Five Challenges the Partners of Alcoholics in Recovery Face

Image for blog1.  “I am still not the priority?!”

When one enters recovery, their partner is usually feeling a great sense of relief and gratitude. Possibly believing some “normalcy” will return to their lives. Time together, evenings out, no more fighting the booze for attention. Over time; however, the truth reveals itself. No, it is not the alcohol that consumes their time – now it is their recovery. AA meetings, coffee afterwards, meeting their sponsor, doing step work. All of these things take time. It is often difficult for the partner to now have to share their spouse with the program. “How do I come second…..again??” The truth is, making recovery the priority IS making you and your relationship the priority. The program of recovery is one that must be attended to as often and as frequently as the alcoholism was. There is a saying “everything you put before your recovery you will lose”. So remember, you are the priority – now more than ever.

  1. I don’t recognize you….”

In the early stages of recovery the alcoholic is learning a new way of life – a new way to be – a new identity is forming. Perhaps while drinking your partner was passive, compliant, had a dependency on you. Perhaps while drinking your partner was upbeat, outgoing, life of the party. Now, who is the person before you who has lost or changes the personality you knew? In recovery the alcoholic is discovering who they are without alcohol. In turn, you as the partner, may be learning new things about them. Very often a new set of beliefs are developed and the dynamic of the relationship will inevitably change – which means you both have to adjust to and change with it. This can be frustrating – as it “feels” as if once again the alcoholic is running the show. The alternative; however, is to be with an active alcoholic, which is not what either want. These changes are gradual and part of the program the alcoholic helps his/her partner help to understand their role and how to be supportive. You too, are a part of the process of change and together you both adjust and operate effectively within a new dynamic.

  1. So…are you better yet…?”

Your partner enters recovery and is attending meetings, doing well and feeling better. It’s been 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 5 years……surely they are done by now? Surely they are fixed and don’t have to keep going to those meetings and doing all that stuff…? This is often a question partners have as the hope is that this something that will “go away”. The truth is, alcoholism is a chronic disease that exists in the brain. While alcoholics grow and change in recovery, their program can grow and change as well. However the “need” for “treatment” or “medicine” does not have an end date. This a prescription for life. As a chronic disease the susceptibility to relapse is incredibly high – in fact the odds are more against than for the alcoholic to have success. Just as with any illness, any disease – you follow the directions. The directions here are that this is a lifelong process.

  1. What do I have to do with this?!?”

While there is nobody to blame for alcoholism, there are certainly outside relationships, environments and experiences that contribute to the progression of the disease. In more cases than not there are underlying issues within the alcoholic that have not yet been addressed and alcohol had been used to mask. In some cases – an unhealthy dynamic may have existed in the relationship prior to the progression of the alcoholism. Very often it can be helpful for he partner to gain an understanding of what these underlying issues are. This is not to provide an “excuse” for the alcoholics behavior or to “let them off the hook”. A very important part of recovery is to be accountable for the actions they take. This is so that the partner can understand the role they may have played (Unknowingly) to enable or contribute to the disease. The partner also deserves a platform to discuss the impact of the alcoholics drinking, the feeling they may have about this trauma (as it very well can be considered a trauma). Alcoholism is considered a “family disease” – it does not exist in a vacuum. The impacts are far-reaching and long-lasting and partners need to have the opportunity to heal and recover as well.


  1. A program for me? I’m not the sick one!

So many couples I treat come into therapy in order to address the arguments and hostility around the new dynamic in the relationship. This is a huge adjustment, not only for the alcoholic, but for the partner as well. The idea that the partner may also be “in recovery” for some is a very difficult concept and is met with a high amount of resistance. As a standard recommendation I often refer partners of alcoholics to ALANON, or FA (Families Anonymous) or even their own individual therapy – whatever type of support they are most likely to engage in. Like the experience of the alcoholic – there is pain, anger, fear and sadness that must be processed. It can feel, at times, too much to bear. Either looking at ways they may have enabled the disease, so they do not repeat the same pattern (their own form of relapse), or examining their resentments and hurt and how or IF they can get to a place of letting that go and moving on with their relationship. Recovery is a parallel process – each person’s recovery running alongside of the others. While each recovery process is their own, the benefits that result are felt by both.