There’s a certain loneliness that often falls on people new to sobriety. Chances are you’ve experienced it if you’re in recovery. As though you’ve lost a best friend, you want to find that comfort and familiarity the bottle or drugs used to provide. At the same time, most drug addiction treatment providers advise that you wait at least a year before navigating a new romantic relationship. Relationships in early recovery can succeed, but research shows that jumping into the dating pool too early not only increases the likelihood of a break-up, it also increases the potential for a relapse.
The Importance of Avoiding Dating in Early Recovery
The primary reason for avoiding relationships in the first year can be paraphrased into one word: vulnerability. The need to remain focused on yourself cannot be overstated. Living a newly sober life is an emotional rollercoaster, one that can easily derail with the smallest of obstacles. Until you develop new healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms, you remain incredibly vulnerable.
Even the most pleasurable relationships bring pain; that pain will be magnified if you’re in early recovery. Since your main way of dealing with pain until now has been drugs or alcohol, you’ll need to learn other methods of coping prior to undertaking the heartache that often accompanies new relationships.
Face it: Your decision-making skills are impaired. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t be where you are now. People in early recovery need to spend time getting to know themselves before choosing a partner. Otherwise, you’re apt to replace drugs or alcohol with a relationship, thereby exchanging one addiction for another. In new relationships, there’s often a psychological dance played between partners where both people try to gauge how much leeway they have in certain behaviors. Not having the appropriate insight into where you stand on various issues makes this tricky.
Another skill that recovering addicts sometimes lack is establishing healthy boundaries. Knowing when to say “no” is one such example. Again, if you would have known how to, you would have already done so. This can lead to an unhealthy imbalance of power in a relationship. It can also lead to you over-sharing. There’s a good chance you’ll either pour your troubles out to someone who either doesn’t have the ability to handle it or who doesn’t want to. Alternately, you may choose to hide the fact that you’re in recovery, which only leads to problems down the road.
People undergoing drug addiction treatment can often point to the myriad of pleasures encountered with drug use: euphoria, confidence, heightened sexual interest, increased conversational prowess, and a sense that life is pretty amazing. Replace “drug use” in that sentence with “a new relationship” and you’re going to find it equally true. That’s because both activities — using drugs and falling in love — trigger the same parts of your brain. The same chemicals in your brain (that is, norepinephrine and dopamine) come into the picture with both situations and many of the same brain structures and pathways are activated with both situations.
Why does this matter? Because falling in love produces its own “high” and can be harmful in much the same way as drugs. You can feel the need to flit from one relationship to another in order to achieve that high. More, you are apt to engage in unhealthy behaviors to maintain that high, just as you did with drugs or alcohol.
Relationships with Other People in Recovery
It can be tempting, oh so tempting. You meet someone who “gets” you before even saying a word. He or she doesn’t judge you for your addiction, nor question some of your quirky behaviors. If you’re in one of the co-ed drug addiction treatment centers, this can be especially alluring. Yet dating someone else in recovery — especially if they haven’t firmly established their life after sobriety — can be detrimental.
For one thing, you both bring enough baggage to the relationship to weigh down a boat; It’s difficult to handle someone else’s baggage while also trying to deal with your own issues. The whole relationship can begin to resemble a hostage scene from a bad movie, as both partners approach the relationship much like everything else in life — in an addictive manner. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if one person relapses, it may very well send the other person spiraling down the same path.
Developing a Dating Plan
Let’s say you’re ready to go down that path. You’ve had a year to get to know yourself; you feel confident in your sobriety; you’ve learned effective ways to handle stress. It’s time. Now, what? First, you should develop a dating plan. This is most beneficial if you do it in coordination with your therapist, sponsor or counselor. The plan should include healthy dating goals and can include things like:
- I want to develop a serious long-term relationship;
- I want to date someone who values me and treats me respectfully;
- I want to date someone that shares the same values as me;
- I don’t want to date anyone who is currently addicted to drugs, alcohol or sex;
- I don’t want to date anyone who I’m not willing to introduce to my friends and family.
As you navigate the dating world after recovery, it’s important to take things slow. Rather than rely only on a physical attraction, find someone that shares your interests, passions and values. Choose someone who is good for you, and who you are good for as well.