Alcoholism and Relationships
Standing with a group of people waiting for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to start, I overheard a woman telling another woman not to get into a relationship for the first year of her sobriety. As was my behavior in those days I jumped, uninvited, into the conversation, “What are you doing telling her what she should and shouldn’t do? We share experience here, not give advice”.
“Oh dear,” the woman said to me, “you are so right and please know I would never offer that direction to you. I would tell you…”. What she told me that evening didn’t make me laugh at the time but I can laugh today because today I know a little more about alcoholism and I have experience with relationships.
Relationships between people in recovery may present unique opportunities but there is no reason to avoid them. For increased success, each person should make a commitment, as best they can, to not drink no matter what happens with the relationship. It might also be wise to learn as much about the disease of alcoholism as possible. Additionally, it might be beneficial to study the development of relationships.
Alcoholism is a threefold disease. Physically it’s an allergy to alcohol. When the alcoholic drinks, there is no predicting how much he will drink and when he will stop. When he is not drinking, the mental aspect of the disease is at work. His thoughts are about alcohol and preparing him for his next drinking encounter. This aspect of the disease is strongest when the alcoholic without recovery is presented with alcohol. This person will not be able to recall the negative consequences of his last drinking episode and he will drink in spite of any promise he might have made to not drink again. And the third and possibly the most cunning aspect of alcoholism is the spiritual. This is the alcoholics complete disconnection from other people. It’s as if a brick wall has been built between the alcoholic and the rest of the world. Living in emotional isolation, the alcoholic almost drowns in selfishness and self centeredness.
It should be easy to see why it might be difficult for people in early recovery to form lasting relationships, but let’s take a look at relationships in general.
The easiest way for me to understand relationships is to view them in a level system. Level one is acquaintances. These are all the people I know. We generally have one thing in common but there is no investment in our relationship. These are all the people in my AA meetings who are simply “other members” of the group. These are the people in my Book Group, we get together on Tuesday and read and discuss the book but we have no other planned contact during the week. People at my gym when I am working out there at 6 AM fall under the classification of “acquaintances”. The list of acquaintances is endless but there is a common factor, these relationships have very little depth and weight.
Next on the relationship ladder are a group known as Activity Friends. We have at least one additional common interest with these people and they emerge from our group of acquaintances. Prior to alcoholism shutting me off from activities I enjoyed, I was a better than average bowler. I discovered William, a member of my Thursday Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, is an avid bowler. William and I make plans and meet at the bowling alley Saturday morning. As it turns out we are about equally skilled and begin to meet regularly to bowl. It’s the only activity we engage in. It would never occur to me to call William to go to a movie. Bowling is the activity we share. We are Activity Friends.
As we spend more and more time with our acquaintances, a few people begin to stand out. This is a relatively small number in comparison to the number of acquaintances. Typically we can identify between 8 and 15 people we would like to know better. This is a Peer Group. The initial connection in the Peer Group for alcoholics is generally a common passion for recovery. There is a lot of discussion among group members about the steps and which step each is currently working. It seems the initial purpose of the group is to help hold each member accountable to their recovery and this purpose will be running in the background for the entire life of the group.
Peer group members generally share many similarities. Their ages are relatively close. They share many similar likes and dislikes. They enjoy participation in similar activities and as the group develops they begin to be more and more willing to try new things because their trust in the group is growing. The Peer Groups are fluid. People come in and out of them as time goes by, bringing new opportunities to the group.
From the small group, a smaller group, a group of friends emerges. It is in the small friendship groups that alcoholics begin to lose their fears. Social skills are developed among the safety of people who have developed a common bond. The self-centeredness of the alcoholic begins to slip away as we discover the other members of our group live with the same insecurities and doubts. Experiencing these discoveries with other alcoholics making the same discoveries may be the experience necessary to address a spiritual deficit of the disease.
Emerging from isolation and loneliness, we begin to enjoy life. More and more we feel safe in the mainstream of life. We have learned how to encourage others through rough patches and we have learned how to laugh and celebrate the happy moments of life.
Steps worked, a support group surrounding me and a few close friends by my side, my passion for recovery is tangible, and I’m helping other alcoholics as a mentor and cheerleader. In the midst of the efforts necessary to fulfill my primary purpose as a recovering person using the 12 steps, one person comes forward and asked me on a date and with one first date or series of first dates, I meet the person who I hope to be my partner for life.
Partner relationships between recovering people with their unique opportunities for growth are successful as long as each person stays true to their recovery.
And by the way, despite the advice given, that woman when on the date and the couple immediately began dating exclusively. They have been together 20 years. it’s a fairly normal marriage. There are good times, sad times, happy times, and difficult times, but through it all the two alcoholics have not taken a drink and they have each remained committed to their individual recovery programs and, as a couple, they are committed to making the marriage work.
Email your questions or suggestions to email@example.com and let’s experience this journey together. You will remain anonymous.