Individuals recovering from substance use disorder have an important need for human connection. Connecting with a broader social world helps them to feel more loved and less likely to return to substance use.
At the same time, emotionally intense social connections have the potential to cause problems. Navigating romantic relationships during recovery is a particularly tricky affair. Former substance users may find themselves more likely to relapse or become codependent.
It is suggested that people in recovery wait a full year before engaging in romantic relationships. This provides enough time to focus solely on their mental health and well-being while also learning how to deal with the emotional aspects of romance that can negatively impact the recovery journey.
After the first year, choosing to pursue a romantic connection can be a positive experience. But it should still be approached with caution. Former substance users should set reasonable boundaries with their new partners to help maintain their emotional stability.
The Dangers of Romantic Relationships During Recovery
Engaging in romantic behavior too early during the recovery process can lead to several potential problems.
The most common problem is using love as an escape or substitute for drugs or alcohol. Falling in love actually triggers some of the same reward circuitry in the brain that substances do. Many former users have fallen into the trap of simply substituting one for the other.
Romance during recovery can sometimes lead to codependency, an imbalanced relationship in which one member enables another’s self-destructive behavior. This is especially dangerous if that self-destructive behavior is a relapse into addiction.
Romance can sometimes become all-consuming, to the point at which people lose themselves and ignore their goals. During recovery, your primary objective should be to remember who you are, build self-esteem, and avoid relapsing. Romance between two individuals in early recovery can be challenging.
The Importance of Emotional Stability and Boundaries
Extreme emotions–both positive and negative–are common triggers for relapsing. In many cases, addiction is often the result of trying to guard against such feelings in the first place.
This is why, especially in the first year of recovery, securing stable emotions without outside romantic influences is so important. Many of the tips below are designed to help with this.
Setting behavioral boundaries for yourself and potential partners is important to prevent triggering extreme emotions. This should not be done in a controlling way, however, because other people should feel free to live their own lives as they see fit. Nevertheless, letting a potential partner know how certain experiences might be potentially triggering will help both parties engage with each other in a safer way.
Tips for Dating in Recovery
Wait. It’s worth it.
As mentioned previously, it’s best to experience a full year of recovery before engaging in romantic behavior once again. This is because risks are at their highest during that first year.
After the first year, pursuing romance should typically be more manageable thanks to well-established boundaries, a better sense of self-worth, and the resolve that comes with having made it through an entire year without substances.
Keep the main thing the main thing.
During recovery, your main goal should be recovery. Finding a partner is a perfectly acceptable goal once you are no longer suffering from acute substance use disorder. Also, remember to maintain daily habits and routines to improve your chances of success in recovery. Although a new relationship may be exciting, it’s still a good idea to stick to the behaviors that you know will keep you well.
Expect to be hurt.
Rejection is a normal part of dating, but it is particularly dangerous during recovery. This is because rejection can trigger the same thoughts and feelings that in the past may have led to self-medication through the use of drugs or alcohol. Be prepared for the possibility of rejection so that if it happens, you have a strategy and won’t feel compelled to relapse.
Don’t forget: “People, Places, and Things”
There’s a reason clinicians recommend changing the people, places, and things in your life during early recovery: they’re triggers. When you do get back out there, avoid dating people you knew before you entered recovery. Not only might they remind you of your former addictive behaviors, they may also still be in the throes of substance use disorder themselves.
Be sure to set boundaries with any partner you may have, especially when it comes to behaviors or activities that may cause you to relapse. It is common for couples to get a drink together on a date. But if you’re in recovery, make sure to tell your date you cannot be around alcohol.
Be open and honest about your past and express your need for support during your recovery journey. It is better for a partner to know what you are going through, than to discover it too late.
Beware of codependence.
Create social ties beyond your romantic partner. Having a diversity of connections is important to social well-being and focusing too much attention on one person can be unhealthy and lead to codependence. In the event of a breakup, lean on your social support network to help you through the range of emotions.
Love and Life After Recovery
Individuals recovering from substance use disorder face many challenges on their road to a better life.
Among other things, they must balance their need for human connection with the pitfalls of rushing into intense emotional relationships too soon. Many people become involved with a romantic relationship too early, only to find themselves relapsing or involved in codependency.
In most cases, it is recommended to follow through with a full year of treatment before engaging in romantic behavior, and even then, those in recovery should be careful about who they choose to date.
Fortunately, many people do recover and find love and a happier life on the other side.
The GateHouse is Central Pennsylvania’s leader in accredited recovery care, recognizing the unique challenges individuals face on their journey to recovery. For 50 years, we have helped individuals in our community restore their lives and rediscover the strength of the human spirit.
We provide each client with a support system that helps them break the cycle of substance use disorder and put them on the path to recovery. The GateHouse is here for you, whether you need outpatient support, transitional living, or residential extended care programs. If you’re looking for help now, give us a call at 717-393-3215 or reach out to us today to get started.