I'm sober and dating a drinker

She was once in the program but says she's got no problem. Can that be true?

By Cary Tennis
Published October 20, 2009 4:25AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I'm 34 years old and in my 10th year of recovery in a 12-step fellowship. I separated from my wife about six months ago and we have a 4-year-old son. I recently reconnected with a woman I met in the aforementioned fellowship just under 10 years ago. We had a lot of fun back then as friends and even stuck our toes in the water of romance for a bit but it did not last. We have been seeing each other for about three months now but with our previous history things have progressed quickly. I care for her a lot and we really are a good fit together. The thing that scares me is that she is no longer clean and sober. She used drugs and alcohol a lot in her past (obviously enough to wind up in 12-step meetings) but for the past four to five years has been a social drinker and has no interest in getting high or even getting drunk. She has a good job and is buying a house and is very responsible in dealing with her life and her son. She says that she made mistakes and had poor judgment but is not an addict and she certainly does not seem like one.


My fear is that being in a relationship with someone who used to come to meetings but now does not will be dangerous for me, leading me to end up thinking at some future point that I am not an addict, but I am like her and can use "successfully." Cary, I am an addict and cannot use successfully. I used and used and used all day every day until my resources and friends were gone.

I love her very much and feel so comfortable with her in every way except this area. I have to acknowledge that part of my fear is revealing this information to my sponsor and family and recovery network because from a strict 12-step view, many would call her "in relapse" and a danger to me and my recovery. I don't know if she is or not -- I spend several nights a week with my parents at their house and my dad drinks a glass of wine or a couple of beers and it does not bother me a bit. I wonder if this discomfort with her situation is because it's new and different or if it's because it's outside of this paradigm that I've been a part of for a decade. I'm desperate to know the right thing to do because of how strongly I feel for her and how much I want it to work, but also because of being a single dad and how much I have at stake here.




Dear D.,

Congratulations on your recent milestone in sobriety. You've come a long way.

Here is what I see: You are hiding this situation from your sponsor and the group. I suggest you talk to the group and talk to your sponsor and say here's what's going on in my life.


You know the drill. It's not about her and her drinking. It's about you and your program.

She's not going to make you drink. But if you stop doing the program in order to keep your relationship with her a secret, then you have a problem.

You know what works. You've been 10 years at this. Any problem that arises, you treat it the same. You talk about it with somebody. You look at it. You ask what is your part. You write about it. You meditate. You ask for guidance. You walk through it.


If you can't talk to your sponsor about it, then talk to somebody else. It's not whom you talk to. It's the fact that you talk to somebody.

As to your questions about her status, I would say this: Are we so wise that we can know who should drink and who should not? Just because she came to some meetings at some point in her life, does that mean she is an alcoholic? How can we know that?

It could be that these days 12-step programs actually attract a number of people who enjoy the fellowship and the structure but are not indeed addicts or alcoholics. After all, as other social support systems such as church, family, workplace, neighborhood, unions, social clubs, school and the like wither, it would make sense that some people would be attracted to 12-step meetings, especially at times of crisis. People are cheerful there. There is often an atmosphere of hope and joy. It's a place where everybody knows your name but it's not a bar called Cheers.


So I would not presume to know whether she can drink without having a problem.

And here is the other part of that: For the good of the 12-step tradition, isn't it important for people to be able to wander in and wander out of meetings without being labeled as this or that?

I would ask, How is her life going today? If her life is going fine, then her life is going fine. If she is not having problems with alcohol, then she is not having problems with alcohol.


The fear sometimes arises that by association with a person who drinks we ourselves will turn to drink. We are cautious. We do not want to put ourselves into situations that might lead us to drink. It's sensible to be cautious. It's sensible to have practices that keep us from that first drink. But in the same way that no human power could relieve us of our alcoholism, no human power can make us drink, either.

So my advice to you, my friend, is to deal with this situation in the same forthright, thoughtful way that you deal with other problems that come up. Talk to your sponsor about it. Talk with the group. If your sponsor takes a hard line, so be it. Your sponsor is not your boss. Your sponsor is just someone who's volunteered to give you some one-on-one help with the program.

As to your prospects for a happy life together: Anything can work. Recovery gives us the ability to handle anything that arises with serenity and dignity and compassion. But we recognize that certain situations are dangerous, that we should be cautious and thoughtful about the situations we place ourselves in, and that we should check in with others when we are feeling doubtful.

Which, apparently, you just did. Except I'm just a guy on the Internet. I suggest you do the same thing with the people who are actually in your life. You know the ones. Go talk to them.


Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?

Cary Tennis

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