Entering recovery can feel like stepping onto a foreign planet. There are new people to meet, new rules to follow, and new emotions to experience. Imagine being in a place where you’re expected to change your entire life without knowing a single person in the room. For those of us who are starting treatment, finding someone to connect with as we navigate this unknown world is often a first step. Creating human connection and building a support system can ease the fear and uneasiness of recovery. Many individuals who have struggled with addiction also struggle to create healthy relationships. In the past, relationships may have been motivated by our partner’s ability to score drugs or provide money. We may have sought out people who can share our addiction with us rather than our love and affection. Sometimes, we simply enjoyed, even if unconsciously, the emotional rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows often found in intense relationships. Before relationships in treatment can be beneficial, a person entering treatment must learn what a healthy relationship even looks like. A healthy relationship needs to have trust and honesty. Both partners need to be able to rely on each other and know that their emotional and physical needs will be taken care of. Healthy relationships have positive communication and disagreements can be settled without arguing or walking away. These are skills that those of us struggling with addiction may not have yet. Can starting a relationship in treatment be beneficial? It absolutely can. But if a recovering individual rushes into a relationship we are not ready for it can be quite the opposite. Let’s discuss how exactly intimate relationships affect recovery and what type of relationships are most beneficial to the recovery process.
Recovery Requires Self-Discovery
Those of us suffering from addiction may enter into recovery because we know our current mindset, tools, and behaviors are not working for us anymore. We understand that the way we have been living is not healthy and change needs to happen. If we knew how to positively change these behaviors and learn how to live with sobriety, we would have done it on our own already. We all need a little help sometimes, whether it’s a math tutor, sports coach, or professional for our mental health. For some of us entering recovery, our sober selves are foreign to us. Some of us have lived with addiction so long that we might not even remember or know who we are without it. For example, we may never have asked someone out when we were sober, or when not at a bar or party, and may not know how to do so. This is why self-discovery is so crucial to the recovery process. Many of us are learning to live with a whole new side of ourselves that we may not have had to live with for a very long time. Learning to handle everything life throws at you without a crutch can be terrifying, which is why many people suffering from addiction continue to avoid it. Especially when many of our life experiences have been negative. Through recovery, we are creating a new relationship with ourselves, and just like any other relationship, this process requires a lot of work. We have to learn new emotions we may not have felt before, or have dampened with drugs or other addictions. Then we have to learn how to manage those emotions without relapsing or resorting to negative distractions. And we may not even like who we are at first. Low self-esteem may be a part of what started our addiction in the first place. So many experiences can lead to low self-esteem. Those of us suffering from addiction may have struggled in school and got the message from parents and teachers that we weren’t doing good enough. Maybe we had a sibling that always excelled and was praised for their good grades. We may have struggled to keep a job and, with every job lost, our self-esteem dropped even lower. Maybe we experienced a failed marriage and felt we were a disappointment to our family or church. Most individuals struggling with substance use know their addiction is unhealthy, but the struggles that come with addiction like divorce, job loss, trouble in school, all add to the guilt and shame that is already there. Eventually, it isn’t just the addiction we hate, it may be ourselves too. So the hardest part is learning to love ourselves again. To love all of those new, intense parts of ourselves and love who we are as a sober individual. All of this work requires absolute focus and attention, trial and error, forgiveness and strength. Now think about accomplishing all of that and introducing a new relationship on top of it. This is a critical reason why intimate relationships during recovery are strongly discouraged, especially in the beginning. It would be too overwhelming learning to form a relationship with yourself while at the same time learning to form a relationship with and being emotionally available for another person. Finding the space to focus on both is near impossible. Because a new relationship with another can feel exciting and pleasurable, we may want to focus more on this new relationship rather than doing the hard work of focusing on ourselves. And this is where we see intimate relationships negatively affecting the recovery process. We find ourselves in a mental battle of who we are going to give our attention to; ourselves or our partner. When there is still so much work to be done on the self, giving that up to work on a relationship with another can lead to a disinterest in treatment or a lack of commitment to our treatment goals.
Distractions from Recovery Goals
Recovery and treatment require a lot of steps. There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to recovery, so it takes time and effort trying to figure out which individualized steps are needed to reach that end goal. One person’s steps may look completely different than another person’s. We work through recovery at different speeds. Everyone is different during this process. Starting a relationship during recovery can cause a lot of distractions from working on these goals. Those of us in recovery may be working on completely different things than our romantic partner. Not only are we learning all the ins and outs of a new relationship, but we are now also trying to support that person through their recovery when it may look different than our own. When someone’s goals are not the same as our own or they are working at a different speed, it can be hard to support that individual while at the same time focusing on our own work. Imagine having an already full to-do list during a busy work week and your boss just informed you you’re also in charge of training the new hire. Trying to get the new hire up to speed while also focusing on your own tasks can make you want to quit. Now imagine that same situation except it’s your life and your recovery, not your job. This overload can result in us feeling more of the negative aspects than the positive success of recovery. As the stress, fear, and uncertainty build because we have taken on too much, the positive side of treatment may dwindle and it may not seem worth it anymore.
