Us Vs. Them: Why Sobriety Wasn't the Marriage Saver I Thought It Would Be

by A.M. Thompson
Man sitting on the couch and drinking a bottle of whiskey

On September 7, 2014 I came up for air, for the first time in 10 years. The salty taste of swallowed tears stung my throat, I was still gasping from fear and choking on uncertainty, but a weight was lifted. As I saw him pour an entire bottle of Jack Daniel’s down the drain, my lungs were able to expand, and with each breath my body became lighter and my mind clearer. As he asked me to toss the still closed Coors banquet cans I knew we were going to make it; we were going to be okay. We would save our marriage because he was getting sober. We would save our marriage because he finally had a desire to save himself.

But I was wrong.

Our picture perfect marriage lasted a week. One week. For one week I felt confident and safe and assured. For one week I felt truly hopeful and happy. For one week I saw the promise and potential of an alcohol-free future.

It wasn’t that my husband turned back to the bottle. (In fact, he is closing in on his one year anniversary.) It was that I underestimated the power of the storm, the one raging inside of me. It was a storm which had been brewing for 10 years, but was always kept offshore thanks to circumstance, specifically, thanks to the distraction of his drinking. But with his sobriety came acceptance, healing and forgiveness. With his sobriety came spirituality and empathy, and with his sobriety would come an apology.

The weight of apology was what hit me first. The weight of the apology was what started pulling me back down. The weight of the apology, and the idea of knowing I would need to accept it—and accept what happened to me—was what allowed the storm to move ashore.

He was now spending evenings at AA, filling his “drinking time” with “meeting times,” still leaving me alone with a toddler. And I was resentful, not of his healing but of the fact nothing had changed. I was still forced to keep it together while he took time to take care of himself. I was still forced to play second fiddle to my daughter and him, my feelings never good enough or worth enough. I was still forced to coddle him—or so I thought—and support him, knowing he hadn’t (and wouldn’t) do the same for me. I was still forced to pretend everything was okay when it wasn’t.

It sounds immature, but unless you have been there, unless you have had a close relationship with an alcoholic and truly seen how selfish the disease and recovery process is (and needs to be), you cannot understand it. You cannot understand how it feels to have needs and wants which you are too afraid to ask to be filled. You cannot understand how hard it is to support someone so thoroughly and completely—after years of anger, heartache and painful memories—but feel completely shut out and alone. (The “us” versus “them” mentality—AA versus outsider—is very real and very strong, especially in those early days. I couldn’t help him because I couldn’t understand, right?) So much of the recovery process feels exactly the same as the drinking days, albeit with fewer bruises and less bile. You struggle to understand how alone you still are, and how alone you have always been.

In the early days I became angry, but we both were. I was full of rage. I was full of hatred. I was full of doubt. I was angry at him. I was angry at myself.

How do you forgive someone who has hit you in the face? Who has landed you in the hospital? Who has held your head underwater and tried to drown you in a bathtub?

How do you forgive yourself?

For me, that was the reality of his sobriety—that was the reality I had been avoiding for 10 years, a reality which I didn’t want to admit was mine. My married life was riddled with violence and self-deprecation. I was the victim of spousal abuse, physical and mental, and not only did I stay with my abuser, I stayed with him and started a family.

Everyone I have ever spoken to about this, at least today, congratulates me on my strength. They congratulate me for “putting up with it,” for putting up with him, but this is not a badge I wear proudly. There is nothing courageous about being abused, being marginalized and minimized, and being too afraid to leave (afraid to leave not because your abuser might kill you, but because you fear you are nothing without your abuser). That is not a strength I want to perpetuate. That is not an ideal I aspire to. That is not a life lesson I want to pass along to my daughter.

As we shifted the sobriety count from days to weeks and, later, months, we became more in tune with one another, but we were still two strangers living apart.

Us versus them.

My depression intensified and I sought therapy. It took time but I began to speak out about our struggles, about the violence, and about the strained state of our relationship. With each week I got stronger, and the stronger I got, the further I found myself from him. The stronger I got, the less I wanted him.

It was early 2015 when I uttered the word abuse for the first time. It was early 2015 when I told him I loved him, I would always love him, but I was no longer in love with him. It was early 2015 when I told him I wanted a divorce.

I’d read statistics. I knew AA had a higher success rate ending marriages than it did keeping its members sober. I knew this early on and so I fought, determined not to become another statistic. I attended Al-Anon meetings. I got a sponsor. I read every bit of AA-related literature I could. I tried to be active in his life, but not pushy. I tried to take control of my life, but not too much (turning most stuff toward a God I didn’t believe in). But I quickly realized Al-Anon was not for me, and not for the “God reason” I assumed it would be. Instead, I couldn’t live a life where I replayed my past; I couldn’t live a life that focused on victimization. I needed to break away from all of it. I needed to break away from him.

We started couple’s therapy the following week.

It has been nearly one year since his last drink. It has been over a year since he last hit me. Yet it has been 11 years since I have truly felt safe, since I have truly felt loved. We have our moments—great moments—and they are getting better, they are getting more frequent, but it is still work. We still have a lot of work to do and, unfortunately, we are still victims of our past. But we always will be. It is what we do with that past that defines us, not what has happened.

For those in AA, I applaud you. That is strong and courageous. That is where you will find your family and yourself. That is where you will find life.

For those who have family members in AA—for those who feel their relationships are falling apart—you are strong, and courageous, not because you stayed, but because you are doing whatever it is you need to do. You are doing what you want to do.

For those who have family members who are struggling: You, too, are strong and courageous, and you are not alone. You may not be able to help them but you can help yourself. Whatever help you need, it is there. You just need to reach out and find it.

This is how we are both the us and the them. Not so different, after all.