Early recovery feels like a rollercoaster. Emotions, which stayed long dormant from drug and alcohol use, typically begin to surface and often cause internal chaos. Because of this, working a good program requires a lot of attention and emotional weightlifting to stay on the right track. Every day. The experience requires a high degree of self awareness while practicing mindfulness and presence. On top of that, it requires a lot of social interaction from recovery fellowship and mental health counselors. Recovery professionals and veterans inundate conversations with well-meaning bits of wisdom like the idea that newcomers should avoid relationships for at least a year.
All of this is to say: it’s understandable why someone may crave distraction and a reprieve from all of that. Or may look for love from the outside instead of from within. Unfortunately this often comes in the form of relationships which ultimately do more harm than good. So why should addicts avoid relationships in early recovery?
Focusing on Yourself in Recovery
Getting clean and sober is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time and dedication to retool old thought patterns. This internal process is, quite frankly, exhausting. The process of recovery calls for individuals to focus on themselves first. Entering into a new or rekindled relationship during early recovery presents two main issues:
- The person in recovery invests much-needed energy toward a relationship rather than focusing on themselves.
- The other person loses out because the recovering addict has split attention and isn’t in a healthy place to handle a relationship.
Essentially the struggle comes out of a conflict of interest. Recovery truly does feel like a full-time job just working a program every day. Many individuals work full or part time on top of that as well. So why add an extra obligation on top of that? Stretching one’s internal resources too thin does no one justice – not the person in recovery, not the other person involved who is expecting a fairly invested partner. It also puts strain on other existing relationships with friends and family which need attention to repair.
But the person in recovery’s need to focus on themselves is only one aspect of how new relationships conflict with early recovery. Another serious issue presents with the desire to save face in a new relationship.
Safe Spaces for Vulnerability
It’s normal for people to want to put their best foot forward with a new romantic partner. During the honeymoon phase of dating, both parties tend to sideline feelings that are not considered desirable or “sexy” to a new partner. Downplaying real emotions and stepping back from vulnerability for the sake of saving face in a new relationship puts recovery at risk. In addition, early recovery naturally includes a lot of negative emotions and sadness which are not as volatile when in a stable emotional state (i.e. long term sobriety). During this vulnerable stage of change, recovering addicts benefit most from safe spaces such as fellowship meetings or a recovery program. Not a romantic relationship where serious issue like codependency and enabling can emerge.
The issue of vulnerability also brings up a serious problem with dating in early recovery: partner choice.
Questionable Partner Choice
People struggling with addiction often have a long history of dysfunctional and destructive relationships. This usually stems from insecure attachment styles that have been the norm for the recovering addict since childhood. Across the board, people seek partners who behave at a similar level of maturity as themselves at any given time. The fragile emotional state of early recovery makes selecting a partner at this time inadvisable. Although recovery programs teach good relationship practices such as setting healthy boundaries, knowing something in theory does not necessarily translate into practice right away. These tools for creating healthy relationships do not need to go toward a stranger right off the bat. Instead, managing existing relationships (family & friends) can set a good foundation while the interpersonal muscle memory sets in.
Studies show that romantic relationships formed in early recovery rarely end with positive results. But beyond the low likelihood of a successful long term relationship, new romances can be dangerous for sobriety itself.
Avoid Relationships: They Dramatically Raise the Risk of Relapse
Any significant amount of time spent at AA/NA meetings reveal a simple truth. Relationship issues lead to relapse. Whether this results from a new interest not working out or an existing relationship on the rocks, romantic problems lead to malcontent and upset for addicts in early recovery. The heightened risk of relapse alone poses enough of a danger for veterans of recovery to advise against pursuing new romance until at least a year after getting clean and sober. Recovery professionals and people who have been in the program for many years typically advise newcomers to avoid relationships for a year for this reason alone. Sobriety should always be #1.
If you or a loved one is seeking help for substance abuse, our counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-997-4702