How do you choose the right partner?

There’s an expression that a lot of my friends in recovery love to hate: “Friendship, courtship, relationship.” It’s the recipe for a successful partnership. It’s also the opposite of a sadly truthful joke, “What do two people in recovery need on their third date? Answer: A U-Haul.”

Love, in early recovery is like having crawling across a desert and being offered some water. How much do you want and how fast do you want it? All of it. Yesterday. We’re insatiable. Fill my broken heart. It flows out almost as quickly as you can pour it in but it feels like a safe high.

Lust feels like love but sex feels like abuse. Go somewhere else in your head just to belong. I’ll be whatever you want me to be, you’ll love who I pretend to be, and I’ll come to resent the hell out of you because that’s not me. I’d sell what’s left of my soul just to be held in someone’s arms.

Ugly truth: An awful lot of us will jump into bed not just on the first date but in the first hour because we’re not sure what else to do. Here’s what I have to offer. What have you got?

We don’t expect anyone to get us and so we tend to only date our own kind. Anyone else feels like too much to explain. I know why you can’t sit with your back to the door and you get why I hate loud noises. I won’t ask about your scars if you don’t ask about mine.  (mine are worse).

Let’s be each other’s world for the winter and hate each other by spring. Let’s tell each other secrets that you can use against me later. Tell me about your step dad and I’ll tell you about mine.

We look for different endings to the same stories until our hearts heal enough to take in something worth holding onto. Some of us never get there and the rest of us say stupid shit like, “I’m a magnet for assholes.”

I’m often asked how to pick a healthy partner. The short answer is: Don’t. Let that be one more thing your Higher Power does for you. We have bad pickers. We gravitate toward the familiar. We look for love from people who resemble our abusers. Same song different verse.

The longer answer is: If you meet someone and immediately feel comfortable: Run. If you meet someone and you find yourself feeling like you’re back in middle school: Stay.

A partner worth having only wants you to be yourself. The hard part is you have to have at least a clue as to who that is. That’s how it has to be. If you’re on the fence about yourself, don’t go looking for someone to pick you. First, you choose you. Then you’ll have something healthy to offer to someone else.

Friendship, courtship, relationship. In the journey of recovery there is no such thing as too many friends and an awful lot of us never really learned to have healthy friendships. Stay with your gender early on. Learn to trust, relate, and to both give and receive support. Branch out, connect with the opposite sex. You could use some brothers and sisters.

Then, later on, when you can locate your ass using only one hand, take stock and ask yourself, “Is there someone I’d like to be closer to?” Ask that person to coffee but explain it’s only coffee. “Coffee” is a euphemism for my people and it most often means either mind-blowing conversation that goes for hours or a mind-blowing 15 minutes in someone’s bedroom.

Here’s a word: Platonic. Get to know someone – like, really know them. Learn through the course of close friendships how to be intimate with your clothes on. Then you’ll be ready for courtship: an actual process where we move slower than a bullet and faster than well, I was gonna say glacier but the last time I used that analogy with a couple they saw me the following week and in between giggles admitted, “The glacier melted.” (nobody’s perfect).

Final word: Relationship. This is where I quote my wife the accountant (my equal and opposite) who describes relationships this way: “Relationships are work. You do the work and you keep doing it or you settle for something less than what you want.”

I’m often asked why so many partnerships and marriages fail? It’s simple: Two people who don’t especially like themselves try to love each other. That never works. Get right with you, get some friends, learn how to be a friend, break the unhealthy patterns. Then use the advice of Louise Hay, “Be the kind of person you want to attract.”

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.