It’s normal in early recovery to feel lonely and want to get close to another person. For many, this means dating. But is looking for a new relationship, or just playing the field in early recovery, a wise thing to do? How do you know when it’s okay for you to go back to dating?
When people become sober it opens up a world of possibility. They can now begin to rebuild their life and get back many of the things they have lost. Romantic relationships can be a great source of happiness in sobriety, but they can also be the source of great pain. One of the worst things that an individual can do in early recovery is jump headfirst into romance. It is strongly advised that they remain focused on themselves until their sobriety is strong. Once they are settled in their new life, they can then begin to consider sharing it with somebody else.
The Importance of Avoiding Romantic Relationships in Early Recovery. It’s always been recommended that people who are still within the first year of their recovery avoid romantic relationships of any kind. This is because their #1 priority needs to be sobriety. The first few months of recovery are often described as an emotional roller coaster because there is so much going on including life changes and emotional struggles. Adding the stress of a new relationship to the mix can be overwhelming, and disastrous for the addict. It is going to take all their attention to make it through this early part of recovery.
Another large reason for why people are advised to avoid relationships in the first year is that they need to get to know themselves better before they choose a partner. Those individuals who get sober and rush into a relationship tend to make terrible choices. They may try to use romance as a replacement for alcohol or drugs. All they are really doing is substituting one addiction with another and until the individual has managed to build a strong recovery, they will be vulnerable in a new relationship.
Romantic Relationships with Other People in Recovery. Beginning a relationship with another person who is also recovery from an addiction can be particularly problematic and is also not recommended. This is mainly because if one of the couple relapses it could (and often does) encourage the other to do the same. It would be extremely difficult for a recovering addict to maintain a relationship with somebody who had relapsed, but ending the romance can be hard and sometimes even more problematic for the addict who has relapsed.
As with any other aspect of addiction and recovery, everyone is different. Still, experts almost universally agree that making any major changes in your life in the first year of sobriety – and that includes dating and/or jumping into a new relationship, or ending an existing relationship or marriage, is dangerous, and should be avoided. The “one-year rule” for waiting on romance/sex has been long used by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other self-help groups as a way to safeguard the individual’s recovery.
That’s because your primary objective right now should be caring for yourself, and a new relationship can distract you from those efforts. You’re also still learning about yourself — and especially your new self, without drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, or whatever your “drug” of choice might have been. That means you may not be in the best place to judge who would be a suitable partner. For example, it’s not uncommon to develop a strong attraction to someone who is also struggling with addiction, emotionally unavailable or even abusive while you’re in this very vulnerable stage.
Here are a few more reasons why waiting to date is best:
- Dating can be an unhealthy coping mechanism. You no longer drink, do drugs or “use” a compulsive behavior, but the allure of a romantic relationship may become so powerful that it serves as a replacement addiction. If you throw yourself into a new love, it can become an unhealthy preoccupation, so that instead of tending to your recovery you’re seeking escape in romance and/or sex.
- You may share too much, or too little, with prospective partners. While you’re in early recovery, there’s a lot that’s new and probably a little scary about the steep learning curve you’re on with respect to your sobriety. Factor in dating and you may find yourself either pouring out your troubles to someone who really can’t or doesn’t want to handle it, or hiding your addiction, which could lead to problems later. Good relationships depend upon honesty and you’re not in a position early in your sobriety to be able to handle the intricate psychological dance that dating entails.
- You may think you can’t live without the other person. As mentioned above, you’re extremely vulnerable in early recovery, and trying to invest the time and effort required to develop a romantic relationship exposes you to a potential predicament: You could become so fixated on this individual, believing them to be necessary for your emotional survival, that you become desperate, clinging to the person and wrongly believing that you simply can’t live without him/her.
If you’re still in your first year of recovery, be patient. Remember that your number-one priority is getting well and you need to focus on yourself for this period. With sincere dedication and effort you may well be able to restore an existing relationship, or create a new one when you’re ready. That said, before you even think about getting back into the dating game, ask yourself: Have you regained your family’s trust? Do you trust yourself again? Are you able to experience triggers without relapsing? Are you using healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with daily stress and turbulent emotions? If you’ve answered, “yes” to these questions you’re less likely to tailspin into relapse over a failed or difficult relationship.
Managing Existing Relationships in Recovery. When people are addicted to alcohol or drugs, it puts a strain on their relationships. Their partners will have been harmed by the substance abuse, and it can take a long time for these wounds to heal. When people enter recovery, they have taken a great step towards rebuilding their relationships, but it is unlikely to be enough alone to make everything perfect. It can take years before a partner feels fully ready to forget the past and trust again.
In order to repair existing relationships the individual needs to just stay sober and work on their recovery. The other person needs to be given time to heal and pushing things too much could be counterproductive. There is no panacea that will repair all the damage. The best way for the person in recovery to make amends for their past is by being a better person today. They also need to be kind and try to understand things from their partner’s point of view. The sober person needs to move away from self-absorption and selfishness.
When You’re ready: Your Dating Plan. Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is whether you’ve developed a dating plan with your counselor, sponsor or therapist. This plan will include a list of healthy dating goals and can include things like:
- I don’t want to date anyone I’m not willing to introduce to my family or friends.
- I don’t want to date anyone who uses me for sex.
- I don’t want to date anyone who is actively addicted.
- I want to develop a serious long-term relationship.
- I want to date someone who values and appreciates me.
- I want to date someone who has shared interests and a steady job.
In general, when you start dating it’s best to go slow and to date people with whom you have something healthy in common, rather than seeking someone only because of a physical attraction or some other external quality. You want to be with someone who’s safe and whom you feel comfortable being around — a person who’s good for you and whom you’re good for, too.