Navigating A Relationship In Which Only One Partner Drinks

Drinking alcohol is such a vital part of the adult experience in many cultures that choosing to abstain can be nearly unheard of. If you don't drink, you've likely faced scoffing, peer pressure, dismissal, and eye rolling galore from friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. Things can get even more uncomfortable when you enter a relationship with someone who drinks when you don't. While navigating a relationship between a person who drinks and someone who doesn't is a tall order, it is certainly doable.

Openness and honesty are always the best policies for addressing any potential relationship pitfall. If you don't typically drink but have a partner who does, consider these tips for dealing with the issue in a way that respects both of your lifestyles and honors your truths. If you drink and your partner doesn't, slide these tips their way, and start a conversation that just might save your relationship in the long run. 

Communicate your concerns

If you're the partner who drinks less and you're legitimately concerned about your partner's drinking habits, it is essential to discuss those concerns. The way you express yourself when approaching a topic as personal as someone else's drinking habits is extremely important to the outcome of the conversation. Avoid accusations or "you" statements. Your goal is to voice your personal concerns and share the way your feelings are affected by your partner's drinking — not to speak for him or her. For example, rather than making the statement "You think fun is only possible with alcohol," focus only on your own thoughts and feelings.

Try turning your statement into an "I" statement such as, "I feel like you're uninterested in trying to have fun if there is no alcohol involved." Telling someone else what they think or how they feel results in a defensive reaction. Sharing the way you feel about their actions is more likely to help them see your side and listen to what you have to say. 

Respect your partner's boundaries

Once you've shared your concerns with your partner, what they do with that information is up to them. If they feel as if you're overreacting or attempting to control their choices, they may decide not to make any effort to change their habits. While it can be a difficult truth to accept, they really aren't required to change at your request. As long as your partner is open about the fact that they don't feel the need to change — rather than agreeing and then continuing the behavior behind your back — the ball is back in your court.

At the end of the day, you and your partner are both adults. If they don't feel a change in their behavior is warranted, it's on you to respect that decision. This doesn't mean you have to continue with the relationship if drinking to a certain level is a dealbreaker for you. What it does mean is that you'll have to do some real soul searching to make that decision because forcing your partner to change against their will is never an option. 

Maintain your own interests

For some people, casual drinking is a social activity that plays the same role other social hobbies can play for people who don't drink. Meeting up with friends on the weekend to catch up over beers or cocktails isn't so different from starting a book club with your friend group to unwind and socialize. If your partner finds drinking to be a relaxing hobby and you don't, it doesn't have to be the end of the world, and you don't have to be dragged along.

It is okay (and even healthy) to maintain separate interests and hobbies when you're in a relationship. If your partner insists on playing a boozy round of golf with their friends every single Saturday, consider that your day to reconnect with your own favorite activities. Take a cooking class with your best friend, sign up for a group yoga experience, or spend every Saturday meditating and journaling. 

Discuss social expectations

Even if you don't feel that your partner's drinking habits and the ways in which they differ from yours are a problem overall, they may cause tension in social situations. A social setting might encourage your partner to drink more than they typically would, and the social pressure on you to drink or drink more might put the entire situation in a figurative pressure cooker. To avoid this type of situation, discuss a plan before you attend each social event.

If you're concerned about being pressured into drinking more than you're comfortable with, prepare what you'll say or do to deter further comments in advance. If your partner is willing to agree to stop drinking after a certain number of drinks or head home at a specific time, discuss those details beforehand to ensure you're both on the same page throughout the event. Repeat this simple conversation before each social engagement to prevent unnecessary frustration and misunderstanding. 

Consider a compromise

There is no rule saying that you and your partner can't both give a little and come to a compromise when it comes to alcohol intake. If you don't suspect your partner is dealing with an actual substance abuse issue and you don't hold a staunch moral opposition to alcohol, nothing is stopping you from meeting in the middle. Before you attend your next social event together, discuss the possibility of a compromise.

If your partner normally has five or six drinks when you go out and you typically have one, if any, there is plenty of room to compromise. Perhaps you agree to both have three drinks at the next event you attend. The next day, discuss how you each felt about your level of consumption. If either of you felt uncomfortable, make adjustments for the next event. Maybe this time, you agree to have two drinks and your partner agrees to stop at four. Continue to experiment until you reach what feels like a fair compromise for both of you. 

Explore your feelings

If you get upset when your partner drinks and you aren't sure why, it's time to dig a little deeper before taking the issue up with them. Start by examining your past. Did one of your caregivers struggle with alcoholism when you were growing up? Have you dated a partner in the past who prioritized drinking over your relationship or who blamed alcohol for their unfaithfulness? The best way to address the situation won't become clear until you know whether your feelings are coming from actual red flags or your own unprocessed trauma.

Spend some time revisiting your memories around alcohol and write them down in a journal. If you find that your anxiety around your partner's drinking may stem from your own past, ask yourself if that knowledge is enough to allow yourself to let go of the issue. If you don't think you can, consider seeking out a mental health professional or an alternative spiritual healer for help processing what happened in your past. 

Share your fears

If you've discovered that your discomfort with your partner's drinking is mostly due to your own past or preconceived notions, share this with them. Make it clear you're making an effort to recognize your own triggers and take responsibility for them. However, this doesn't mean you won't need plenty of understanding and reassurance throughout the process. Being vulnerable with your partner about the origins of your feelings around drinking can ease their frustrations around the issue and bring the two of you closer.

Just be sure to follow through on doing the work to identify your feelings before acting impulsively. If you need to skip events where your partner plans on drinking, that's completely reasonable, as long as you also skip acting resentful toward them about it. With open and honest communication from the both of you, there is an excellent chance the issue can be worked through and resolved. 

Master the mocktail

The mocktail is a grossly underutilized tool for people who want to go out without drinking or who wish to limit their alcohol intake. Alcohol consumption is so synonymous with socializing in America and many other countries around the world that showing up to an event and choosing not to drink seems like a statement or even a judgment. You may find yourself being aggressively questioned or even mocked over your choice to skip drinking.

If the social pressure is why events centered around drinking make you uncomfortable, consider ordering yourself a few mocktails. You can discreetly approach a bartender and ask them for a "virgin" version of any cocktail to skip the alcohol. Ask them to keep the refills coming and enjoy yourself without anyone knowing your drinks are non-alcoholic. If your partner has agreed to a drink limit, discreetly switching to mocktails at that point is also a great way for them to follow through without incurring well-meaning pressure from friends to continue drinking. 

Be honest with yourself

No matter how much work you and your partner do on yourselves and your relationship, some lifestyles just aren't compatible. If you've tried multiple compromises, addressed your own biases, and communicated openly about the issue and you still can't seem to find a balance, the relationship may not be salvageable. This doesn't mean your lifestyle or your partner's is wrong or inferior; it only means that they don't work together.

If you come to the conclusion that your lifestyles aren't compatible enough to sustain a relationship, be brave enough to end the romance. Staying in the situation for too long can lead to severe resentment on both parts, which may result in unnecessary anger and lashing out. It may be best to go your separate ways and put your energy into finding someone who wishes to live a life more similar to the one you're working on creating for yourself.