The patio door was wide open, and the sheer curtains billowed into our room in the morning breeze. We were on the east side of the highrise hotel building, and the sun was just peaking over the Atlantic Ocean horizon. The scene from our tenth floor room was majestic, looking over the expansive pool area below and the white-sandy beach just beyond. We were attending an industry work convention, but it was much more of a boozy boondoggle and reprieve from the responsibilities of work and parenting.
The setting was very romantic. That’s why I was so disappointed to find my wife sleeping alone in the room’s other queen size bed. We had undressed and plopped down in the same bed after a long night of drinking. I was sure of it. So why was I sleeping alone in the morning?
I was sleeping alone because my relentless commitment to alcohol had driven my wife away, not just that particular night, but slowly, ever since she had met me. She made an excuse that morning about wanting room to stretch and getting closer to the morning breeze blowing in across the ocean, but the truth was, she was far more attracted to freedom than she was to me.
We hadn’t had a fight the night before. We both drank heavily, and I was handsy and horny, but I’d passed out almost immediately upon entering the room late at night, and Sheri had been spared both a nonsensical argument about something inane, and my aggressive, slobbery advances. Our drinking nights didn’t always end in the explosive crash and burn of alcoholic irrationality, but they never ended in loving intimacy. Never.
That beautiful, potentially blissful scene happened maybe a decade ago in Marco Island, Florida. Last night, in our cat-covered bed in Denver, Colorado, I felt Sheri back into me in the dark and early morning hours just before my alarm went off to announce the start of another day full of work and parenting responsibilities. She moved closer until we were touching, back to back (OK – it was butt to butt, but that doesn’t sound particularly romantic). She nestled in against me, and went back to sleep almost instantly.
Maybe she was cold. Maybe there weren’t enough cats sleeping on her (including the one she lets sleep on her head). Maybe she was just using my butt to see if I was still in bed in order to gauge the time. But I don’t think so. I think she wanted to feel me. I think she was attracted to me, not sexually, but affectionately. I think she wanted a physical reminder that we are in this life together. I think she actually likes to be with me.
If you had been a fly on our bedroom walls, both in Florida years ago, and also in Colorado last night, you would have broken all the rules about fly lifespan and fly ability to survive a Denver winter, but you might not have noticed the vast and monumental differences in our relationship between then and now. From the outside, the changes are subtle. From stretching in the ocean breeze to a predawn butt snuzzle, a fly with human intellect couldn’t possibly tell the scene where the marriage was hanging on by its fingernails from the one where the relationship is the strongest it’s ever been.
And that’s yet another mind-boggling aspect of an alcoholic marriage. Improvement is so subtle in recovery, if you don’t pay very close attention, you might miss it.
My favorite movie about alcoholism is When a Man Loves a Woman starring Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia. The first half of the movie is a slow buildup of tension leading to Meg Ryan’s very intoxicated character passing out in the shower and breaking through the shower door to the tile floor below. Her daughters find her wet and unconscious surrounded by broken glass. Now that’s a rock bottom moment. It is as tragic as it is sensory. There is both physical and emotional destruction, family dysfunction and the need for an ambulance. That heartbreaking moment sells movie tickets and breaks the hearts of the billions of people who have experienced alcoholism in one fashion or the other all at the same time.
And as dramatic and flashy as that side of alcoholism is, the recovery process is often, maybe always, equally subtle and boring.
Two pajama-covered butts touching in the middle of a winter night pales in comparison to a wet and naked Meg Ryan floundering on a broken-glass-covered tile floor (it’s a classy movie – her nakedness is modestly obscured). Which story do you want to watch? Which one grabs your attention? Do you think, no matter how close our bond becomes over time, they’ll ever make a movie about my wife and me ass grinding? It would be like a really confusing sex scene where we both had our relevant parts pointed in the totally opposite and unintercoursable directions…while a cat slept on my wife’s head. I don’t think I’d buy a ticket to that snoozer, and it’s my story.
