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.
Part of my job working with families is to say, “Yes, you are second. The recovery has to come first, or there will be no family. There will be no job. There will be no kids.” And that’s a very difficult thing for people to swallow.
Mandy: What you’re doing is setting realistic expectations which perhaps they really, really need.
Dr. Al: I tell people it doesn’t have to be this way forever. The way we do that is to compartmentalize the developmental stages of recovery into Red, Yellow, and Green. Red: You save your life. And I tell people if somebody says, “My wife is bitching at me because we don’t ever go get dinner.” I say, “Is getting dinner with your wife—” and I tell the wife this, too, “Is getting dinner with your wife going to save your life?” And they’ll say, “No.” I’ll say, “Well, is having a sponsor going to an A.A. meeting, doing the steps going to save your life?” And they’ll say, “Yes,” I’ll say, “OK.” In the Red Zone, you do what saves your life, and then recovery will always mature to an easier, more pleasant recovery.
Then the Yellow Zone, on top of that basic recovery, focuses on relationships. It also focuses on career and just pleasurable activities. So I tell these families, “When you hit Yellow let relationships be the first item on your menu. Don’t jump into skydiving or worry about going to medical school, but put that priority on whatever the two of you decide is important. And often that is relationships.
And a number of people may need professional help in any of these stages. And that’s what we do in Chapter 26, we guide the family and friends as to why they are playing second fiddle to basic recovery.
The Divorce Coach Says
I think it can be very hard to essentially put your marriage on hold for a couple of years especially if you’ve already had several years of marital challenges before your spouse hit rock bottom.
However, most of the people I work with do want to feel confident that divorce is the right decision or even to feel that they’ve reached the stage where it is the only action. They prefer to make this decision feeling that they have exhausted all other options and, perhaps most of all they want to feel pretty certain that it isn’t a decision they will later regret.
It’s clear from my conversation with Dr. Al that this is not something you can do your own. regular, on-going counseling is going to be important and you might consider using some online resources for that. This article, Use Online Couples Counseling To Get Your Relationship Back On Track from Regain.us is a good place to start to figure out if going online is a good fit for you.
What Dr. Al gives here is another avenue to pursue before you make the decision to end your marriage and while that may mean your marital relationship being in limbo for a couple of years, it’s not that your life has to go on hold and I think that’s important to understand.
Far from holding yourself in limbo, Dr. Al is recommending that you go out and explore life, do all the things you want to do, that you’re curious about, even if that means doing them on your own. Go join the group that plays wiffle ball that your spouse wasn’t interested in. Go join the group that goes to the theater every month that your spouse grunted at when you suggested. Do the Italian cookery class you been thinking about for years. Their recovery doesn’t mean you sitting at home watching TV. Then, when your spouse has reached the Yellow Zone, you’ll be able to see if your relationship is sustainable.
One word of caution for this period of self-discovery, dating other people during this period is not something I would recommend. I know and understand that marriages come in all sorts of different arrangements but take to heart what Dr. Al says about the thinking parts of the brain being affected by drugs and alcohol … even if this is something you discuss with your spouse and even if it is something with which they agree at that time, dating other people carries with a significant risk of complicating any future reconciliation.
Now what if you have reached the conclusion that divorce is the right decision, that you can’t continue with your marriage even though your spouse is in recovery? Then I would suggest that you consider a separation and seek legal advice on what you can do to protect yourself financially. Unless there is a pressing need to push forward with the legal process, I would hold off, allow your spouse the time to focus on their recovery and then once they’re in the Yellow Zone they will be in a better position to make all the decisions that are associated with getting a divorce.
Al J. Mooney, M.D. is co-author of The Recovery Book: Answers to All Your Questions About Addiction And Alcoholism And Finding Health And Happiness in Sobriety. He is the Director of Addiction Medicine and Recovery at Willingway, and lectures internationally on the latest science and treatments for recovery.