Is AA Sexist?

The Soft Sexism of Sobriety

Addicts – mostly men – have clear paths to recovery. Their spouses – mostly women – do not. That needs to change. 

By Christopher Dale, Author of Better Halves: Rebuilding a Post-Addiction Marriage.

In October 2011, I walked into a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. My drinking and drugging days were over, and I took my first steps along a clear path to recovery traveled by millions.

Meanwhile my non-addict wife, her own wounds still fresh from my years of substance abuse, stayed home and stood still. Her path to healing was … what exactly?
The gender gap in recovery from alcoholism and substance abuse is well established. For years, substance abuse treatment centers have admitted roughly twice as many men as women. Supporting those figures, women make up just 38% of those attending Alcoholics Anonymous, the most prolific group-centric recovery program. 

There are a wide range of potential causes for this, including lack of childcare options, stigmatization, and real or perceived gender biases in recovery programs themselves. Hopefully, society can move toward a more gender-balanced recovery landscape, with 50-50 the ideal goal.

But for now, the numbers are what they are, making the experience my wife and I endured typical. The substance-abusing husband begins his recovery journey, while his traumatized wife stews and stagnates. The person who caused the damage (me) gets infinitely more help than the innocent yet nonetheless deeply impacted second party (my wife). 

This is like bringing a tow truck to the scene of a fierce two-car accident … then towing only the vehicle that caused the wreck, while leaving the faultless victim stranded. 

The reason for this early sobriety imbalance is simple: I had the insight, structure and fellow-addict empathy of rehabs and recovery groups. My wife, despite being indefinitely damaged for her undeserved role in a marital tragedy, did not. 

In the decade-plus since my sober date, the addiction crisis has only grown worse. Last year, drugs claimed nearly 108,000 American lives; in fact, just one drug, fentanyl, is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-45.

Logic dictates that if more people are dying, more people also are trying to recover. Fortunately, addicts like me have tried-and-true means of doing so. There are some 16,000 treatment facilities in the United States, and myriad recovery programs available to newly clean and sober people post-treatment. Addicts and alcoholics have resources galore, as they should. 

But what of their spouses? Which is to say, statistically speaking: what of their wives and female partners?
Understandably given the ongoing opioid crisis and, more recently, the surge in substance abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic, society has been laser-focused on getting addicts and alcoholics clean and sober. As a long-recovering addict, I am grateful to attest that the tools we have in place can work wonders when applied correctly and pursued passionately. 

But society has a blind spot when it comes to the families of those recovering—particularly when it pertains to spouses and life partners. As the people closest to and most intimate with recovering addicts, they are the loved ones most adversely affected by the trauma and chaos addiction creates. 

This blind spot, I am convinced, is causing marriages to fail – not just in active addiction, but also in the critical early recovery stages. 

Though divorce is certainly widespread—the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found that over 630,000 divorces occur in the U.S. each year—the commonly shared notion that 50% of marriages end in divorce is a myth. The rate has been dropping in recent years, and the actual figure, though difficult to pinpoint, is closer to 35% or even lower.  

Not so for married couples where at least one partner has, or has had, substance abuse issues. Nearly half of these unions dissolve, with substance abuse cited as the reason for more than a third of divorces

Unfortunately, for marriages in which one partner has suffered with substance abuse, the accelerated rate of divorce doesn’t end with sobriety. It’s common for marriages to have significant challenges as one partner recovers, as this can dramatically shift the marital dynamic. 

We know what to do with substance abusers: try to get them clean and sober ASAP. We also know what to do with spouses of active substance abusers: encourage them not to enable their addicted partners, up to and including separation should the situation become untenable. As someone who dragged his wife through the wringer of addiction, I know there are only so many chances to get clean, and that doing so is a prerequisite for staying married. 

It’s when sobriety finally takes root that the resources become lopsided. As I made prodigious progress—a steep incline bolstered by new ideas, new sober mentors and newfound hope – my wife did what so many wives do: watched, waited, and worried. 

She should have been tending to her own much-needed recovery. I had made her a fundamentally worse person for my addiction, a nuptial nightmare that raged for three horrific years. I had placed stains on her soul that were not there before cocaine hijacked first my life, then our lives together. She was angrier, more cynical, less confident. 

She tried Al-Anon. True to addiction’s gender and desperation gaps, she found groups of mostly women whose husbands were mostly still drinking and drugging. She did not recognize her situation in those rooms. Further, did she really need to commit to a program so similar to Alcoholics Anonymous that it uses the very same 12 Steps

No. My wife was damaged, but not desperate. She got up, walked out and moved on. The point: if Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t for everyone (and it isn’t), Al-Anon really isn’t for everyone. I stuck it out in AA because I absolutely had to get clean and sober. My wife had no such existential urgency, making a parallel program a poor fit.

What about therapy? Perhaps it would have helped. But here, we approach the heart of the problem: my wife didn’t seek help because she didn’t know it was necessary. While everyone told her addicted husband how to heal, no one told her how to do so. In fact, no one even told her that healing was necessary.

There is danger in this naiveté. Speaking from experience, my wife and I can report that ignorance is not always bliss, and that what you don’t know can hurt both spouses. This cluelessness caused us to nearly separate in early recovery; we were fortunate to eventually recognize the issue and work together toward addressing it.

Recovery is a remarkable thing. But too often, the most important person in newly recovering addicts’ lives—their spouses—are relegated to the sidelines of their partners’ game-changing metamorphoses. And since recovery is still a male-dominated sport, those spectators are typically our wounded wives. 

This is the soft sexism of sobriety, and it is on everyone—mental health professionals, society, and most of all recovering addicts themselves—to eradicate it. Addicts’ lives are worth saving. So are their marriages.