A substance abuse problem changes the way a person looks at the world, and treatment does much the same thing.A lot can change due to drug and alcohol addiction, and successful rehabilitation entails rebuilding a person’s life. When it comes to relationships, the realities and rules of abstinence after addiction become all the starker. Whether as a client or a companion, a guide to sober dating is very important in understanding how matters of the heart change.
Many treatment programs discourage their members (either actively or otherwise) from pursuing romantic or sexual relationships in the aftermath of their recovery. The Fix tells the story of a eight-year-sober 33-year old man who, on the advice of his AA sponsor, “religiously avoided dating” for six months.The official policy of Alcoholics Anonymous (as laid out in the Big Book) does not specifically close the door to dating in the early period of sobriety, but abstaining from relationships is an integral part of the conversation. Speaking to The Fix, a sex coach points out that substance abuse warps how people see themselves, and others around them; by the time they get to recovery, people have no idea of who they are. Without that sense of identity, it is all but impossible to form balanced, healthy connections with other people. Therapy and aftercare support go a long way in restoring bridges that were burned by the addiction, but dating requires much more work (and time) than simply rekindling a friendship.The sex coach told The Fix that in order to start a romantic or sexual relationship, those in recovery have to spend a lot of guided time getting to know themselves, especially who they are when they don’t have a drink in their hand and when the object of their affection is not the kind of person they would have been interested in during their drinking days. Such realizations and insights don’t come overnight, and they don’t come in a matter of weeks (or even months). Hence, the rule of thumb that people in recovery not date for the first year of their sobriety.The 33-year-old man who studiously stayed away from dating for the first six months re-entered the relationship scene as a fully committed and engaged member of his treatment program. But his first forays into sober dating were disastrous; he dated “messed up speed freaks” for five years, eventually coming to understand that even without a drink or drug in his hand, the lure of spending time with people who were on drugs themselves was attractive – even, to use his words, “sexy.”
Additionally, “normal” sober dating can seem boring by comparison. A person in recovery can still well remember the tension and drama of a relationship affected by substance abuse. For all the arguing and threats of breaking up, there was an edge, a thrill of being in that kind of arrangement. That feeling can be a drug in and of itself, one that is not found in sober life (and especially not in sober relationships).
Furthermore, some people enjoy the feeling of dating someone with their own substance abuse problem, because it allows the person a sense of power (or even relief) at not being the “patient” in the relationship. For once, the attention – whether positive or negative – is on the other person. The person in recovery can vicariously enjoy all the good and bad that comes with that territory, without a single drink having to be consumed.
It is because of reasons like these that people should not only avoid entering into relationships in the first stretch of their sobriety, but they should also stay away from places and events that may prove to be too much of a challenge (like bars, nightclubs, certain parties and sports events, etc.). It may entail leaving early, being alone, or being considered the “boring” one, but the alternative is flirting with disaster. People in recovery need to take their recovery seriously, and that means not becoming obsessed with the idea offinding a partner at any cost. Rushing into a relationship breeds codependence, which is also known as “relationship addiction” because of how such arrangements are usually one-sided, abusive, and emotionally destructive – much like the original substance abuse problem.As an additional layer of protection, a person in recovery should also not date other people in recovery. The idea of fellow program members combining their sensitivities andweaknesses is fraught with danger. Psych Central writes that “recovering addicts need support,” and while the encouragement gained from other people on the same journey is invaluable, the line between support and unhealthy dependence becomes very thin, very quickly. For anyone going through treatment, relapse is always a possibility. Being involved with someone for whom that possibility also exists greatly increases the chance of the two people falling back into the same habits – only this time, together.
A writer for Salon echoes the point: Sobriety is great for health, but bad for dating. In the early stages of any relationship, the people involved struggle to find the right balance that works for both of them. For a couple where one party carries with them the specter of substance abuse, that balance can seem wildly off, especially when the people involved are still getting to know one another. Unless the topic has been broached, avoiding alcohol can be misinterpreted as a sign of only mild interest, with no intention of raising the stakes.Communication in the nascent stage of dating is never easy, especially when both parties bring their own insecurities and doubts to the table. The Salon writer ruminates on how, when he and a potential date were not clicking, he longed for the feeling of having alcohol in his system, the freedomand the energy it provided to get through moments of awkward silence. Recovering alcoholics have to learn that their confidence doesn’t have to come from whatever they’re drinking; the actual process of understanding and accepting that can feel emasculating, like their sobriety is preventing them from being the person they used to be. Even for all the trouble their drinking caused, they never had problems meeting other people.
For a drinker, alcohol makes people feel more interesting, says the Salon writer. Take that out of the equation, and dating when sober can seem confusing, frustrating, and even boring by comparison.
Jezebel writes of the importance of communication. When the limits around alcohol are established, the people in the relationship have a better chance of being more comfortable in their new roles. Not clarifying things will likely set both partners up for an ugly falling out when “recovery” and “fun” are cast as opposing ends on the spectrum.
A couple with this dynamic will have to spend some time determining where the boundaries are; the partner in recovery will be made to feel self-conscious if the drinking partner feels constrained and embarrassed by not being able to have a glass of wine with dinner, especially in the company of friends. This may entail that the couple do things differently; some events might even be attended by the drinking partner alone, if there is danger that the environment may be too triggering for a relapse.
For all this, it is not impossible for a drinker and a sober person to date; like any relationship, however, it requires work, patience, communication, and understanding. Ironically, the sober partner may have an advantage.Psychology Today explains that people who have been through addiction therapy have, by nature, spent a lot of time learning how they can improve themselves. Through counseling, they have understood how to identify and process their emotions. A person who has been through recovery has made a deep commitment to living out valuesof honesty and integrity, and basing life decisions on achieving healthy goals and honoring values, not on short-term pleasure.Sober people know how to take care of their mind, body, and soul. Some do it through prayer, meditation, or yoga; others through exercise, hobbies, or community involvement. Recovery lasts for a lifetime, so sober people are in a constant state of improving and bettering themselves. While this is very useful in controlling the impulse to drink, it can also make a very firm foundation for a relationship with moderate drinkers.But even moderate drinkers bring their own perceptions and ideas about addiction to the table. Despite an overwhelming body of research refuting antiquated and inaccurate ideas about substance abuse, many myths still persist. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported that the public feels more negatively about people with addiction issues than they do about people with mental health disorders. A responsible drinker who believes that alcoholism is a sign of a moral failing might not be a good match with a sober person, no matter how much work the person has put into recovery.