People have some widely differing opinions on the issue of dating in recovery. The common belief, however, is that those who are recovering from addiction and alcoholism should not date within the first year. We’ve briefly mentioned this rule before, in our article on building a strong and sober support network. Now, we’d like to cover it in a bit more detail for those who might still get the idea that dating in recovery is no big deal.
We know that we can’t control you. If you want to seek out a relationship within a week of getting sober, then you’re probably going to go ahead and do it. But we can at least inform you of the potential risks, while giving you some guidelines about how to make dating in recovery more of a positive experience than a negative one. It still isn’t suggested, but the following advice will help those who choose to date anyway avoid turning their budding relationship into a complete and utter disaster. It should also help those who have already completed their year of celibacy and are nervous about dipping their toes back into the dating pool.
Why Dating in Recovery Isn’t Suggested
It bears repeating that it is only within the first year that dating in recovery is not suggested. Recovering from addiction does not mean that you can never date again. As noted above, this is something we’ve talked about before. But for those who may have missed that article, we really think it’s important why recovering addicts understand the theory that dating within the first year of recovery can be dangerous. We hear many people in early recovery mention their need to find a mate. Many of us have felt the same way when in early recovery. This is especially common after the first couple of months, when we’re feeling good about our recovery and wish to start getting other areas of our lives back on track.
The problem is that relationships take work. Sex and intimacy seem fun for a while, but we eventually reach the point at which we have to decide where things are going. This can be difficult, as most of us didn’t have much in the way of a sense of self during our periods of active addiction. While we are still relatively uncertain about who we are and what we want out of life, making any major decisions can be stressful. Most of us who have composed a relapse prevention plan will find that avoiding stress was generally one of our main concerns. Why would we elect to give that up, knowing that it could hurt our recovery?
More importantly, we must remember that addicts and alcoholics tend to lack inhibitions. If we set our sights on sex or relationships while our recovery is still fragile, then there is a very good chance that we will do just about anything to make it happen. But what will we do if we’re out with somebody and our date orders a drink? What if they offer to buy us a drink? Will we tell them we can’t accept their offer? And if they press us, will we tell them why we can’t? Or will we simply give in? After all, a lot of us probably had very active (if emotionally unfulfilling) sex lives during our addictions. As such, it is not uncommon for us to associate our memories of sex with our memories of drinking and using drugs. Will the pursuit of romance or physical intimacy therefore act as a trigger for us?
Don’t think that the threat to our recovery is the only reason to avoid relationships in early recovery, either. We also have to consider the health of the potential relationship itself. When we first briefly touched upon this issue in an earlier article, we cited an article on a relationship counseling site that noted the complicated nature of dating in recovery. They also noted that well over half of relationships begun in early recovery are doomed to failure.
Waiting a year before dating gives us a chance to work through some of our character defects, a task which most of us are undertaking for the first real time. We learn how to better recognize our own flaws, how to accept those of others, and how to make amends when clashing personalities have led us to experience issues in our interpersonal communications. We also learn to stop seeking immediate gratification, but the gratification of having sex too early can get in the way of that. With everything that’s at stake, it just isn’t worth the risk.
What You Need to Know Before Dating
There are a few things you need to know about yourself before you decide whether or not you are ready to start dating again. Since many of the problems with dating in recovery stem from our own character defects, you will need to take stock of these to the best of your abilities. You will want to know what has worked for you in previous relationships, what hasn’t worked, and how you were at fault for any romantic failings you have experienced. For relationships that were troubled for a long period of time, you might also want to take stock of when you should have ended the relationship and why.
You can use a pen and paper for this if it makes things easier. Start by simply making a list of your previous relationships. This can include one-night stands. In fact, for the sake of honesty, you might want to list as many of these as you can remember. Try to make this list in chronological order, and put the approximate dates in a separate column next to each name (unless you’re writing this all out in paragraph form, which is fine). Then write the positives for each of these relationships. Did you feel happy? Did you feel safe? Was the sex fulfilling? Did you feel like your partner was faithful to you?
Consider these same questions when you are writing out the negatives. Note how much you felt you cared for the person at the time, but also note some of the things you might have said or done that went against this belief. Then, try to figure out why you might have said or done this things. Were you simply drunk or high, or was the issue deeper than that? Were you unhappy in the relationship, but felt it was easier to simply lash out verbally (or physically, as the case may be) than to call it quits? Maybe you simply didn’t trust them, and it poisoned your relationship.
You can be as vague or detailed as you wish, but the goal is to have something legible enough for you to read over once you’re done. As you do, you’ll notice patterns beginning to emerge. There are several different patterns here. Some people are primarily attracted to people they feel they can control, while others like to be the more submissive partner in a relationship. Some have no preference in this regard, but are simply attracted to chaos. There are some who may find that they were constantly getting clingy in their search for a meaningful relationship, while others were quite aloof and possibly only in it for the sex.
These relationship types can be categorized rather easily by looking at relationships as three-dimensional objects. The first dimension is intimacy, defined as how close and connected you are on a deeply personal level. The second dimension is passion, which is the sheer force of attraction and sensual (or sexual) desire between the two of you. The third is commitment, which is how dedicated you are to staying in the relationship.