Emotions in New Relationships
With new relationships come new emotions. It is common to feel a rush of different feelings when starting a relationship, and these emotions can change quickly and change often. As a person new to sobriety and learning to live without falling back on a substance, emotions are already unstable and difficult to manage. Learning to positively cope with emotions as a sober person is one of the most difficult challenges for us to overcome during recovery. Many times, we are feeling emotions for the first time. Whether those emotions are positive or negative, it can still be a completely overwhelming experience. Adding the emotions of a new relationship while still learning to understand what it’s like to experience emotions in general, can overload our senses and be detrimental to our recovery. Many of these emotions that come along with a new relationship can be quite extreme. We can experience self-doubt, uncertainty, fear, excitement, and longing. Until we have enough positive coping skills in our toolbox and feel confident managing emotions while sober, it can often be best to delay starting an intimate relationship.
Relationships and Co-Dependency
Co-dependency is a common issue for those of us struggling with addiction. Co-dependency is defined as a “behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship”. Relationships started in treatment can quickly become co-dependent for a few reasons. Many of us who suffer from addiction have low self-esteem or self-worth. We might seek this worth through others by looking for someone who loves and cares about us. Why can this be problematic? Because a lot of times, those of us who struggle with addiction have difficulty differentiating a healthy relationship from an unhealthy one. We are simply looking for the attention of another. People struggling with addiction need positive reinforcement and strong boundaries. Another person struggling with the same issues might not be able to provide that for us. It’s the same idea as putting on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs if your flight is in danger. Someone who doesn’t know how to help themselves through addiction is not yet equipped to support someone else along the same journey. A lot of times this results in one-sided or toxic relationships that will cause a lot of negative emotions. When trouble arises in recovery, it can be easy for one partner to take on the other’s pain or feel responsible for their mistakes and slip-ups. We may also take on our partner’s recovery journey as part of our own and feel our success is dependent on their partner’s success. That creates a huge amount of stress and responsibility on top of an already struggling individual. We are not yet equipped to navigate these emotions and might walk away from treatment to find easier ways to handle these uncomfortable feelings.
Co-Dependency and Family Relationships
Co-dependency also exists within most families of people struggling with addiction. Learning to rebuild these family relationships and learn positive communication and support is so important to treatment and healing. Intimate relationships can distract us from working on this part of treatment. We may feel that we have the support we need from our partner and may not be motivated to fix a relationship with our family. Why would we want to connect with our family when our past communications have been filled with blame, distrust, and disappointment? Many who have struggled with addiction have had negative interactions with their families because they don’t understand how to help them. Imagine coming home to your family craving the support only a parent can provide and being met with a barrage of criticism. The small steps made in recovery are huge to a recovering individual. But sometimes families see this progress as being too slow or not enough. They may ask what’s taking so long, or tell them they aren’t taking this seriously enough. It’s true that many families don’t know how to support their child through addiction and recovery. And so many families are left out of the treatment process altogether, meaning these skills are never learned. Family struggles are highly-emotional, just as intimate relationships are. Choosing to ignore this part of the recovery process can leave us without the tools needed to handle this trigger. So when we return to our family and are still met with harsh negativity, the cycle begins again. Without family support, we turn to other forms of relationships to fill the gap. This results in a non-existent relationship with family and a possibly strong support system, or constant bickering and clashing may result in a relapse since we have not learned how to cope with this part of our life.
How Can Families Help?
It used to be common to tell families to back off and cut their struggling child out of their lives. If they continue to try forming a relationship or supporting their kid, they may be labeled as an “enabler” and told they are doing more harm than good. Families were once told to let their children hit “rock bottom” and only then will they be ready to change. The potential consequences of this idea need to be fully thought out and, in the wrong context, could lead to losing their child. No parent wants this, and this isn’t what their child needs to change. Families should instead be working on how to positively connect with their struggling child. Yes, tumultuous communication is not helping their kid recover. So instead, families can learn how to reach out to their child in a way that won’t cause an argument or a screaming match. They can learn positive reinforcement and understand how to recognize the small steps needed to reach their recovery goals. And when their child makes mistakes, they need to learn how to react without blame or anger. Family members cannot control what happens to their loved ones in recovery, but they can control how they react. And putting in the effort to heal their broken relationship and learn how to positively communicate with their loved one in recovery can be a powerful part of the journey through treatment.
Addicted to Love and Care
Most of the time, we turn to substances and other addictions to help manage negative emotions that arise from unpleasant events that occur in our lives. Instead of dealing with these emotions and learning how to cope, we cover them up or ignore them with the help of our addiction. Many of us who are addicted to drugs or alcohol have negative relationships with our parents. Maybe our mother cared more about her new boyfriend than us. Maybe our father never thought we were good enough and constantly told us so. Maybe our stepfather refused to accept us as their own child. These memories are painful, but hard to get away from since we often have to deal with our parents on a regular basis. Drugs and alcohol can provide a refuge from such negative encounters and relationships. Relationships can create that same kind of feel-good emotion that substances provide, which is why many people who struggle with addiction quickly jump into relationships, whether they are healthy or not. Is a relationship as bad as taking a harmful drug that will cause damage to your body? No, but it can be equally addicting. And if we are using this relationship and the “feel-good” emotions that come with it to avoid working through sobriety, we aren’t going to learn the positive coping skills needed to handle life as a sober person. When the substances are gone and the relationship is gone, it leaves us back where we started with little skills to navigate a sober life on their own.
