This occurs for many reasons, but here are the very real reasons that speak to me from a spouse's point of view:
1) We’re different people now. Jeff and I met at a bar. He worked at a very successful liquor store. We spent a lot of time drinking and laughing together, but mainly drinking. Now, neither of us drink, and we are finding that we don’t like the things we once did, and are starting to have new hobbies. I don’t like sports in the way I did when we met – I liked sporting events because they were a big party. I like running now. Jeff still loves sports and hates running.
2) Holding onto resentments. I went to a family session when Jeff was in the hospital last week and I saw many familiar faces. Not people I knew, but attitudes I once did. One man said of his girlfriend, “How am I supposed to give up drinking? We went out all the time; we had wine with dinner. I don’t want my life to change.” I tried that the hard way. I kept drinking while Jeff tried to get sober. It didn’t work out so well for us. I was in denial that I would need to change my lifestyle, too. Now we have a sober house, and I was an active participant in that decision. I am thankful that I no longer drink as a result of Jeff’s disease, but I can easily see how other people could be very resentful over a changing life. Especially if he/she changes and the alcoholic continues to relapse.
3) Having an unsupportive partner. Jeff’s main job in life right now is recovery. In fact, he doesn’t have another job. He focuses his entire day on recovery, and we have a very small budget to live. He can’t plan dates for us or woo me in ways that I once hoped for. He still craves validation from others and treats any success I have as competition. He needs to focus on himself, so often times, my wants and needs take a backseat. For example, I ran a race I was very proud of a few weeks ago and would have loved to have someone cheering me across the finish line. He had AA. The AA meeting is always going to come first. I’m still supporting myself and finding value intrinsically, but sometimes it is hard when I want a partner who is capable of seeing what is important to me and encouraging and supporting those values and beliefs.
4) Trust is completely broken. It could be a big act, it could be a series of small ones; it could be the consistent lying and manipulation of the disease, but no matter how many good intentions someone has, patterns and years of lies make it hard to trust. And just because someone is sober, doesn't mean their alcoholic actions change overnight. The alcoholic has opinions now. It’s hard for a loved one to grant carte blanche access to responsibility to someone who disappointed so many times, but if the trust can’t be re-established and built, the relationship will be stressed.
5) Living one day at a time. I’m a person who is ignited and driven by goals and dreams. I like to accomplish. I enjoy plans. Being married to an alcoholic is a quick way to strip all those things down for me. There is something to be said about learning how to live more open and freely in the present, but it is very hard for me to think long-term about my life. I can’t know if Jeff will be sober tomorrow, let alone if I can have a baby in 9 months, a vacation to Paris next fall, or a lake house in 5 years. So I have to give up placing my value on future events. And I do so with no guarantee that I will have a sober partner. For some, that is too much. I believe Jeff and I can definitely have more stability and ability to future plan once he gets more sobriety under his belt, but the truth is, the wolf will always be at the door and I have to wake up every day and be okay with that.
And, from what I can imagine by putting myself in the alcoholic’s shoes and from what I have watched as a bystander, a different side of the same coin:
1) We’re different people now. The alcoholic is discovering who they are. In Jeff’s case, he never really had many friends or hobbies outside of sports and reading. He was ashamed to be himself and lacked confidence. Those things are growing, and maybe in a different and surprising direction.
2) Holding onto resentments. Sometimes in sobriety, partners can rehash the past. This doesn’t help anyone move forward, but if there were truly transgressions people can’t move past, it isn't helping anyone to stay together. The number one goal is for the addict to stay sober, and resentments not addressed in healthy ways will do little to accomplish that end. And that’s a vicious cycle.
3) Having an unsupportive partner. This manifests in many ways. A lot of addicts have partners who don’t want to change his/her own lifestyles. Some significant others don’t understand that meetings and fellowship are a full-time job. Sometimes, the partner can’t understand why the loved one is sober and spending so much time out of the home. The significant other may not acknowledge that he/she has a part in an alcoholic relationship and doesn't seek help to fix up his/her side of the street.
4) Trust is completely broken. The alcoholic may get upset because he/she is sober but the partner is still upset or angry about past transgressions. The addict may also feel sad, ashamed, and guilty because those issues can’t be repaired immediately. Things have to be taken one day at a time. The alcoholic has opinions now and wants to express them and show up for life. That can be frustrating for a loved one who is not ready and willing to relinquish control.
5) Living one day at a time. It can feel frustrating for an alcoholic living with a partner who wants to plan things ahead and places undue pressure for achievement and status. The most important achievement for an addict is doing the next right thing and staying sober, one day at a time. It can cause tension and unnecessary fighting in a relationship.
Overall, I feel really scared sometimes to be living in this limbo place that is often times a pit stop for others on their way to belonging to another recovery sub-set. I often wonder in meetings if I am alone, as I don’t meet many others like me. Most people with significant others a) met them after they became sober and never lived with them active b) are with an active alcoholic or c) divorced. Those odds make me feel sad. I don’t like them, but I have to play them. They're all I've got.