Quitting alcohol is an enormous challenge, but it can feel even harder when you’re married or in a committed relationship with someone who still drinks.
I was in this situation, but also lucky to have a supportive husband.
I tried (and failed) several times to quit drinking. At every step in that journey, he did his best to support my needs and navigate the boundaries I set in place.
My husband did and does still drink alcohol.
I never asked him to quit, nor do I think he would have had I asked. But he was also on board with helping me break free of it.
And still, it was an uphill battle where we both made mistakes and didn’t always know the right thing to say or do.
So how do you navigate a home life where one person continues to drink, and the other desperately wants to stop?
Before diving into strategies, I think it’s important to explore a few questions.
- 1. What is your spouse’s relationship with alcohol?
- 2. Why does your spouse want to keep drinking?
- 3. Does your spouse support your decision to quit?
- Do These 5 Things If You Want To Successfully Quit Drinking When Your Spouse Won’t
- What if your spouse won’t quit drinking and doesn’t support your sobriety?
1. What is your spouse’s relationship with alcohol?
Your spouse’s own relationship with alcohol can affect their willingness or ability to support your sobriety.
Is your spouse a moderate drinker?
Even if they aren’t daily drinkers, a moderate drinker might have few drinks in social settings but generally avoids binge drinking, getting drunk, or abusing alcohol.
For this type of drinker, a more restrictive home environment (as it pertains to alcohol) might be easier to navigate since they already don’t drink much.
Is your spouse a gray area drinker?
A gray area drinker drinks more than they probably should but does not tick enough boxes to be labeled an alcoholic or someone who suffers from alcohol use disorder. A lot of people fall into this category.
Gray area drinkers don’t necessarily drink every day. They can even go long stretches without alcohol. When they do drink, however, things can get out of hand.
They are more likely to grab a drink to cope with a stressful day at work. They’re no strangers to waking up with a raging hangover from a night of heavy drinking, truly regretting their decisions and wishing they could make better ones.
These are the people who say, “Maybe I should take a break,” because they recognize that they go overboard when they drink. And sometimes, they do take a break from alcohol. But they always go back to drinking.
They aren’t dependent on alcohol, but it is a big part of their social life and identity. They are the “wine mom” or the weekend warrior who knows how to party.
Gray area drinking covers a broad spectrum of drinking behavior (hence the name). It might even describe you!
If your spouse is a gray area drinker, they may find your decision to quit hard to understand or even an indictment of their own drinking patterns. It doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t be supportive, but this will be a big change for them as well.
Does your spouse have a clear drinking problem or alcohol use disorder?
Is your spouse dependent on alcohol? Do they express problematic drinking patterns, like:
- Drinking large amounts of alcohol daily (4+ units for men and 3+ units for women)
- Binge drinking (5+ drinks for me and 4+ drinks for women in two hours)
In addition to the heavy drinking, does your spouse fit any of these criteria?
- Regularly drinks more than s/he intends to
- Is unable to cut down on drinking
- Spends a lot of time getting alcohol, drinking, and recovering from drinking
- Drinks, despite the negative impact on personal and professional relationships.
- Experiences withdrawal symptoms like DTs, sweating, or hangxiety after drinking
For a full list of questions, consider taking the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test) quiz at the bottom of the page.
If your spouse abuses alcohol, this can be an especially difficult situation. Do they acknowledge they have a problem? Do they want to get help?
Your spouse’s attitude about their own drinking may be predictive of their attitude about your recovery. Although we won’t spend time in this article exploring the issue of alcoholic spouses, it’s important to note that you cannot force them to quit, change, or want help.
You can only focus on your recovery and self-care.
2. Why does your spouse want to keep drinking?
Their relationship with alcohol likely influences the answer to this question. What reason does your spouse give for wanting to drink?
Here are some common reasons I’ve heard. Do any resonate with you?
- Why should I have to give it up? I’m not the one with a drinking problem.
- I like drinking.
- I only drink a little bit. It’s not a big deal.
- Drinking is fun! I’m not giving it up.
- Everybody drinks. It’s stupid/silly/pointless to quit.
- I’m not an alcoholic. Why should I quit?
- I like to drink after work/when out with friends/at a party, etc.
- I like to go out and have a good time.
- Alcohol is how I relax.
- Just because you want to quit doesn’t mean I have to.
- Don’t tell me how to live my life.
