Sobriety is not just about getting clean and sober following years of drug and alcohol use. Relationships in recovery can also be challenging. The world looks different in sobriety, with a new outlook on life and way of being in the world it may feel like being reborn. For some people it is natural to want to explore the new world with someone else. Starting fresh with someone can feel daunting which is why relationships may not be the best thing to start in early recovery.
The general rule of thumb in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and 12 step programs is to wait at least a year prior to entering a relationship. A person in recovery must focus on building a positive sense of self worth in order to move forward. However, very few individuals heed this piece of advice. When people get sober, it opens up a world of possibility for them, including getting back many of the things they have lost. Many individuals lost their relationships due to their struggle with addiction, and forming a new romantic relationship can be a great source of happiness in sobriety. However, jumping headfirst into a new romance can be one of the worst things an individual can do to themselves during the early stages of recovery.
An individual in early recovery is like a new baby learning to crawl before walking. A child needs time to get legs underneath before taking off and running. The focus needs to be on emotional growth and development before a person can hope to grow into a relationship with another individual. In the early days, many emotions are being brought to the forefront while the body is also taking time to heal. Stability and focus are necessary to build a positive recovery.
Making Sobriety a Top Priority
One reason those in recovery are told to stay away from romantic relationships in the first year is because their priority should be on staying sober. The first few months of recovery can be an emotional rollercoaster with everything going on. The person needs time to heal without the anxiety, stress and worry of a new relationship which can, over time, become a substitute for drugs or alcohol.
Some individuals believe a relationship is the key to maintaining sobriety but it can trigger other unhealthy emotions. One year provides time to heal some of the trauma of addiction and to focus on what is most important. Also, it will take all of the individual’s attention to get through the early part of recovery, leaving no time and attention for a new relationship.
Getting to Know Yourself First
Another reason for individuals to avoid starting a relationship in recovery is that need to first get to know the new them. Rushing into a relationship is only substituting one addiction for another, as they may try to use romance as a replacement for drugs or alcohol. Once the individual has gotten to know themselves better, they can then make better choices.
Staying Focused on Your Recovery
The first year in recovery is when the person learns how to break the cycle of addiction. A year of being sober and away from romantic relationships is supposed to give the individual a sufficient amount of time to deal with their own emotions and be responsible for themselves, rather than relying on someone else.
Love can be like a drug which produces a state of euphoria in the brain. Many ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin) are released, resulting in the brain’s chemistry changing. Physical dependence can develop on the object of a person’s affection before a person is aware it is happening.
Vulnerability During Recovery
When an individual is in the early stages of recovery, they are incredibly vulnerable. They have left behind old habits, sometimes even been cut off from family and friends and have to build a new foundation. Being sober is a brand new experience, and the individual has a lot to learn. They have to develop new healthy habits and coping mechanisms, without the crutch of drugs or alcohol.
Getting into a new relationship while newly sober can be fun and seem like a step in the right direction. But the person tends to forget how vulnerable they are at this time, and consequently can be deeply hurt if the relationship doesn’t work out.
When It Ends
A relationship with someone started in recovery may come to an end. If it does, it is likely to throw a person into a tailspin of emotions and feelings about what went wrong. It is possible to stay sober while in relationship with another person but it is not the responsibility of another person to maintain another’s sobriety. A relationship can become a crutch for a person which is a lot of pressure for one individual to handle. This can turn into codependency, a situation where each person relies on the other to get something back in an unhealthy way. Relapse is also a possibility when a relationship ends which sets a person back and can take longer to rebound in recovery.
The Risk of Relapse
The key thing for those in recovery to remember is that if they are serious about their sobriety, then they shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize it. While it is possible for a relationship formed in recovery to succeed, experience has shown that it is usually a precursor to relapse.
The chances of relapse when in a relationship are very real and very high. A new relationship would force the individual to shift their focus, time and attention to another person. And this is the time when the individual’s full attention and focus must be only on themselves and their sobriety.
Coping in Recovery
Coping skills are an important part of the recovery process. A person who deals more effectively with stress, disappointment and problems without turning to drugs or alcohol is more likely to be a better companion in a relationship. New relationships, even when working well, are filled with challenges. It is particularly difficult if the other person has also experienced addiction or is in early recovery. Typically these are not long term relationships because it is generally too soon for both parties to be involved at a stage where each person needs to be self focused and intentional about living for what is in front of the person.
The Dangers of Romantic Relationships in Recovery
There are many kinds of relationships which are beneficial to the process of recovery, such as therapists, counselors, family and peers. But a romantic or sexual relationship is not one of them, for many reasons:
- The dangers of getting an STD are higher in individuals recovering from substance abuse, because it is likely that they have engaged in risky drug and sexual behaviors while they were still using. An individual in the early stages of recovery doesn’t need to also cope with the addition of a new illness.
- The individual will want to present themselves in the most positive light to their new partner, when they get involved in a new relationship. If this new partner is also in rehab, then the days of honest introspection in group therapies can be very difficult, as the individual will not want to reveal the ugly truth about themselves in front of their partner. This can be very harmful towards their continued recovery.
Relationships with Other People in Recovery
When people are in recovery together, sharing the same experiences, it can be easy to feel close and start a relationship. But this can be particularly problematic. What might happen if one of the couple relapses? The worry is that it could encourage the still sober one to do the same. It would be extremely difficult for the individual in recovery to maintain a healthy relationship with a partner who had relapsed, but they might still be unwilling to end the relationship and move away from a bad situation.
Better to Wait
Overall, it is better to wait until a person has had time to process the experience of recovery alone before entering into a relationship. A healthy relationship can only be built by two people coming together who are have a strong sense of self and are able to connect with another person in a healthy way (without codependency). Every relationship will have issues, but giving oneself time to be in recovery will allow for more space to grow and heal before pursuing a relationship.
The best approach is to wait and see what happens. New feelings and thoughts are happening which can bring about a need to share those with another person. This is especially true of wanting to share things with a person who has been through the same experience and understands what it all means. By learning to be patient and wait for the right time, a person can develop personal independence and a sense of being centered in the world before taking on the emotional task of building a relationship with another person.
Does this mean an individual in recovery can’t find romantic relationship?
No, it doesn’t mean that at all. However, it is still advisable that they stay away from romantic relationships for the first year. Ultimately, the aim of an individual in recovery is to focus on themselves and their healing. This cannot be assisted if there is any distraction from the journey to staying sober.
Once the individual is well on their way to recovery and settled in their new life, then they can start to consider sharing it with a new person. Relationships are hard at any stage of recovery, but can lead to codependency and even relapse if it is not healthy.
Putting recovery first takes practice and patience. The first step of admitting the need for help is a necessary one to get to the next goal of recovery and beyond. If you are struggling with addiction, call us today to find out how we can help you take that next big step.