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We Both Enjoy Sex. Do I Need to Withhold It If She’s Been Drinking?

man and woman kissing

Member Omarcito and his wife, who struggles with alcohol use, are working on their strained relationship; sex is still one of the good parts. Trouble is that his wife often wants sex more when she’s been drinking. Should he decline sex at these times, in accordance with CRAFT principles? Our “it depends” answer takes into consideration the particulars of the situation – including level of use, intermediate and long-term goals, and individual history. Some changes around the question of sex could lead the couple to a much better place.

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“Hello. What does CRAFT say about sexual intimacy? My wife struggles with alcohol and is in relapse. We have had sex-related troubles for a good part of our marriage. The last year and a half we’ve bordered on having a sexless marriage. I feel that our relationship is really strained in other ways and we are working with a counselor to get help.

Sometimes she is more “in the mood” after having had alcohol, and she might initiate sex. I am aware, thanks to the learning modules, that sex is one of the positive outcomes (for both of us) that sometimes happens when she uses. Does the CRAFT method always indicate that I need to decline if she has been using that day? Thank you in advance for your help.”

This is a great question, Omarcito. First of all, CRAFT never says “never” (or at least we try not to when interpreting CRAFT when members write in with their specific situations). But it’s true that removing rewards during times of substance use is an important CRAFT principle. So, there are some key things you can work to clarify before you decide how to proceed.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that staying connected is a worthy goal, and sex can help serve this function while you work your way through some tougher aspects of the relationship – and help guide your Loved One to recovery.

Second, while completely eliminating alcohol use would likely be the ultimate goal for your wife’s recovery, reduced use is possibly an acceptable goal in the interim (see more below on this tricky topic).

With these two goals in mind, you might consider sex during times of low alcohol use (instead of only with no alcohol use) an acceptable intermediate-term behavior. But we want you to be very aware that her behavior around sex and alcohol could stem from a background of trauma, and we’d emphasize not engaging in sex if she is drinking heavily. More to follow below.

Finally, remember, CRAFT is designed to improve your situation by helping you engage your Loved One into care and the road to recovery. The ultimate goal is always for your Loved One to be gently shepherded towards more treatment, community activity, faith service, mutual aid, and so on…so that the substance use resolves.

How does CRAFT square with sex?

As you are aware, Omarcito, CRAFT recommends removing rewards when your Loved One is using. (Readers: see Module 5 for a refresher on why this is a key principle of how you can use CRAFT to improve your relationship with your Loved One and guide her to recovery.)

Here, in brief, are the CRAFT principles you can learn in each of our Learning Modules:

One reward for non-use is sex, which you both enjoy, and which she initiates at times after starting to drink. What a tough thing to have to turn down. It’s like asking a mom not to feed her adult child when her daughter comes home high. The only time the two really connect is when Mom can do something for her daughter and her daughter is in good spirits. It’s a really difficult thing not to give.

Maybe it’s not about going without

If I may be so bold: perhaps sex permits you to connect with each other in a way you don’t the rest of the time?

In any event, I’m going to think it through with you, in a way that considers my professional observations conducting applied addiction research for close to 30 years, along with my personal experience.

My first thought is: let’s take sex off the list of “rewards to remove when she’s drinking.” It’s not comfortable for you, and there are other rewards to eliminate. Sex stays.

I wonder, though, if the question of sex while drinking is also an opportunity for both of you to explore what may be an important part of what underlies her heavy alcohol use. Between 60-90% of women who seek treatment for substances have a trauma history, many from sexual trauma. Alcohol disinhibits, which can make sex more pleasurable and easier to enter into. Alcohol can quiet the negative thoughts and other background noise. It relaxes the body and gives a temporary burst of energy.

Past trauma may be part of the picture—and even if it’s not…

It is worth considering your role in this. Not that you’re responsible in any way, should her past indeed include trauma. I suggest you consider your role today, in helping her feel how you care for her around sex.

Trauma may not be your Loved One’s experience, but the suggestions I make can work in either case. Consider them in the context of your relationship. You know best how tinkering with these ideas might shift things towards the positive.

People often pair sex with alcohol (as well as stimulants, by the way). One of the complicating factors of methamphetamine addiction among men who have sex with men back in the 80s was a heightened and prolonged sex drive, which meant caring less about safety while high. That in turn lowered condom use and caused more skin sores/chafing that permitted easy HIV transmission.

If there is past trauma, trying to connect sexually can be complicated, especially when sober. But when your wife drinks hard and there’s trauma, it’s complicated because the drink or drug may cause her to act in ways that are not self-caring. She may abandon herself in ways she wouldn’t sober, to the point of feeling degraded, which adds to feelings of shame and low self-esteem.

If we’re not feeling safe and relaxed, we’re not having fun

Whether or not she has a history of trauma, I hear you saying that sex is essential to your relationship. But having sex “straight” (with no substance use, that is) can be a big ask. Perhaps your wife may need other creative reinforcers to help relax the body and quiet the mind. You might both explore other ways to lead into “the mood” – like massage with essential oils, or watching a romantic movie.

Things can feel inherently unsafe around sex for many people; perhaps this is the case for your wife. Again, the alcohol takes that away: alcohol is a famous “disinhibiter.” Could you together, perhaps, explore more her genuine wants around sex, and different methods that may feel safer and more natural to her, so that it becomes easier for her when sober?

If you both need some time to explore these options, and the relationship isn’t ready to contemplate sex only when sober, I wonder if something like this is possible for you two:

Perhaps you decide together to reward low use of alcohol (a couple glasses of wine?) by coming together. In brief, you accept low use as no use (here’s some good background reading on that subject) and reward her (and you) with sex. But if she drinks beyond those couple glasses of wine, you don’t have sex. (Sorry, keep in mind that it’s not forever.)

We applaud you for learning CRAFT so that you can improve your relationship and your Loved One’s prospects for recovery from addiction; while you get more and more comfortable with applying CRAFT principles yourself, we want to remind you that it’s important that together you work through decisions around sex.

Say those positive words out loud

We don’t recommend going into an extended discussion – about having sex or not having sex — during the moments when your wife is using alcohol heavily; per CRAFT principles, during heavy use it is better to remove yourself with something like “I’d like for us to discuss this some other time; right now I’m going to go in the other room and read a book.”

When your Loved One is not using alcohol, we do recommend a conversation that gently expresses care, concern, and desire – for loving connection and, yes, for sex.

Perhaps – when she’s sober — you say something along these lines:

I love that you keep working on your recovery. We both know you’re struggling a bit. I just want to say out loud that I love when we [something specific about making love].

My Love, I am going to suggest something. I am uneasy having sex when you’ve been drinking hard. Don’t get me wrong: we have fun. It’s just that I feel like I’m taking advantage of you. You are different when you’ve been drinking like that. For my part, I owe you more respect than that when you’ve been drinking hard. I want you emotionally and physically safe. I think I should respect your space in these moments and not have sex with you. It’s not fair to either of us. How do you feel about this suggestion?

This was an interesting, complex question to ponder, Omarcito, and the answer is: it depends. I wish you progress with your Loved One, and all of us at Allies thank you for writing in. Let us know what you learn – we’re here for you.

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