- I’m going to do what I want.
Take time to understand why your partner wants to keep drinking. Some reasons are fair; others may signal resentment over your decision to quit, and some are giant red flags.
3. Does your spouse support your decision to quit?
Your sobriety is just that, yours. It would be great if the world could quit drinking with us, but that will never be the case.
Part of the challenge is learning how to navigate a world that still drinks, even when you are trying desperately not to.
Your spouse has a role to play, but not necessarily one that includes quitting with you. Their job is to be supportive and not make things harder.
Regardless of your partner’s relationship with alcohol, do they at least support your decision to quit drinking?
I have strategies to help you navigate this new dynamic if they do. If they don’t, you can still apply these to your relationship and see where you land.
Do These 5 Things If You Want To Successfully Quit Drinking When Your Spouse Won’t
You 100% can get sober while living with someone who drinks if you establish clear boundaries, open the lines of communication, and approach your sobriety strategically.
It’s not as simple as saying, “Well, I’m just not going to drink.”
You have to know what you’re up against and have a plan for dealing with the inevitable challenges.
The first step? Understanding your triggers.
1. Identify Your Triggers
Triggers are the people, places, experiences, and situations that make you crave alcohol. In the beginning, you may experience them often.
That’s because alcohol is very good at hijacking the reward system in our brains.
When we drink alcohol, we get an artificially high boost of feel-good chemicals, like dopamine, in our brains. The brain says, “Hey, this feels pretty good. I want more!”
But it’s not just the drinking. It’s the anticipation of the drink that gets us into trouble.
Our brains are very good at registering environmental cues. It’s why after a hard day at work, seeing the sign of your local pub puts a pep in your step.
If you come home and pop open a beer first thing, you may notice a giddiness upon seeing your fridge.
This is your brain’s way of anticipating the reward it’s about to receive. The longer you drink, the stronger these connections become.
When you stop drinking, you stop feeding your brain the artificial dopamine boost it has come to rely on. So you’re battling two things: a dopamine deficit which impacts your mood and an environment full of cues and triggers that make your brain say, “Where’s the alcohol?”
This is why so many people experience depression after quitting alcohol.
How to identify your triggers:
Which places, people, or circumstances do you typically associate with drinking? When does your heart race in anticipation of a drink? These are the moments when your cravings feel the strongest.
Prepare for them.
Some things you can avoid, but others are not so simple. You have to train your brain to disassociate these cues from alcohol.
Get out some paper or a notes app and start listing your known triggers. As you start your sobriety journey, you’ll probably learn new ones. Add them to your list.
Once you know your triggers, you can develop strategies for managing them.
2. Set Clear Boundaries
The next step is to define clear boundaries with your spouse (and others).
For example, I used to come home from work and immediately grab a drink, sit on the balcony with my husband, and smoke a cigarette.
We established a boundary that he wouldn’t be outside smoking or having a drink when I got home anymore. And it helped!
What are the boundaries you need to prioritize your sobriety? A boundary is anything you put in place to protect yourself from triggers and cravings.
We can’t place ourselves into a bubble, but we can make reasonable requests of our spouses, friends, coworkers, and family.
Examples of boundaries include:
- Removing alcohol temporarily from the house.
- Keeping bottles of alcohol in a cupboard out of sight
- No longer keeping a favorite beer in the refrigerator.
- Deciding to skip work outings at the local bar for a period of time and asking coworkers not to pressure you to come.
- Telling your spouse ahead of an event that if you feel too triggered to drink, you plan to leave early, but it’s okay if they wish to stay longer.
Once you’ve identified your boundaries, you can move on to the next part: communicating your needs.
3. Communicate Your Needs
Before you officially quit drinking, it’s important to sit down with your spouse or partner and lay it all out there. In preparation of this conversation, get clear about a few things:
- Why you want to quit drinking
- What problems drinking has caused in your life
- What successfully quitting alcohol would mean to you
Be ready for some pushback.
For many people, the idea of not drinking alcohol or quitting alcohol is “weird.” Even well-intending people who love you might not get it at first.
So work out your talking points ahead of time.
Once you’ve established your reasons for quitting, it’s time to have that conversation. Ask your spouse if you can talk to them about your decision. Explain your reasons, tell them you’re serious and discuss why it’s important to you.
From there, you can talk about what you need. Your spouse isn’t quitting with you, but they can support you.