What Can We Do to Avoid the Desire to Form Intimate Relationships?
It is hard to tell somebody to avoid relationships without giving them an alternative path. So many people in recovery experience extreme loneliness and want that connection with others. It is not to say that all relationships are bad for recovery. In fact, forming the right kind of relationships can make a difference in a recovering individual’s journey.
Building a Support System
Repairing or building a relationship with our family can be a huge reward and positive experience for those of us in recovery. This journey may be difficult at first and it can take a lot of time to mend this broken relationship, but having the support of family can decrease the feelings of loneliness and increase the feelings of love and security while in treatment. Creating healthy friendships is also a great way to build a support system. This might mean repairing old friendships outside of treatment or finding new friendships during treatment with people who understand the recovery process. As a recovering person, finding a sponsor we connect with can help us stay on track with our recovery goals, feel supported, and get the accountability we need to stay sober. Creating these healthy relationships and building a strong support system not only helps us avoid intimate relationships, but it can also show us what healthy relationships look like and allow us to practice positive communication and boundaries.
Setting boundaries allows us to have more control over our relationships with others. We first have to set boundaries within ourselves and decide whether a relationship is beneficial for our treatment path and what it is we need from a relationship. If we know an intimate relationship during recovery will not benefit our treatment goals, then we need to practice setting boundaries with others. If another individual in treatment approaches us with romantic intentions, we must feel confident expressing our intentions and saying no.
Start with Small Responsibilities
A healthy way to take baby-steps and practice relational responsibilities is to start with something small and low-risk. Before starting a relationship with another person,we might benefit by channeling our need for connection with a pet. While pets obviously can’t replace human connection, many people obtain significant satisfaction from such relationships. Additionally, a pet dog, for example, provides unconditional love without the complex and sometimes messy emotions involved in intimate human relationships. When first entering recovery, reducing the chance of complicated emotional entanglements with others can increase one’s success in recovery.
Are There Benefits to Having Intimate Relationships During Recovery?
For the majority of individuals, intimate relationships during recovery can create a high risk of relapse, so should be approached with extreme caution until we feel confident enough to handle the emotions and distractions that follow. With that said, there are benefits that some individuals may experience from having an intimate relationship during this time. The key is being able to recognize when the relationship is benefiting us and being able to walk away when it is not.
Healthy intimacy in recovery creates a built-in support system with a partner that knows just how difficult it is to go through treatment and learn to live a sober life. The loneliness that comes with recovery can feel extremely overwhelming on top of a lack of self-esteem and tools to cope. Having someone there to lift us up during rough days can help us push through and stay focused on our treatment goals.
Having a healthy relationship where both partners are supporting each other through recovery allows for strong accountability. Both partners need to want sobriety for ourselves and for each other for this to be a powerful intervention. Knowing someone is counting on us to make the right decisions and push through the hard stuff can increase motivation and our drive to stay sober. It also allows us to have another individual to express negative thoughts and be honest about feelings of relapse or lack of strength. We can work together to build solutions and practice healthy coping skills rather than allowing us to fall back on bad habits.
A lot of different skills are taught during treatment, including positive communication and setting boundaries in relationships. These lessons won’t be truly understood until they are practiced in real life. Having an intimate relationship during recovery can allow us to practice all of these skills as we are learning them. If both partners are understanding of the learning process and open with mistakes along the way, this type of real-time practice can be truly beneficial.
How Can You Form Healthy Relationships in Recovery?
If a person struggling with addiction does find themselves in an intimate relationship, there are ways to ensure the relationship stays healthy and beneficial for both partners throughout the recovery process.
Keep the Focus of Treatment on the Self
As stated above, having the space to focus on self-discovery and forming a relationship with a new sober-self is essential for recovery. If we do start a relationship with another, it is important to still keep this as the number one goal and focus. Our partner must also understand that they are not going to be number one right now. They must allow the space for us to have self-focus. If the relationship is getting in the way of this goal or distracting from other recovery steps along the way, we need to know when to walk away.
Those of us struggling with addiction might already struggle with honesty. Lies and deceit tend to be intertwined with addiction and this learned behavior is difficult to break. For relationships to be successful, we need to be honest with ourselves and what we want and be honest with our partner about our needs.
Along with honesty, any relationship needs positive communication. This is a skill that is taught in recovery and we must practice these skills with our partner. A lack of communication, or negative communication, will result in fighting, dishonesty, and other negative emotions that can be harmful to our focus on recovery. Knowing when to take space, how to navigate tough conversations, and how to positively express wants and needs is what creates a strong, healthy relationship.