As a substance abuse therapist, there are certain things I dread hearing from a client in early recovery. One of those being, “so, I hooked up with someone I met on tinder.” Any clinicians reading this will be able to resonate with the immediate and internal distress that comes up for a clinician in that moment. If you are in early recovery yourself, you may be wondering what the big deal is. Possibly, this suggestion was also made to some of you reading this article, but you also quickly dismissed it. For this reason, I would like to expound upon this matter and explain why clinicians and sponsors discourage such a decision. And no, it’s not because we are mean ogres who don’t want to see you happy. In fact, it’s because we do want to see you happy.
Why Relationships In Early Recovery Can Be Rocky
• Distracting Substitution: Addicts look outside of themselves to soothe themselves internally. When the substances are removed, the recovery person may look to other things outside of themselves to regulate their feelings and increase self-esteem. Relationships can be used in this way in early recovery. For this reason, relationships in early recovery can become consuming, can pose as a distraction to working one’s program thoroughly, and therefore can result in relapse.
• Low Self-Esteem: One’s choice in partners is often a reflection of one’s self-esteem and in early recovery, it’s often deficient. For this reason, the recovering individual will often choose an unhealthy partner that they may not have chosen at a later stage in their recovery. In addiction, because relationships can be utilized to mask issues of low self-esteem, the recovering person may become unaware of their feelings of inadequacy until a problem occurs in the relationship. When that happens, not only do they lack the skills necessary for coping with feelings of inadequacy, but they must also manage the pain associated with the relationship issues. With limited coping strategies, the combination may be enough to result in a relapse. Unless a recovering individual has insight into their low self-esteem and negative core beliefs, they can’t be addressed therapeutically.
• Re-enactment of Prior Relationships and/or Trauma: Until a recovering person has therapeutically addressed and resolved their history of trauma, they are at risk for reenacting their history of trauma by choosing an unhealthy partner. When one’s trauma is reenacted, it reinforces one’s negative core beliefs, which can result in a relapse.
• Lack of Identity: Many recovery persons struggle with their identity in early recovery. If one is unsure as to who they are, what they want in life, and what their preferences are, how can a person make a wise decision regarding a romantic partner?
• Programs Diverge: If your partner is also in early recovery, it is possible that you and your partner will be growing in different ways during your recovery journey. Even if you and your partner are working strong, parallel programs, each partner may progress at a different pace and each may grow in different ways.
• Abandonment Issues: Many people in early recovery have abandonment issues. Relationship issues, particularly a break-up can trigger issues of abandonment and can result in a relapse.
• Poor Boundaries: The boundaries of the recovering person are often poor in early recovery, which may make a person prone to being taken advantage of or being mistreated by their significant other. If this happens, one’s self-esteem may worsen further predisposing a person to a relapse. Other individuals may present as controlling and intrusive of others’ boundaries, which may harm their partner and therefore, their relationship.
• Sabotage: Your significant other may be invested in keeping you sick if you’re getting healthy threatens them. They may actively attempt to sabotage your recovery and keep you sick.
• Enabling: Because persons in early recovery have not yet resolved their own issues of low self-esteem, trauma, and/or abandonment, they are likely to choose unhealthy partners that are co-dependent and enabling.
• Fear of Being Vulnerable and Intimate: People in early recovery are often uncomfortable being vulnerable and often avoid intimacy, which is necessary for a relationship to be healthy and to flourish.
How Long Should I Refrain From Dating?
When my clients ask me how long they should refrain from getting into a relationship, I let them know that the usual recommendation is for them to refrain for at least a year or until they have completed the 12 steps. Then I let them know my recommendation, which is not contingent on a time frame, but on a state of mind. Specifically, I encourage my clients to refrain until they are confident that they are healthy enough to choose a healthy partner and be a healthy partner. For each recovering individual, the goals and time frame associated with this will vary and should be developed collaboratively with their therapist.
Recognizing My Powerlessness
Although I dissuade my clients from getting involved in romantic relationships in early recovery and provide education on how it may adversely impact their recovery, I also recognize my true powerlessness to the decisions that they make. Once the decision has been made and my client is adamant that they will continue to pursue the relationship, I choose to take the approach of supporting their decision and helping them to navigate the relationship as best as possible in order to minimize the potential harm to their recovery. Specifically, I try to take a proactive role and educate them on the warning signs of unhealthy relationships, their rights in romantic relationships, and coach them on issues pertaining to assertiveness, communication, and boundaries.
Suggestions For Those Who Have Decided to Pursue A Relationship While In Early Recovery
If you are like many of my clients who are adamant that they want to pursue a relationship despite being recommended otherwise, I hope you will keep reading. First, I suggest that you disclose honestly to your therapist and sponsor about the relationship. You might not like the initial reaction, but if you refrain from disclosing this information, your support system in navigating the relationship may be limited and inadequate. Sure, your buddies may be able to offer some support and advice when things get rough, but your therapist and sponsor are important members of your treatment team and are the best equipped to help support and guide you. In the early portion of the relationship, you may feel that things are unfolding perfectly and you may not be able to imagine that the two of you could possibly encounter any difficulties. Although I would love for that to persist indefinitely, that is not realistic. Eventually, there will be a conflict, differences in communication, and even a potential break-up. If your therapist and sponsor are already aware of the relationship, you will most likely be apt to contact them for support. But, if they don’t know about the relationship, it’s more likely that you will not go to them for support and will be left without professional help. I’m sure my clients are initially apprehensive about telling me about their relationship, but they often express gratitude that they did when they start to need support around relationship issues. I recognize that for the reader in early recovery, this information may not be met with the most enthusiasm. So, if this article fails to adequately challenge the recovering persons’ view on relationships in early recovery, I hope at the very least it has convinced them to share the status of their relationship with their therapist and sponsor.
Heather Coll is a licensed Mental Health Counselor in the Sate of Florida. Heather has a private practice in Delray Beach and specializes in the treatment of substance abuse, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, PTSD and trauma resolution, self- esteem issues, and perfectionism. Heather also facilitates an out- patient substance abuse group Monday evenings from 7:00-8:30 pm. Heather Coll can be contacted via telephone @ 561.843.8917 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.