Someone new to recovery might hear others with long-term sobriety in 12-Step meetings advise others to avoid dating until they have been sober for one full year. Where does this suggestion come from? It’s not found in any 12-Step text, in fact, the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous is noticeably limited in its discussion, dedicating only a single page of careful wording on the topic.
The reality is, much of the advice of others is rooted mainly in personal experience practicing recovery principles in their own lives. The common experience of those with long-term recovery is that personal growth takes time and romantic partnerships can be difficult for those still early in the process.
Taking this earned experience into account, the journey to romance and relationships is a personal one and there is no one right way to go about things. In recovery, people get the opportunity to learn a new set of skills that can help heal old relationships and build healthy new ones.
“Whatever our ideal turns out to be, we must be willing to grow toward it.”
Those with substance use disorders are often lacking connection to the people in their lives. This can make maintaining relationships, and forming new ones, a difficult task. Every individual that struggles with a substance use disorder has their own set of unique challenges when it comes to interpersonal relationships, but there are certain common traits that many of us experience.
People experiencing substance use disorders are often challenged by low self-esteem or self-worth, fear of intimacy, delusional thinking, and co-dependent behaviors. These can create trouble not only in both seeking and being a healthy partner, but they also cause issues within existing relationships. There can be a lack and trust and vulnerability between the person with substance use disorder and their romantic partner, as well as manipulative and harmful conduct.
Often it’s not until treatment and recovery are sought that someone with substance use disorder is able to develop some tools that can help them be and have a healthier partner. If someone is not already in a relationship before starting the journey of recovery, it’s usually advisable to take some time to focus entirely on personal health and wellness. Even those in romantic partnerships should seek to communicate to their partner that they need to prioritize this time for themselves.
Humans are wired to seek connection. We are driven by instincts to have community and partnership. Once a person recovers from a substance use disorder, despite the well-intended advice of those older in the program, it’s natural to desire to seek companionship and the decision to engage in romantic relationships and dating is a personal one.
This is a good place to draw on the advice of a support system, who can help lend their experience and perspective to situations. A sponsor, therapist, and close friends are often the best tool one can have to see themselves from a different angle, and they also have some perspective on past relationships and experiences that can shape new ones.
Once the decision is made to re-enter the dating scene there is no set of tools that is specific to helping make these interactions work or not. The big book of Alcoholics Anonymous is extremely cautious in its language and in the spare discussion of this topic, stating there are many different schools of thought and that someone in recovery can only look to their own conduct and seek to cause no harm to others.
This, however, is a key principle when it comes to dating in recovery, even if the original author did not intend to advertise it as such. Broken down, the idea of looking inward first and then behaving to a personal ideal is an attitude that can help guide those in recovery to act with principles and integrity in romance.
First things first: someone in recovery should always make sure their own life, emotional world, and priorities are in order before seeking to find a partner. The fact for many of us with substance use disorders is that before recovery the emotional entanglement and unhealthy attachments experienced in romantic relationships can cause pain and wreckage. Those painful experiences often became another reason to seek to numb emotions.
The person in recovery should seek to make sure they have worked through some of these past experiences and behaviors first. Of course, they can crop up over time or if triggered, but if a program of recovery remains the main priority then navigating these hard times as they come becomes less challenging. Learning first to prioritize themselves, seeking to not place dependence on others, and keeping recovery as a major focus in their lives can help build the foundation for a healthier partnership.
Looking inward is not only important to ensure that someone is personally doing their best to be a good partner, but also that space is given to have a good partner. Those who have recovered from a substance use disorder might have settled for partners in the past that didn’t fit their ideal and in some cases, were abusive or toxic. This comes from the chronically poor self-image many experienced and a belief that they didn’t deserve better.
Recovery helps heal that negative thinking and as a result, those who have gotten well have the opportunity to seek a partner that aligns with their core values and needs. It’s important to look inward and consider if a partner, new or old, is not living up to the ideals desired and to know that if something is causing more negative feelings than positive ones, that it’s okay to ask for more. Whether that means an open discussion about where things are not aligning or walking away, in recovery these are options that didn’t exist before.
Keeping a support system close and keeping personal priorities in order can help a relationship long term. The intimate relationships we have on the outside of our romantic ones, with friends, family, and mentors, can be the key to keeping things in perspective. In addition to practicing recovery tools and principles within a relationship, if a person has trauma or mental health disorders it’s also important to seek help in working through these as they can easily become a factor in reactions and emotional responses. In recovery, with effort, growth, and patience, individuals can have healthy and fulfilling romantic lives.
Ashley Addiction Treatment believes that connection is the key to recovery, with treatment options focused on holistic, integrated, and compassionate care. Ashley works to find an aftercare plan that keeps you connected to resources that can help you navigate life in recovery. If you would like to speak to someone about our care options, please reach out to us today at (800) 799-4673.