The first few months of recovery from addiction are some of the most difficult. Insomnia, triggers, drug cravings, and the need to deal with emotions that were previously numbed with drugs make early recovery a period of enormous adjustment.
An Interview with Tanya Desloover, MA, CADCII
Learning to feel emotions again, including positive feelings of love and intimacy, can be one of the most challenging parts of recovery, but also one of the most rewarding.
Contrary to what a lot of people think – that an addict’s job is the first thing to go – drug use shows up first in the dysfunction of the addict’s relationships. Most recovering addicts have a long history of dysfunctional and destructive relationships. Early in recovery, relationships are one of the leading causes of relapse. Although the Big Book of AA doesn’t offer guidelines on dating in recovery, addiction counselors strongly advise waiting until a person has achieved one year of sobriety.
Tanya Desloover, MA, CADCII, a marriage, and family therapist intern at The Rose, a women-only addiction treatment center in Newport Beach, California, also recommends waiting one year.
“It is commonly recommended in the recovery community to avoid romantic relationships for the first year because most of us are just beginning to get to know ourselves and to define our values,” Desloover says. “We have to learn to love ourselves before we can love someone else.”
The Pitfalls of Dating Too Soon
People in recovery might choose to date a very different type of person when they first quit using as compared to when they have achieved a year of sobriety, observes Desloover. Recovering people often have learned to either shut down and hold in their emotions for fear of being hurt or to romanticize their relationships and fall in love at the first opportunity, without discriminating.
“In treatment, people learn new skills that need to be practiced before they are able to make them part of their daily life without returning to old patterns,” she explains. “If they start dating too soon, they are likely to choose someone who is emotionally less mature, as they themselves are than if they waited a year.”
Choosing Unhealthy Partners
People tend to choose partners who are at their same emotional maturity level. It would follow then, that recovering individuals would choose differently after working on themselves first. In early recovery, people tend to choose the same type of partner they would’ve chosen when they were using drugs. This person often is abusive or codependent, as is the recovering person early on.
Codependent individuals focus too heavily on the needs of their partner (“My happiness is dependent on making/keeping you happy”), and define themselves by their relationship, sometimes lowering their personal standards to please someone else. Some women choose abusive partners in early recovery because they lack discernment or grew accustomed to being treated poorly in childhood. The dissatisfaction they feel in their relationships is often the stressor that led to their drug abuse in the first place.
“Women in early recovery often choose abusive men because they seem in control, while the women feel out of control in their own lives. This control is attractive at first, but soon becomes controlling or abusive” says Desloover. “As women grow more confident and emotionally healthy in recovery, their self-esteem and confidence improve, and they begin to actually like themselves. We teach people how to treat us, so with longer-term recovery, we are going to demand to be treated differently than when we are new to recovery.”
Replacing Drug Addiction with Love Addiction
Recovery is hard work that requires a full-time commitment. Returning to daily life without the security of being able to use drugs as a coping mechanism can be terrifying, particularly when drug cravings and triggers to use set in. When people stop using and start dating right away, they run the risk of seeking comfort in relationships instead of drugs.
“Love addiction becomes a concern when infatuation replaces the ‘high’ of drug use,” notes Desloover. “Whether the object of the addiction is drugs or an unhealthy attachment to another person, the individual is searching for something outside themselves to fill the emotional void within.”
The “rush” of a new relationship can be emotionally damaging and can derail even the most valiant recovery effort. In most cases, individuals who can’t refrain from having a relationship in the first year of recovery are missing an opportunity to address the core issues underlying their addictions. They may have other mental health issues, compulsions, and cross-addictions that need to be addressed as well before they can truly focus on a relationship.
Other common pitfalls of dating in early recovery include:
- Pressuring a partner into a relationship, and then holding them emotional hostage
- Being too desperate or clingy and thinking they can’t live without the other person
- Waiting to be rescued
- Trying to fix the other person, or expecting to be fixed
- Being consumed by lust or attraction
- Telling too much too soon or not sharing any thoughts or feelings at all
Tips for Surviving the First Year of Recovery
Continue Working Your Program. The focus of the first year in recovery should be on working your program, practicing the 12 Steps and meeting with your sponsor, counsels Desloover, not on the distraction of relationships. New relationships require knowing yourself first.
Desloover asks her clients, “Would you want to date you right now? In other words, are you the best that you can be? Early in recovery, people tend to have high expectations of others without thinking about what they themselves are bringing to the table. Only when people know who they are and what they have to offer can they find a mate who is an appropriate match for their values, interests, and goals. Desloover also advises newly recovering women to attend women-only 12-Step meetings during that first year.
By working your program, you will discover who you are and what you can bring to your relationships, rather than what you can get from them. Recovering addicts have to re-learn healthy intimacy by overcoming feelings of anger, isolation, fear, and distrust and gradually begin to trust themselves to be able to share their hopes, fears, and dreams with others.
“In the first year, stay close to your program and figure out who you are,” Desloover advises. “Learn to define for yourself the things that you will not compromise for a love interest (‘deal-breakers’), such as your values, personal interests, and spirituality. Only then will you be healthy and whole as a partner for someone else.”
Be Patient. Recovery happens one day at a time. Even though it may feel like the process is agonizingly slow, there is no substitute for taking the time in the first year to focus exclusively on recovery. Recovering the mind, body, and spirit requires time to clear the years of shame, guilt, denial and emotional wreckage and the likelihood of staying sober increases with each year in recovery.
Make a Long-Term Plan. Once individuals pass the one-year mark, they can gradually ease back into dating. At the same time, Desloover counsels, they should continue in therapy for at least another year for help to maintain healthy dating habits. Many recovering addicts benefit from ongoing support to help them work through their insecurities, build confidence, and learn to feel and express emotions in healthy ways.
Dating is never an excuse for using drugs or alcohol. Part of early recovery is learning how to have fun and meet new people while sober. Although bars may be off limits, there are plenty of other places to meet prospective partners, such as AA or NA meetings, volunteer functions, self-help workshops, and community events. Many local chapters of AA and NA host a variety of clean and sober functions, including sober surf retreats, sober camping trips, and a sober softball team, where people in recovery can meet and get to know each other.
When beginning to date again, Desloover cautions against focusing too heavily on attraction, appearance and external qualities. Instead, she advises people in recovery to choose a partner they feel safe enough around to truly be themselves and whose company they enjoy. Then give friendships an opportunity to blossom into romance.
Romantic relationships – and the ups and downs that come with them – are a natural and healthy part of life. By taking the time to become whole before diving into the dating scene, you give yourself a chance not only to stay sober but to have a fulfilling relationship that can be better than your best “high.”