Because the spectrum of possible relationships one can have with alcohol is wide—from the frequent drinker to the sober-curious to the complete abstainer (and everything in between)—there’s plenty of room for differences between partners in a committed relationship. And it may be extra-challenging for partners to cohabitate when they fall on opposite sides of that spectrum, with one drinking heavily and the other in recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Unlike someone choosing to live a dry lifestyle, someone in recovery stands to “experience devastating consequences should they choose to drink,” says Lawrence Weinstein, MD, chief medical officer at American Addiction Centers. “Such stark differences in alcohol consumption can generate conflict that negatively affects a relationship.”
“Stark differences in alcohol consumption can generate conflict that negatively affects a relationship.” —Lawrence Weinstein, MD, chief medical officer, American Addiction Centers
That potential for conflict only rises when you add in cohabitation, given the question of whether any alcohol will be kept or consumed in the shared home. “Research has shown that tensions brought about by alcohol differences in couples [can lead to] increased rates of depression and anxiety; more frequently reported physical abuse, emotional abuse, and mood disorders; and decreased levels of satisfaction within the relationship,” says Dr. Weinstein.
Even in scenarios where the people in a relationship are on less extreme ends of the alcohol-use spectrum—perhaps, one person is dry-by-choice and the other drinks alcohol socially—differences can spark tension. I learned this firsthand when I began intentionally going on dry dates as part of my commitment to my first “dry January” in 2017. The exercise opened my eyes to how alcohol can affect even the early stages of a romantic partnership. From the very beginning, some of my first dates scoffed at my commitment to sobriety—even though I didn’t mind if they drank.
Years later, in 2020, I published my book The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month, which includes a chapter on ties between drinking culture and courtship. The bottom line from my research? Consuming alcohol can affect a person’s health, mood, and sleep—all of which play a role in how they show up in a relationship. And whether one or both partners drink will also influence how they spend their time together, interpret each other’s words and gestures, and view each other's life (or lifestyle) choices.
As a result, navigating how to live peacefully with a sober partner when you drink will likely involve negotiation and compromise. Below, find tips for live-in couples in which only one party drinks.
4 tips for how to live peacefully with a sober (or sober-curious) partner
1. Talk about alcohol and how to support each other’s preferences
Having a dedicated conversation about drinking can help you each set boundaries and expectations. “It’s good to agree on certain [rules] for the person who drinks to adhere to, so that there are no surprises, which can otherwise lead couples into fight-or-flight responses,” says therapist Allen Wagner, LMFT.
Depending on each person’s unique relationship with alcohol, says Dr. Weinstein, examples of areas around which to set rules or boundaries could include: how much alcohol can be in the house, when alcohol is consumed, which type of alcohol is consumed, a preferred location that alcohol is consumed, and a required chat should one party want to drink. The most effective way to broach this subject? “Direct and explicit communication,” he adds.
For couples who are having a difficult time speaking about this on their own, Wagner suggests couples counseling, which can be a safe place to break down what everyone is looking for in terms of behavioral or structural changes. “Things should feel fair and not hypocritical,” he says. “Consistency is the key to habit-making.”
2. Reevaluate the role of alcohol within your shared home
One of the most common discussions about alcohol in scenarios where one partner is sober or dry-by-choice is around whether alcohol will still be kept or consumed in the shared home. If your sober partner is in recovery, learning how to live peacefully with them likely means keeping your home alcohol-free.
For Sarah Potteiger, 31, who’s now three years sober, having no alcohol in the home she shares with her husband, who drinks, has been a huge help. Ironically, when she met him for their first date more than seven years ago, it was at a dive bar, and they bonded over beers. But now, she appreciates that if her husband is going to drink, he does it out with his friends when she’s not present. “We don’t typically keep booze in the apartment,” she says. “That’s been a big change, but he was very supportive and understanding of why I needed it out of sight.”
The same goes for Zoë Tobin, 40, and David Fischer, 51, who have been together for more than five years and living together for the past three. Tobin got sober six months ago, and Fischer still drinks but typically just during social outings without her, and they don’t keep alcohol at home.
“Gambling in front of a sports-betting addict would seem cruel, and partners should consider how they would feel if they were put in similar situations of temptation.” —Allen Wagner, LMFT, therapist
In these cases, removing alcohol from the home is a matter of respect. “Gambling in front of a sports-betting addict would seem cruel, and partners should consider how they would feel if they were put in similar situations of temptation,” says Wagner. But even if your partner is sober-curious or dry-by-choice, it’s important for both people to be empathetic toward each other and proactively plan around the logistics of drinking (or not) in the shared home.
For someone like Tom Houston, 41, the decision not to drink was simply a lifestyle choice, and he came to the agreement with his wife, Lori, 40, that alcohol could still play a role in their home. “We are constantly entertaining at home—at least three to four times per month—and having alcohol on hand, as well as actively serving it to our guests and my wife, feels perfectly normal,” he says.
Despite his personal choice to abstain, Houston feels comfortable with booze being present in his home and social life, as much as it is in his job as the director of food and beverage at a hotel in Hawaii. But for others who are similarly dry-by-choice, alcohol at home may still be triggering. The important thing is to discuss with a sober partner whether you or others drinking alcohol in the home they share feels comfortable to them or… not so much, and to respect that call.
3. Stay open-minded about the effects of sobriety or sober-curiosity on your partnership
Some people might enter a relationship sober or sober-curious and may need to negotiate boundaries around alcohol upon moving in with a partner. But it's also possible for a person’s relationship with alcohol to change over time. Perhaps you used to drink with your partner for date night, or simply to pass time, and now, you’ve found yourself in a long-term relationship with someone who no longer wants to split a bottle of wine or take whiskey shots at the bar.
From the jump, you might be concerned that your relationship (or your life) is about to change drastically or suddenly become boring. Lori Houston (Tom’s wife, above) admits this was top of mind for her when Tom decided to give up alcohol. “At first, I worried about how his not drinking would affect date nights and us going out to have fun, or attending events together,” she says.
But, in fact, Lori has benefited from her husband not drinking: Tom is more engaged, he has a new role as designated driver, and the couple has amassed more financial savings for fun activities. And, when Tom’s sleep improved sans alcohol, Lori’s did, too.
Potteiger had a similar experience. “Speaking on our relationship as a whole, sobriety has made it a lot more meaningful because I’m able to be fully present and show up for him in ways I never could before,” she says, adding that though she’s often struggled with sobriety, these rough patches have, in the end, made her relationship with her husband that much stronger.
That’s not to say that every relationship stands to benefit when one person chooses not to drink, whether for health reasons or otherwise. But if you’re the partner who drinks, part of learning how to live with a sober or dry-by-choice partner is keeping an open mind to the potential upsides of their sobriety, rather than assuming that their need or choice to abstain is destined to doom your relationship.
4. Swap out booze-related relationship activities
Learning how to live with a sober or sober-curious partner is bound to require finding new ways to spend your time and money as a couple—especially if drinking has been a part of your regularly scheduled programming in the past. Exploring dry date ideas will help you uncover just as many ways to connect or build intimacy without alcohol.
These days, Potteiger and her husband spend their savings on experiences and travel rather than alcohol-soaked date nights. “And on those nights when we typically would have headed to a bar, we now usually stay in and spend time together talking and watching a show or a movie,” says Potteiger.
Wagner suggests couples go to concerts together (without hitting the bar), or do things in nature, like camp or hike. “Some people love escape rooms and virtual-reality experiences, as well,” he adds. “Game nights with other couples can be a fun activity, too, as can dinners at restaurants in scenic areas where you can walk around after [to replace going for a drink].”
Loading More Posts...