Relationships in Early Recovery
Every relationship, no matter how loving and compatible requires a lot of effort and growth in order to last. For the addicted person who makes the life-changing decision to give up their drug of choice and commit to sobriety, this can mean a difficult dilemma. Although the addict or alcoholic may love their significant other, the relationship dynamic will change during recovery. During recovery, the partner no longer comes first, which may begin to tear the relationship apart. For this reason, most addiction treatment specialists and health professionals will recommend that anyone in early recovery not form a new relationship for at least a year after treatment.
The Challenges of Relationships During Recovery
There is no doubt that it will be difficult for the individual in recovery to break up with someone they love, but this often needs to happen in order to prevent the relationship from ending on worse terms. A break-up usually benefits both parties because in early recovery the individuals may be pulling each other down in different ways. For the addict or alcoholic, the relationship could be pulling them down due to guilt over not being able to be fully present, depression, or pressure to be happy in front of their partner. The relationship also takes up invaluable time and mental space from the addicted person in early sobriety.
Addicted people committing to a sober lifestyle are starting a whole new life. Everything they have done in their past will be a painful reminder for them. This may be difficult to express or relate to a partner. Some people may feel that their partner in recovery no longer enjoys their company or loves them anymore. This puts pressure on the individual in recovery to bridge this gap, which may be a challenging battle if they are also experiencing depression.
Making Recovery the Priority
Recovery is what the addicted person needs the most. A romantic partner must understand that if they truly care about the individual in recovery, they will have to give them space and accept the break. This is the most loving action a partner in a new relationship can do for their addicted loved one. All breakups are difficult no matter the reason, and it may be difficult for a romantic partner to see that ending the relationship was what was best for their loved one’s recovery. It is impossible to know whether the relationship would have lasted if their partner was not in recovery, but early recovery is simply not the time to be in a new relationship.
The risk of relapse is the highest in the first couple of months of sobriety, making it all the more important for the addicted person to be fully focused and committed to their recovery. Not only does the focus on recovery become their priority, but their schedule is now dedicated to meeting important milestones. It takes time to adjust to this change. Additionally, it can be uncomfortable and possibly upsetting for the addicted person to engage in sober activities for the first few times. Although having a partner for support could be helpful in these situations, codependency could become an issue.
Although some studies have shown that supportive romantic relationships can be helpful in recovery, most of the time this is not the case. Recovery needs to be the priority for the newly clean and sober person, not the reciprocation of support for the one you love. Addicts and alcoholics need to learn to love their stripped-down, authentic, and most vulnerable self first before they can devote themselves to loving someone else. However, it is possible in recovery to form a lasting, loving relationship if it is built on a healthy foundation.
Dating Someone in Recovery
If the couple decides to commit to their relationship, the partner should be compassionate, continue with self-care, encourage healthy habits, and communicate and listen to the individual in recovery. Partners should take time to educate themselves about addiction and understand that their loved one has a chronic psychological illness that will require a lifelong commitment to recovery. Being understanding and compassionate is very important in order to establish a support system with respectful boundaries. It is necessary to not place guilt or shame upon the addicted loved one for their past or if they relapse.
While it is important to be supportive, it is also necessary for the partner to take care of their own well-being first. By doing this it helps avoid codependency and putting the addicted loved one’s needs before their own. This is an opportunity to encourage healthy behaviors, to eat well, to exercise, and to engage in activities that do not involve alcohol or drugs. The most important thing to do is remain positive, communicate, and listen to each other.
Additionally, there is another aspect to consider if the partner of the addicted loved one is not sober themselves. Partners will have to respectfully ask, “Are you okay with the fact that I may drink around you?” The addicted person needs to be honest when answering questions like these and not feel pressure to say it is okay just to stay in the relationship. It is not fair to either party if the addicted person is not comfortable being with someone who is not sober themselves.
Relationships With Other People in Recovery
It is a different case if both partners are going through recovery and are focused on staying sober; this can ultimately create a strong bond that supports both individuals through their personal recoveries. This also leads to fewer feelings of embarrassment, guilt, and shame. Partners may be better able to relate to each other since they have both gone through the same experience and endured similar circumstances. This only can work, however, if they serve equally as each other’s support systems, reducing one another’s risk of relapse. In any relationship, one partner does not want to disappoint the other, which can give meaning to their sobriety. On the other hand, just like a relationship between a sober and non-sober person can fall apart, a relationship between two recently sober people can fall apart too. For example, if one person relapses, the other partner is highly likely to return to substance abuse as well. This makes it wise to prevent this potential threat to recovery.
Any couple should consider timing and circumstances before jumping into any relationship. First off, the individuals need to understand what they are both getting themselves into. Every relationship requires attention, time, and compassion for the events in each other’s lives. The addicted partner needs to ensure that they will be able to commit adequate time to the relationship, or consider if being in the relationship will get in the way of their recovery.
Partners must also realize that their relationship is going to be different after treatment. Activities that the couple used to do regularly may change. For example, it is essential to not miss a fellowship meeting just because a significant other has planned a date or event. It also helps to examine old relationships before initiating a new one. This is very important in recovery, where a toxic relationship can spiral into relapse.
A new relationship may provide a false sense of success for the addicted person. When someone is in recovery and setting a new foundation for their life, they may feel like they are making good progress. Starting a new relationship can feel like one of these successes, but it can also be an illusion. The addicted person may feel like they are getting better and experiencing things in life that those who have their life together do. This may lead them to believe they are recovering faster than they actually are. Overconfidence like this is one of the factors that can lead to relapse.
Having A Strong Support Network
Overall, it is best to avoid relationships in early recovery. However, once an individual is stable in their sobriety, they can make it work for the better. It is best to wait for this point. Whether in early recovery or not, it is wise to proceed with caution before initiating a new relationship. Loneliness and isolation surface for people with an active addiction, but these feelings are better able to be expressed by those in recovery. Having a strong support network and plenty of platonic relationships can help combat those negative feelings without the need for a romantic relationship.
Those who take time to focus on their recovery, whether for alcoholism or self-esteem, for at least a year do not regret it, and usually believe that this period helped them form healthy relationships from then on. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we support this timeline and encourage our clients to focus on themselves before focusing on others.