Getting sober may require an individual’s full commitment—and then some—but it’s never only about that one individual. When a person embraces a sober lifestyle, they also say “yes” to experiencing more in their relationships. Where this dynamic is often especially evident is in close romantic relationships, such as with a spouse, partner, girlfriend or boyfriend.
A close relationship with a loved one is also one of the most compelling incentives to go to rehab and get help for an addiction. I’ve found this to be true from my counseling and intervention work with addicts and their families. Often, the person is in denial about their problem; they may not care about how it’s damaging their health; they may have all sorts of excuses about going to rehab.
Then the conversation turns to their struggling marriage or a brokenhearted partner, and suddenly the tone of the conversation changes. In quick time, they’re calculating whether drugs or alcohol are really worth the loss of that relationship. From there, it’s often a quick path to rehab.
4 Ways That Sobriety Can Improve a Close Romantic Relationship
But what are the relationship benefits of getting sober for individuals and couples? There are many. Here is a list of the most important ways that sobriety can improve a close romantic relationship:
1. Greater Trust and Intimacy – Trust is the bedrock of intimacy in any relationship— especially a romantic one. But when a partner is hiding alcohol or lying about where they were last night, they’re gradually chipping away at whatever semblance of trust there is in a relationship.
Addiction requires deception in order to flourish. Often that deception is mutual: While one person is lying to deflect their shame about the destructive and addictive behaviors they’re engaged in, the other person is trying to cover up, hide, and excuse those behaviors because they’re codependent.
Successful sobriety, on the other hand, most fundamentally requires an end to the lying. In rehab and through spiritual programs of recovery like the “12 Steps,” people learn how to be more honest with themselves and their significant other.
Over time, as honesty becomes engrained in a person’s character, the people they love should see that transformation. (Honesty has to be evident for trust in a relationship to be rebuilt.)
Sometimes in the aftermath of an addiction, a couple may experience deeper trust and intimacy than ever before. When both people are committed to recovery and the honesty it requires, that deeper level of trust and vulnerability can greatly enhance a couple’s sense of connection, their intimacy, and sexual satisfaction.
2. Deeper Emotional Connection – Research has shown that drinking or using drugs hampers a person’s ability to feel emotions; and, when you’re not able to feel very much, you’re also not able to learn healthy ways to manage and control those emotions. But a crucial piece in successfully getting sober is learning how to access and manage intense and uncomfortable emotions.
This skill can greatly benefit a relationship. If you’re being honest and mindful with yourself about what you’re feeling inside, you are better equipped to convey these feelings to a partner. Such vulnerability is necessary to authentic emotional connection.
Self-awareness and self-acceptance are also what help a person move from the old self-centeredness and self-loathing of addiction into a new space of being able to more fully offer their emotional presence and availability to their partner.
Whereas before they might have gone straight to the booze or the pills in a selfish act of addiction, sobriety demands that they listen and be present to what’s going on inside, so they can formulate a healthy and loving response. The beauty is that through this act of self-love they are also learning to be more present to their mate.
3. Conflict Resolution Skills – A lot of conflict in relationships is preventable. For example, a lot of conflict stems from reactions to situations that, if further investigated, don’t warrant that reaction. There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that goes as follows: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance— that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
In other words, before automatically making assumptions or jumping to conclusions about a particular situation, don’t react. Instead, investigate the situation further. 12-step principles like this one aren’t just good supports for sobriety— they’re helpful conflict resolution skills.
4. Better Listening and Communication – Better communication is a byproduct of the work that people do in individual and couples’ counseling, often as part of an intensive rehab program. In my own case, therapy forced me to communicate and listen. Active listening and checking in with a partner to clarify whether what you’re hearing is what they’re trying to tell you— that’s a huge part of effective communication.
In fact, so much of effective communication entails listening well. When the person you love feels you’re really listening to them, that can be incredibly validating for them. Yet listening well is a skill that takes effort, intentionality, and practice. Unfortunately, most of us struggle with listening well, either because we’re in a hurry or too distracted by our own emotions.
Often, though, getting sober demands listening better, as part of the process of recovery; and that can only benefit a romantic relationship. As it has been said, “listening is an act of love.”
The relationship benefits of getting sober are many— and almost as diverse as the conversations that happen behind a therapist’s door. These four benefits are among the most impactful, though: greater trust and intimacy; deeper emotional connection; conflict resolution skills; and better listening and communication.
Together, they make going to rehab one of the best ways to say “I love you” to that special someone this Valentine’s Day and throughout the year.
Author Bio: Donny Martinelli is Director of Admissions at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.