Relationships in Recovery

Anyone who has worked in or been served by a psych ward, homeless shelter, or rehab can tell you that folks at the lowest point in their lives are desperately seeking something to grab hold of. At our best we seek healthy lifelines and stability. At our worst we choose distractions to disconnect from our pain. Incredible as it may seem, people often find romance at the lowest point of their lives. This is almost always  disastrous. Folks who could not save themselves set out to save each other. It’s like watching a chick flick but the writers of the movie were smoking crack.

I’ve heard that lifeguards are trained to expect that the person they are  rescuing may unwittingly try to kill them. When folks are drowning, they can become completely irrational and fight against the person who is trying to save them. So it is with romance born of desperation.

There’s an old joke in AA that asks, “What do two people in recovery need on a third date?” The answer is, “A U-Haul.” The intensity with which we seek something we’ve never had and ache for is unmatched. What we want is healthy but the way we go about getting it is destined to fail.

Timing is everything. We encourage folks to take stock of their lives and ask themselves what they have to offer before they start dating. Conventional wisdom in AA dictates that entering into a romantic relationship when one is less than a year sober is a bad idea. They even have a great acronym for it:”Relationship”,  Real Exciting Love Affair Turns Into Outrageous Nightmare, Sobriety Hangs in Peril.

Infatuation is the greatest high. Nothing feels as good as falling into lust and calling it love. It’s a new beginning and the quickest way to deceive ourselves into believing that we’re starting a new chapter in our lives. It’s hard to write the chapter when your hand shakes, whether from the fear of relapse, recognition of the wreckage of your life, or from remembering that you’ve never actually been in a healthy relationship.

In early recovery there are very few relationships that are healthy to focus on. Relating to good people who have been successful in changing their lives makes sense. Here again the wisdom of AA directs us to seek guidance and support from those we could never become sexually or romantically involved with. Being vulnerable as we bare our souls is a kick ass aphrodisiac and so we do so with mother figures and father figures and people who become out brothers and sisters.

When one gets beyond a year clean and sober they may find they’re scared shitless to enter into the dating pool. This is a healthy fear. We encourage folks to get some plants and maybe a pet. If we can’t sustain a pot of pansies or keep a cat healthy, what chance do we have of relating to a partner?

Over time we find that we do have a lot to offer. As we invest in our recovery, we naturally come to be a better friend to ourselves and others. Unfortunately, most of us have no past relational success to build on. Everything is new and we’re not sure how dating works these days. We spent our lives knowing what we’re supposed to do/what’s expected. Now we’re lost.

Here’s the standard I offer my clients, “Just be yourself.” This most often results in them looking at me like I’m nuts. I suggest that instead of worrying about what’s expected that they decide what they want and need. I recommend communicating this directly and simply. Then I point out that they’ve stopped breathing.

By the time a person is ready to date they’ve gotten at least fairly good at making friendships. Dating can work the same way. Establish a friendship. Get to know each other. Talk about your life and what you love. This conversation with my clients results in them viewing me as a very kindly but misguided father figure. We move on to what they’re really worried about.

If you want to have sex then have sex. Jumping into bed because you didn’t know what else to do is insane and unhealthy. I wish I had a dollar for every person who’s told me, “Well, I wasn’t sure what to do so I just gave them something I knew they’d like…” That’s fine. What else do you have to offer?

Keep it simple and use common sense. Don’t date people 10 years older or younger than you. Don’t date people you work with. Don’t sacrifice your values and beliefs. Be realistic in your standards. Get to know people who have healthy relationships and ask them how they do it. The more secure we become in ourselves the better we relate to others.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in assisting people in recovery (whether from drugs, alcohol, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles and improve their quality of life.