Consummate relationships are those which are sound in all three dimensions. This may be what we are looking for when we begin dating in recovery, but most of us were not accustomed to it in our addictions. Relationships comprised of intimacy with no passion or commitment are seen as basic friendships. Infatuations are relationships are only high on passion. Empty relationships are only high on commitment, lacking all sense of true passion or intimacy. Fatuous relationships are high on both passion and commitment, without any true intimacy. Romantic relationships are high on intimacy and passion, but not necessarily commitment. The last category is companionate relationships, which are intimate and committed, but lack much sensual attraction.
Now that you know about what types of relationships exist, you can determine which type comprises the bulk of your romantic/sexual history. If you aren’t happy with the answer, then you might want to try doing something different when you begin dating in recovery.
What Your Partner Should Know First
As we mentioned earlier, one of the issues with dating in recovery is that we cannot be guaranteed that the relationship will last. What’s important to remember is that we are not the only ones affected by this. Our prospective partner will be affected, too. To help prevent this from happening, we need to decide from the very beginning what they should know about us.
The first question that most of you will have is when you should tell them that you are in recovery. It’s acceptable to let a couple of dates go by before revealing this piece of information, but you can’t wait too long. Any longer than two or three good dates, and they might start to feel as if they haven’t met the “real you.” Once you do decide to let them know about this, you shouldn’t volunteer too much information that hasn’t been requested of you. It’s one thing to let your date know that you won’t be having a glass of wine with your dinner. It’s another thing entirely to launch into an entire sob story about your legal troubles, your family issues, and that time you nearly overdosed. If they ask about these things, then it’s best to be honest. But if they don’t, then divulging this information too early in the relationship might scare them away.
When you do decide to drop the truth bomb, you owe it to them to let them know how long you’ve been sober. If you’re relatively new to it, then they have a right to decide whether or not they might be getting in over their head by dating you. It’s unfortunate that some will make this decision, but rejection is a part of life. Besides, now that you’re sober, you should be done with treating happiness as an illusion. If you’re going to start dating in recovery, then do it for real and only seek out someone who is interested in you for who you really are, the good and the bad.
Part of being honest is admitting that you have a weakness. Maybe you’ve been sober for a couple of years, and it doesn’t bother you to see your date have a few sips of vino with their meal. Then again, it may bother you quite a bit. Do not defer to them just to make them comfortable. It is better that they be uncomfortable drinking around you than that you suffer a relapse because you gave yourself the jitters when you weren’t ready.
In short, the major thing your date needs to know about you is simply the truth. If you find yourself wanting to hide it, then maybe you’re dating the wrong person.
Some Advice for Dating in Recovery
We mentioned the importance of honesty, but we also indicated that you might consider waiting a couple of dates; however, this can lead to complications. If your prospective partner doesn’t fancy the idea of dating a recovering addict, then those dates might have been wasted on a relationship that will never see the light of day. Therapists recommend being upfront, to help ensure that you never have to face the dilemma of accepting a follow-up date at a bar or another location that might act as a trigger for you.
Stein also recommends that you be in therapy when you first begin dating in recovery. At the bare minimum, you should be working a solid program. Go to meetings, read recovery-based literature. Do something to ensure that there is a positive—and more importantly, stable—force for good in your life. This will safeguard you in the event that you take a rejection badly, or that your newfound happiness with another human being causes you to suffer from a lack of inhibitions. If you already go to meetings on a regular basis, good. Keep doing it. If you haven’t been in a while, start up again. Most importantly, don’t skip a meeting just to schedule a date. It isn’t good to get in the habit of sacrificing recovery time for the sake of instant gratification. That can lead down a slippery slope pretty quickly.
Since a big part of relapse prevention is avoiding unnecessary or unhealthy stress, do not dip your pen in the company ink. The last thing you need in recovery is another sullied relationship. Get out there and try to meet people at the library, the bookstore, or wherever you may happen to be that you are able to strike up a conversation. But do not date someone from work or school, someone who lives next door, or—and we can’t stress this enough—someone from treatment or AA. Thirteenth stepping is highly frowned upon. If you know someone from your regular meeting and you’ve grown to appreciate each other, that’s one thing. But they had better have some time under their belt if you’re going to make that move. We can’t force you to wait a year before you can begin dating, but you should at least respect their sobriety time. If they’ve only been sober a couple of weeks, then leave them be.
As long as you aren’t risking someone else’s recovery, then dating another addict or alcoholic can actually be highly rewarding. You will know right off the bat that they will respect your recovery, and will not tempt you to drink. If you both have the recommended time under your belts, then you should both be pretty good about communicating and respecting one another’s feelings.
Just be sure, whether or not you decide to date someone in recovery, that you take things slow. Sudden changes can often act as triggers, and triggers are to be avoided at all cost. A love letter, a mix tape, a nice roll in the hay—none of these things are worth giving up your sobriety. Your greatest relationship right now should be the one you’re developing with yourself.