How to stay connected to friends when they quit drinking

When a mate decides to give up alcohol, your relationship dynamic may shift. Here’s how to support a newly sober friend.

With around 77 per cent of Australian adults drinking alcohol, it’s no wonder it can sometimes feel like our entire social lives – from celebrations to commiserations – revolve around drinking.

Some of our fondest memories might be of big nights out with our friends, having hilarious conversations and sharing tipsy escapades.

Rightly or wrongly, alcohol can seem like the glue that holds close friendships together.

So what happens when a mate decides to go sober, but you still want to enjoy a glass or three?

How going sober can affect friendships

According to a recent La Trobe University study, drinkers consider non-drinkers to be a threat to having fun, and they’re perceived as being difficult to maintain a social connection with.

Alcohol and binge-drinking coach Kathryn Elliott, who quit drinking more than four years ago at 46, says giving up alcohol “absolutely affected” some of her friendships – especially where booze had played a big role.

“There are others (friendships) that it doesn’t affect at all because drinking … really hasn’t had a huge amount to do with those friendships,” she says.

Kathryn, who now runs a business called The Alcohol Mindset Coach, says when a newly sober friend can be unsettling for others.

“People are often looking at a point of reference for their own behaviour,” she explains.

She’s in no doubt it also made some of her friends consider their own choices – even though that wasn’t her intention.

“It was probably a bit confronting in that it made them potentially look at themselves and either think, ‘Am I drinking too much, do I maybe have something I need to look at?’ or ‘Oh, Kath’s stop drinking now, maybe she’s judging us’,” Kathryn says.

How to stay mates with a sober friend

Online counsellor and relationship coach Nicole Hind says friendships and romantic relationships are often challenged when someone makes a big change in their behaviour.

Nicole, who also no longer drinks, says there are things we can do to protect our friendships – but the responsibility lies with both parties.

If you’re drinking…

Nicole suggests if you’re the friend who’s still drinking, you can show support by having a few nights off; or go one further like one group of guys who decided to quit for six months to help a friend.

“They set up a WhatsApp group, set up all these rewards,” Nicole says.

“It felt really supportive to the guy who was quitting and made it fun.”

If you’re staying sober…

Nicole says you might want to avoid banging on too often about the health benefits of giving up alcohol.

“As the friend, if that’s making you feel bad about yourself, it’s fine to tell that person in a kind way.”

Find new ways to connect

Nicole says rather than neglecting a sober friend, be proactive with invitations to non-boozy activities.

For example, “I’m going to yoga on Saturday at 11am, do you want to come?” she suggests.

Be patient

Kathryn says it’s important to be patient while you both adjust to the new reality.

To support your sober friend, she suggests you:

  • Avoid making assumptions about their reasons for quitting
  • Ask your friend if they need any particular support
  • Consider their needs – for example, offer non-alcoholic drinks at your next dinner party

More on drinking and going sober:

Written by Larissa Ham.