Rebuilding a Relationship After Your Partner Gets Clean & Sober

by Jim LaPierre, LCSW, CCS

rebuilding-240180While sobriety is a major milestone it is only the beginning of building a better life.

Sobriety isn’t a magic answer to all your problems – it only offers you the opportunity to stop making things worse. A person in early recovery often feels like things keep getting worse, but in truth, abstinence just lets you see clearly what a wreckage your life has become.

Fortunately, it also gives you an opportunity to start making it better.

Rebuilding Takes TIME!

Recovery is a process of transformation in which we seek to become something greater, healthier, and happier than we’ve ever been. Unfortunately, for as many years as it has taken folks to get into recovery, they’d like to make up for lost time and be all better by next week.

As my friends in AA say, “Time takes time.” Very few good things happen in a hurry and healing always takes longer than we’d like.

The pitfalls for the affected other (people affected by a loved one’s drinking or drugging) are many. Some of us try to convince ourselves that things will be fine now that our loved one is sober. We want to believe that sobriety is once and for all. We hope that being clean will return them to the person we once knew.

Setting Goals and Making Progress

People in early recovery often tell me that they want to get back to where they were. I point out that where they were is where they were just before everything went progressively toward hell!

So we come to accept that going back is not an option and that building new relationships with new boundaries and clear expectations is key.

I encourage both the recovering addict and affected others to set reasonable goals and expectations. It’s important to define growth and success clearly and overtly. In the absence of distinct goals and milestones, “getting better” remains a vague and incredibly difficult vision to achieve.

Rebuilding Not Resurrecting

While their external behavior may be very different, folks in early recovery have the same character flaws they had when they were using. They are generally impulsive, impatient and very moody. As affected others we must be careful to avoid climbing aboard this emotional roller coaster and compensating for their deficits.

Remember your own needs:

  • It is we too who are changing. Hopefully we develop the resolve to be true to ourselves independent of what our loved ones choose. We are free to have limitations, needs, wants and feelings and we are free to express them.
  • We have the right to not walk on eggshells and to overcome our fears of holding our loved ones accountable.

In couples and family counseling I am often asked, “What do I have to be careful not to do or say? I don’t want to push them back to drinking/drugging.” I’m quick to point out that affected others are not that powerful and that accountability doesn’t work that way.

The ONLY person who is responsible for drinking/drugging is the addict themselves.

Rebuilding Trust (One Day at a Time)

In addictions counseling I frequently hear outrage that, “My partner still doesn’t trust me!” I ask how long they were active in addiction? They usually respond with a high number of years. I ask how long they’ve been sober? They explain a few months. I raise an eyebrow at the contrast and they usually get it.

Our recovering loved ones have the same fear we do – that they will return to using/drinking. The difference is that they have 100% control over whether they stay sober and we have none. Worse still, there’s no guarantee of sobriety beyond today.

Building Trust – One Day at a Time

Addicts and affected others alike tend to view trust as this all-or-nothing, once-and-for-always thing. Making this kind of commitment again is terrifying. It needn’t be this way. Just as the person in recovery is free to make only 24 hours of commitment to sobriety, so too can we make our commitments one day at a time.

Trust is earned through consistent integrity. We’re looking to see that we can depend on our partners to do what they say they will. We are also mindful that sooner or later we must deal with everything that was swept under the rug. It’s hard to imagine mustering the courage to try again after failing so many times in the past.

Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the choice to refuse to allow fear to stop you. We want to love again, but how are we to love others when we remain ambivalent or worse toward ourselves?

Self Care Is Key

There’s a world of difference between caring for and taking care of. As affected others we are brilliant in our ability to be caregivers to everyone but ourselves. That simply must change. Ideally, our loved ones get sober for themselves, not for us (if they’re doing it for us they will resent us later and their sobriety will be tenuous). What then shall we do for ourselves?

We need conviction, commitment, and support; these make life manageable:

  1. We develop conviction that we will be responsible for identifying our own needs and ensuring that they are met.
  2. We make meaningful commitments to our daily self care and make consistent choices to invest in our well-being.
  3. We need the encouragement and support of friends and family. We too have the opportunity to experience transformation.

I urge affected others to avail themselves of the wealth of good literature and support accessible through 12 step programs like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics and others.

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About the Authors

Renascent Alumni
Members of Renascent's alumni community carry the message by sharing their experiences and perspectives on addiction and recovery. To contribute your alumni perspective, please email