Relationships in the first year of recovery: A good idea?Anna Ciulla
As new initiates into the world of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can all confirm, dating in early recovery—particularly the first year—is a widely discouraged practice. Although many newly sober individuals perceive this “rule” as overly strict, it is based upon a solid foundation of scientific and spiritual knowledge widely respected in the field.
Proponents of dating in early recovery sometimes cite the need for human support and the positive qualities that emerge from being understood by another going through the exact same experience, and that may be true philosophically. However, in reality, dating in early recovery doubles—if not triples—the likelihood of disaster, depending upon the presenting issues both parties bring into the relationship.
For starters, addiction is an all-encompassing and debilitating physical and psychological illness—sometimes likened to extended hospitalization. Generally speaking, medical professionals and mental health practitioners would never recommend that someone lying in an intensive care unit (ICU) or emergency room (ER) begin a romantic relationship with someone in the next unit or ward. The basic foundation of such a relationship would be unstable and, consequently, doomed to failure, or at the very least dysfunctional.
What About Dating Someone Not in Recovery?
Even choosing a relationship with someone not in recovery is problematic for the following reasons:
- Addiction treatment is a notoriously intense process that exposes deep and frequently fragile emotions. Many newly sober individuals have not yet emotionally reintegrated and are still reeling from the sheer intensity of being denied their drug of choice for an extended period of time.
- Habitual drug use fundamentally alters brain chemistry and produces lasting personality changes that take time to recover from. Until physical stabilization is achieved, and emotional and psychological processes are better integrated, dating may create unnecessary and potentially harmful complications.
Issues in Early Sobriety That Can Cause Problems in Dating Relationships
For example, someone dating as early as their second or third month of sobriety may find that they are:
- Becoming increasingly codependent on their partner
- Unable to establish healthy boundaries even though they know they should
- Experiencing heightened temptations to use again
- Deeply afraid of being hurt, rejected, or emotionally abandoned
- Focusing less on self-improvement and more on people-pleasing
- Missing AA meetings, scheduled activities with their sponsor, or other sober-support groups in order to be with their partner
In many ways, new relationships mirror the intoxicating, emotionally euphoric effects of legal or illicit drug use. Neuroscience proves that the positive, inspiring feelings sexual relationships evoke are directly related to “feel good” chemicals in the brain and central nervous system (CNS). Over time, these chemicals become addicting— regardless of whether the cause is popping a pill or a sexual encounter with a new partner. For those in early recovery, slipping back into addictive patterns of behavior is not only unwise, but a proven and totally preventable cause of relapse.
Common Challenges and “The Elephant Effect”
Many people struggle with the long-trusted AA recommendation of avoiding romantic relationships altogether in the first year of recovery, and for legitimate reasons. Some newly sober individuals are older and feel that their time to enjoy life is ticking by. Others may struggle with intense psychological problems or physical challenges that make them more reliant on others and in greater need of validation. Still others begin their journey into sobriety with strong motivation and commitment to self-improvement, but soon find themselves socially and sexually tempted in recovery groups with those of the same or opposite sex.
In such cases, although prevailing wisdom says to deny or ignore the temptation and continue focusing on recovery, someone may be suffering from what is sometimes known as the “elephant effect,” or “framing.” In other words, if they are told to not think about an elephant, the very first things that comes to mind is an elephant— assuming they are like most people. This can be an incredibly frustrating experience for early initiates in AA and NA and requires extra vigilance and caution in order to overcome.
Whatever the reason for desiring a relationship in the first year of recovery, actually following through on those desires is fraught with risk and counterproductive to those working 12-step recovery programs (and even to those who aren’t). When in doubt, the wisest course of action is to refrain from giving in to temptation and continue focusing on self-improvement and accountability. In the end, the effort is worth the multifaceted rewards of long-term sobriety.