Like many millennial relationships, ours began with a drink. We met at a student gig (think: cheap beers) and ended the night dancing in a pub, doing tequila shots from dirty glasses. Almost a decade of red wine, football match pints and mid-lockdown, whisky-fuelled Scrabble games later, my partner and I realised that much of our relationship had revolved around drinking. Not that we thought we had a problem with alcohol per se, but we decided to give the booze a quick break nonetheless. If nothing else, it might help us to figure out who we were together, without it.
We both did Dry January in 2021, with great success. It was a relief to know that we still liked each other without a glass in our hands. For me, Dry Jan felt a bit like a race to the finish line and come 1st February I was more than ready for a large pinot noir. I raised a glass to a Dry Jan well done and quickly sipped back into my old rituals: a quick G&T after work, one too many on a Friday night, a celebratory drink when something went well, a commiseratory one when something didn’t.
R felt differently. Spurred on by the muscle tone and clarity he was reclaiming, he kept going, and going, and going. On day 328 of sobriety (at time of writing) he has saved 115,200 calories and lost over 6kg, as calculated by his Try Dry app. He has also saved $3,761. "I can see the difference in myself so I feel more positive about my body image," he tells me over a glass of alcohol-free mulled wine one December evening. "Mentally, I feel sharper and more focused."
I am incredibly proud of him, not to mention impressed, considering the amount we both enjoyed a drink before. "Not drinking for a year has felt like a really big achievement personally," he says. "I never felt like I had an issue with alcohol but I also was not very good at just having one."
Pride for him unwavering, the drinking culture of the first 10 years of our relationship has obviously done a 180. Now, while R is very happy to go out and have a 'no/low' alcohol alternative and put up with me as I merrily sink three wines, this isn’t something I necessarily want to put him through time and time again so I have been moderating and reflecting on what and how I drink, too.
This reflection has caused me to dissect and analyse my own habits, to a point where I started making myself feel really guilty about what I was drinking. I would feel self-conscious every time I poured a glass of wine when cooking dinner, for instance. This pressure was coming not from R but from myself.
Though alcohol and relationships is surprisingly understudied, one 10-year study of 2,700 couples by the University of Michigan, published in 2016, seemed to suggest that those who drink together, stay together. As do those who don't drink at all. But in relationships where one person drinks and the other doesn’t, things get more complicated.
Mismatched drinking habits were also analysed by the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) in New York. The study followed 634 newlyweds through the first nine years of marriage and found that nearly half the couples in which one partner drank more heavily than the other were divorced by the end of the study (compared with 30% of those who drank the same amount).
Gulp! R and I are engaged, and getting married in 2022. Is our marriage doomed before it begins? Do I need to give up drinking, just because he has, in solidarity? Ever the realist in the relationship, R is blissfully understanding. "Everybody has their own journey, and their own pace, whether that includes alcohol or not," he tells me. "It’s very much a personal thing."
Though I have done my hardest to make R feel as supported as possible during this time, the same can't be said for our wider circle. Some friends have probed and probed about the reasons for his not drinking, even suggesting he is 'boring' for not wanting to partake at the pub. To this day, R gets 'sober shamed'. "It's so common — and so unnecessary," says Lucy Holmes, director of policy and research at Alcohol Change. "We have a campaign called 'Stop Sober Shaming' because this is really fundamental stuff."
"I've been in a situation where I decided not to drink and you get questions. Are you driving? Are you pregnant? Are you on antibiotics? You must have a reason!" she continues. "The reason is: I just don’t want to drink today, and that's fine. But that subtle peer pressure of portraying sobriety or having a night off as abnormal, it can be quite overwhelming and really unpleasant for people. Instead, we should ask ourselves: How can I be a good host to them, or a good friend to them?"
Selfishly, I do miss the drunken evenings R and I used to spend together pre-2021. They were fun! And I do believe there's nothing wrong with the occasional celebration, in moderation. We used to talk shit all night and dance in the kitchen. I don't miss the hungover arguments, though. Two snippy people in a relationship is a lot worse than one.
For chartered social psychologist Dr Gary Wood, sobriety in a relationship can be "a useful invitation to explore a variety of new things". He adds: "If one thing is always the answer, it's kind of a limitation. [One person's sobriety] can be enriching and broadening — see it as an opportunity."
I’m attempting Dry January again and while I am looking forward to a month off, I also have no plans to give up drinking altogether. It's something I enjoy and which I do mindfully. If a year in a semi-sober relationship has taught me anything, it's that everyone's journeys are different — and that's okay. R agrees: "Will I continue not drinking? I don’t know. I’m on my path and I’m enjoying the journey."