A Sober Look at Relationships: Communication Tips for People in Recovery

Homo sapiens can do some absolutely amazing things that no other animal is capable of — including lighting and controlling fires, making and using advanced tools, and exploring space.

Language is, arguably, more important than any of those things. It’s at the heart of all the things that make us unique and help us conquer the world. Think abstract reasoning, collaboration, developing culture, and making art.

Using language effectively — communicating — is also key to forming and maintaining healthy and loving relationships.

Unfortunately, alcohol addiction gets in the way of clear and honest communication. Alcoholics and their loved ones tend to fall into unhealthy communication patterns that eat away at relationships over time.

Rediscovering all the wonderful ways in which language can help you connect with the people you love is a vital part of your road to recovery when you stop drinking. It’s not easy — but the tips discussed here may help you get closer to those who matter most.

How Alcohol Addiction Impacts Communication

A fascinating 2016 study analyzed how alcohol addiction affects communication patterns within families, shining a light on a problem that people in recovery and their loved ones are intuitively aware of.

The data the research team gathered allowed them to decipher four distinct communication styles —  and an honest look at them can help you recognize where you could start connecting with your loved ones:

  • Aggressive communication. This style is characterized by conflict, tension, and talking behind each other’s backs.
  • Protective communication. People who turn to this style work hard to keep the peace. Rather than turning to overt conflict, they walk on eggshells and stick to superficial topics (avoiding tackling problems head-on). Sober partners may “cover” for their other half struggling with addiction.
  • Adaptive communication. Within this style, communication is usually limited to practical issues that can’t be avoided.
  • Inconsistent communication. Families where this communication style is at work live with constant unpredictability. As moods shift, so do ways of talking to each other — creating constant apprehension.

These ways of communicating are closely interlinked with other issues families may face when someone is addicted to alcohol, including denial, codependency, blame, and despondence.

The tricky part? Once habits form, they’re hard to break. There’s also good news, though. Your decision to stop drinking marks an entirely new chapter in your life, opening up new avenues of communication that can bring you and your loved ones closer together.

Finding Your Way Forward and Embracing Open Conversations

Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t the only road to recovery, but it’s a method that’s helped many stay sober long-term — and most readers will at least be vaguely familiar with the 12 steps. It’s no surprise that eight of the 12 steps explicitly involve language and communication — with ourselves, our loved ones, and the higher power so key to the 12-step approach.

Whether you’re following the path of AA or embracing a different road to recovery and sobriety, effective, honest, and healthy communication is critical to building loving relationships after you stop drinking.

Do you yearn to forge closer connections? Do you want to make amends? Are you ready to address issues that have been festering for far too long, or are you simply excited to start a new chapter?

Add these communication tips to your daily toolkit! Don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations (your loved ones are worth the temporary anguish), but do remember to take a break from heavy topics if it’s all too much.

1. Active Listening

Active listening is more than hearing what your loved ones have to say — it’s soaking it up, making sure you understood the message correctly, and showing you care.

To practice active listening:

  • Give your conversational partner all your attention. Try not to think of other things (whether tasks you still have to complete or how to best respond), but simply listen.
  • Suspend judgment and seek understanding.
  • Listen with your whole body — make eye contact, lean forward, and be there.
  • Paraphrase what your conversational partner said to ensure the message got across.

Suspending judgment is especially important for people in recovery. People on the road to sobriety may feel defensive, but it’s vital to understand what your loved ones are thinking and feeling. Listen — and make it clear that you’re here now.

2. Use ‘I Statements’

This technique is as vital for the loved ones of recovering alcoholics as it is for newly sober people. When tackling difficult topics, don’t assign blame. Instead of “You always do or did [insert grievance]” or “Because of your addiction, [insert consequence or feeling],” try a more introspective approach.

“I feel like I’ve been facing this challenge alone” is a more neutral statement that can accurately convey what you’re trying to say without triggering defensive reactions. Sharing your personal experiences can build understanding and connection.

3. Don’t Put It Off

“Bottling up,” or internalizing, feelings or problems is common among people who have struggled with addiction. Sometimes, struggling alone without taking steps to resolve issues can even lead to a relapse.

If you have something important to say, say it — even if it’s hard. It’s better to open a conversation awkwardly than sit alone with your problems.

4. Agree to Aim for Complete Honesty

Addiction is an illness that leads to secrecy, shame, denial and lies by nature. Honesty can be a powerful antidote. Have you fallen into the “protective communication” style described above? Embracing open communication can help you and your loved ones heal.

A statement as simple as “I really wanted a drink today, but the feeling passed after my meeting, and I’m so glad I’m here with you sober” can make a huge difference. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper. The real connection lies just below the surface of polite conversation, and honesty helps you uncover it.

5. Practice Gratitude

People on the road to sobriety often have some tough conversations ahead of them. Never let the past be all you talk about with your loved ones. Focusing on the positive can have a tangible impact, and vocalizing what you’re grateful for is part of that.

Focusing on gratitude, and sharing it with others, can counteract lingering negative emotions and help you feel more optimistic. Why not start today and see where it leads?

Rediscovering Your Relationships: A Final Word

Addiction leaves lasting wounds, but learning new communication skills gets you closer to a life where you can heal together with your family and other loved ones. Research has actually shown that we spend two-thirds of our waking hours communicating — are you getting your most important messages across?

Honest and open communication can go a long way toward rebuilding your relationships after alcohol abuse, and these tips should get you there.

Martijn van Eijk
Martijn is a passionate creator and the driving force behind StopDrinking.com. He created this website to assist individuals and their families in conquering alcohol addiction and finding a joyful, fulfilling life after alcohol. With a deep understanding of the challenges they face, he empowers readers with valuable insights and practical guidance on their journey towards recovery. Author of the Stop Shaking Book.