Active alcoholism is where the action is. It is life and death, and gets all the Hollywood production bucks. But I argue that the situation for a couple recovering from alcoholism is equally life threatening. The drama might be completely replaced by agonizing subtlety, but the pain is still there. It’s enough to not only drive the couple apart, but drain them of the will to live.
Managing active alcoholism in a relationship is like being a firefighter racing from one emergency to another. Managing alcoholism recovery in a relationship is so much harder because there is not an obvious, immediate need to drive spontaneous reactions. We have to think the process through. Healing is elusive, and the correct path to take is obscured by years of bad decisions and hurtful patterns.
Sobriety is the first, completely necessary step for recovering a marriage from alcoholism. But sobriety in and of itself doesn’t fix anything. In fact, sobriety exposes years and decades of pain from deceit and denial leaving open wounds to fester if not treated by the very people who have fallen out of love with each other.
When we lose a loved one, we are familiar with the idea of a mourning cycle, even if we don’t have the stages memorized. There is shock, anger, grief, rebound – something like that. The point is, I think most adult humans with a little time under our belts appreciate that mourning is a process without shortcuts.
The same is true when it comes to recovering a marriage from alcoholism. I know it because my wife and I have moved slowly through the stages. I also know it because I have watched so many other couples survive active alcoholism only to see their marriages dissolve in recovery. Active alcoholism is very painful, but it is all a lie. Recovery can only speak the truth. Sometimes, the truth carries too much baggage and suffering to survive.
But sometimes, recovery ends the marriage because the couple can’t figure out how to navigate the relationship recovery cycle. It is not intuitive, and it takes a lot of patience. Sheri and I got deeply stuck a great number of times, and almost didn’t make it out. But we did – we got to the other side because we dealt with the challenges of the different stages of the cycle of recovery.
Resentment comes first. The apologies of active alcoholism were meaningless as long as I kept drinking and the behavior repeated itself. We had to address each transgression individually or the resentments lingered. We had to address our kids and bring them into the recovery process. We both had to feel the sorrow from our actions and reactions, and we had to find sincere forgiveness in our hearts. Only after these steps could we begin to rebuild trust. And time had to pass for the trust building to actually work. Trust is the intersection of belief and time, and there are no shortcuts (believe me – I searched for them).
Trust is a foundation on which love and intimacy can be built. Without trust, marriage is unsurvivable in recovery. There is no alternative. We have to take the time to rebuild the trust we spent years or decades destroying with alcohol.
In two paragraphs, I’ve dramatically oversimplified a process that took us years to navigate. And we aren’t done yet. We’ve got a lot of growing together to do. Here’s the good news. Here’s the silver lining for anyone mired in a relationship struggling to recovery:
The finished product is way better than the love built without the destruction of addiction. A marriage that hasn’t experienced major trauma doesn’t know what it can withstand. A marriage rebuilt from the ashes of alcoholic demise is built eyes wide open and full of gnawing precaution. It is built to last.
That’s what Sheri and I have now – a marriage built to last. Even with lots of work to do on trust, love and intimacy, the destination is undeniable.
If you’d like to learn more about our recover of our marriage, we’ve assembled a bunch of resources for you. We hope you’ll consider joining our SHOUT Sobriety program for drinkers and spouses in early recovery. Please learn more about it, consider a donation to our work or enroll here. Sheri and I have recorded several painful and honest episodes of our Untoxicated Podcast specifically about our relationship issues. Here is our most frequently downloaded episode. Have you read our free ebook, He’s Sober. Now What? A Spouse’s Guide to Alcoholism Recovery? If not, please download it here for free.
And if you know what you need to do, you understand there is a cycle to recovery and you are ready to try to save your marriage, we hope you’ll consider our couples retreat in the Colorado mountains in February. We’ll walk you through the recovery cycle, and share everything we know about the love we’ve recovered. Please find details here.
We want the best for our readers. We know the pain of alcoholism, and we’ve learned the hard lessons of making it back from the edge of destruction. We choose a winter’s butt nuzzle over a lonely ocean breeze, and we want to help you find it, too. With or without the bed full of cats.