Having your spouse admit their drinking problem is a significant milestone; having them commit to recovery is another. While it may have taken months or years to get to this point, realistically it’s going to be another eighteen months, two years before you can do any sort of meaningful work on your relationship. That begs the question, how will you survive your alcoholic spouse in recovery?
Al J. Mooney, M.D. co-author of the The Recovery Book: Answers to All Your Questions About Addiction And Alcoholism And Finding Health And Happiness In Sobriety recommends that the non-alcoholic spouse focus on themselves and give their spouse the space and time they need to focus on recovery:
Dr. Al: First of all if a person is drinking and using drugs it affects the thinking parts of the brain, they’re not all of themselves. A lot of people make assumptions about the relationship but when there’s drugs involved it’s up in the air as to what that person is really like. A period of abstinence is important to know what that person is really like. And that can work both ways.
Often married people who are drinking and using drugs, it turns out in recovery that they had a bad relationship because the marriage kind of consolidated around alcohol and drugs. The opposite happens, too. A lot of times people get married, before there are alcohol and drugs. When the chemicals enter the picture the personality changes and the marriage does not have the foundation that it was originally built on, then it could be jeopardized.
If a person can get sober and get into recovery, this what we call the Red Zone, and I tell people don’t worry too much about their relationships because the first priority in recovery for a year or two is to save your life. I’ve had do this for a couple of really blunt times where families didn’t realize. They say “You’re sober now. Let’s deal with the relationship and we can get back and have all the things that we lost.” I’ve emphasized to family members, if they go to Al-Anon, they’ll understand this a lot easier but now that the person has stopped drinking they need to build a recovery that will withstand the test of time, and that always takes a year and a half or two years at a minimum. During that time the family needs to be a low priority, those relationships are not a very high priority as far as what the wife or spouse is going to be seeking. So the relationship becomes important later once that person knows they’re in good recovery and can expand outside of themselves to build help around them.
Mandy: So the person who’s not in recovery, is building a life for them like what makes them happy, what they enjoy, taking care of their needs, and making sure their needs are priority, so that when their spouse has got that solid foundation of recovery behind them, then they can to see whether they still have a relationship that’s aligned.
Dr. Al: I tell people it’s like trains running on parallel tracks for the first couple of years if the relationship can work with each person building their own foundation of a new life in the recovery. Then a couple of years down the road they begin to look to the things that really make the relationship thrive. And it takes that foundation worked on in basic recovery, before you could even really examine the relationship. It gets to be hard to do for families.
Mandy: Do you ever run into people who say, “Two years? You’re asking me to put up with this for another two years? I can’t do that.”
Dr. Al: Usually not but that’s something depending on the situation because if it’s irresponsible behavior, if it’s neglect of family issues that are essential, then that can be possible. But a family member who sees somebody get sober, and this happens all the time, will say, “Now that you’re sober you’re spending all your time going to AA. What’s more important AA or me?” What I’m going to tell the alcoholic and the spouse is, “Me is more important. Without me in recovery there is no relationship.”
It took me a while to figure that out because when my dad got out of prison, my mom got out of mental institutions and didn’t need shock treatments anymore, they were always gone. In my eleven-year-old, twelve-year-old mind I was thinking, “They say they’ve got a disease, and they’re getting treated but I don’t see them much more than when they were in institutions.” I began to have some feelings and resentments but I am so glad that they put their recovery ahead of the kids, ahead of me. Not that I understood it then, but, now, after those first couple of years, you go fifty-two more years and I realize that the most important thing is selfish recovery for a couple of years, above the job, the kids, the wife, and everything.
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If you are trying to decide if divorce is right for you, I have some resources that could help. First, try my free audio program, 5 Ways To Know If Divorce Is Right For You. Next, my online divorce coaching program, My Divorce Pal has a entire track with ten modules devoted to this, including seeing divorce as an option, not wanting to be the bad guy and even, wishing your spouse was dead (yes, that is not uncommon.) Take a look at what’s covered here. You can also set up a free 30-minute consult with me to discuss your particular concerns in private.