 50-day streak and have wine for Thanksgiving. We thought that since we had gone for such an extended period we could just bring it back for a day and then moderate after that. That’s not how it went.

Most people who take a break from alcohol and decide to go back will quickly find themselves right where they left off and that’s what happened to us. Within a month’s time, we found ourselves right back to drinking daily. The same problems that were the catalyst for cutting out alcohol began to creep right back in. In later newsletters, I’ll discuss why this happens and how alcohol disrupts our dopamine receptors and the ability to regulate natural feel-good chemicals. The most basic explanation is that alcohol is a depressant and when consumed consistently over time will cause you to feel more and more depressed. This is exactly what was going on with us.

We never took an extended break from alcohol together again. We have both worked on changing our relationship with alcohol and how much space it occupies in our lives, but we’re on different paths. When I decided I was done in September, I made that decision alone. John has been incredibly supportive, but he also doesn’t want to do what I’m doing. Thankfully, he isn’t drinking daily but he is still drinking. I’m going to be super honest with you because it’s what I’d want if I were reading this newsletter, I wish he’d stop with me. I wish he didn’t drink. If I could wave a magic wand, we’d be on this journey together. But I can’t control him, and this isn’t his path. I’ve learned that I need to come to terms with the fact that I can only control my actions and behaviors. I can’t control him and while I have always known that on a conscious level, I haven’t always acted in accordance with that knowledge. I’ve tried to control him through nagging, fighting, threatening, you name it, I’ve done it. I’m not proud of the ways I’ve always acted during this transition, but it’s taught me one of the most important lessons – you can only control yourself and that’s enough.

I often find myself impatient with this journey. I want to know the end of the story and I question each detour and turn it takes. When I look back at how everything has unfolded, I can see purpose and value in all of it. It was important that John and I went on our first sober vacation together. That one experience allowed us to take another to Mexico and built my confidence in future sober travel. Taking the 50-day break together showed me that life isn’t lived at half-mast without alcohol, but that it’s exciting and even more colorful without it. There were so many gifts from our 50-day experiment and one of them for me was that I want to live like that every day. I don’t know how this story ends for us. None of us gets to fast forward and see how it all turns out.

If you’re in a relationship with a partner who drinks and you’re trying to change your drinking habits I would tell you that you can do it on your own. It’s not easy and you’re going to be triggered. You’re going to wish they would stop too because that would certainly make it easier. Maybe you’re also worried about their drinking like I was. To that, I would say that sometimes it’s best when people learn on their own. Regardless, we can’t change other people but maybe we can inspire change through our own actions. That’s what I’m living out. I have the choice to be a good example to my family of what a sober life looks like or a miserable one. Sometimes I’m not a very good example but most days I do a really great job. This won’t be the last newsletter on this topic but there’s so much to say we had to start somewhere.

Until next time friends, I’m rooting for you and I’m here if you ever want to reach out.

XOXO - Jess