This is when you discuss your boundaries and triggers.
Talk to your spouse about the things, places, and situations that trigger your desire to drink the most. Then follow up with the boundaries you need to set up to stay sober.
You can say things like, “Thinking about how we drank wine together after work everyday is a trigger. Can we put wine bottles away and do something else after work so I don’t feel tempted to drink?”
Some of your boundaries may be temporary. If you need to remove alcohol from your house for three or four weeks, then say that.
Your spouse can still go out and drink with friends at the bar or parties, but you’re asking for an alcohol-free space to exist in as you get your bearings.
If they say no, see if you can find a compromise. Is there a garage space where the alcohol can be moved?
You might also want help from your spouse. What do you need from them in moments of weakness? If they have a beer and you’re feeling weak, what then?
They shouldn’t enable you, but it’s also not their job to keep alcohol away from you.
You can ask them to remind you of your reasons for quitting or encourage you to step outside and take a walk to clear your head. If you reject that support and drink anyways, then you own that choice.
Don’t be discouraged if they don’t get it.
Open communication is critical when you decide to quit drinking, and it needs to flow both ways. Give your partner space to express how they feel about it, too.
Keep those lines open.
They might not understand at first. This is especially true if you are also their biggest drinking buddy.
Should you allow their resistance to keep you from quitting? No. But you have to be honest with each other if you’re going to get through this.
This is a big decision that affects you both. They don’t get a say in your sobriety, but they should have a voice in your relationship.
There will be missteps along the way when you say the wrong thing, lash out, or misunderstand what the other needs. This is new territory for you both.
Be patient and honest about what each of you needs from the other, and don’t be afraid to seek support from an objective third-party like a couples counselor.
4. Establish Your Support Network
Whether your spouse continues to drink or not, there is a limit to the support they can offer. Our spouses and partners cannot also be our therapists and alcohol counselors.
This is why you should establish a sobriety support network in the beginning outside of your relationship.
You can start therapy, addiction counseling, or even join Facebook groups (like ours) for people quitting alcohol. When I quit drinking, I found an incredible support network from the #RecoveryPosse on Twitter.
There are so many resources available.
The number of strangers who want to support you and see you succeed is even more heartening. I hope you’ll consider me among them.
Do not be afraid to reach out.
5. Stay Focused On Your Sobriety
Most of us live in places where alcohol is everywhere. When you stop drinking, it’s common to be both hyper-aware of this fact and annoyed by it.
“Does everything have to include alcohol? This is a playdate at the park. Why are people drinking?”
Sometimes you’ll want to direct your ire at your spouse. Resist that urge. They are not on the same journey as you, and that is okay (unless it isn’t – more on that in a minute).
Especially in the early days, your main job is to stop drinking and figure out who you are as a sober person. You are not here to proselytize to the masses or your spouse.
Believe it or not, there may come a day when you’re no longer bothered by other people’s drinking. It’s just something they do that you don’t.
If you decide months or a year from now that your needs have changed, then those harder decisions can be made. But for right now, your job is to not drink.
The other stuff can wait.
What if your spouse won’t quit drinking and doesn’t support your sobriety?
The strategies above only work if your spouse is on board or, at the very least, trying to be. It is extremely hard to stop drinking if you live with someone who drinks a lot, doesn’t want to stop, and doesn’t want you to stop drinking either.
If that’s you, I’ve written a post about dealing with loved ones who don’t support your sobriety that I encourage you to read.
Here’s what I’ll say on that point:
- Your health and well-being are the most important thing.
- Prioritize your sobriety and safety.
- Find the people in your life who do support you.
- It’s okay to end a relationship that doesn’t serve you.
- It’s also okay if you can’t think about that right now.
- If you are at risk or your partner’s drinking is harming you in any way, please get help and talk to someone.
In addition to your own recovery work, you may find Al-Anon meetings and resources helpful for navigating this situation.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
It is absolutely possible to quit drinking while living with a spouse who drinks. I’ve done it, as have many others.
But it’s not easy.
You’ll spend a lot of time designing your sobriety – figuring out how to function as this new version of yourself. That’s hard to do when you’re married.
So long as you are open about your needs, firm in your boundaries, and relentless in your recovery, you have a fighting chance at this.
Take the AUDIT Quiz
This quiz is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as an official medical diagnosis. If you think you have an alcohol dependence, please make an appointment with a trained medical professional.