Research scientists and addiction treatment counselors agree: If you’re in recovery, your relationships — family, friends, partners, coworkers and beyond — influence how well you do. After all, the people around us affect access to substances, how tempted we may feel to use and how supported we feel or don’t feel. That’s why addiction experts so often tell recovering addicts that severing old ties is necessary to break bad habits.But what then? Errol Rodriguez, PhD, of Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, notes that once people have moved on from their problem relationships “they often feel quite lonely in their recovery.” Since loneliness is a strong contributor to relapse, making new friends is vital not just for a balanced life, but for safeguarding your sobriety.
For many, though, identifying appropriate potential friends and figuring out how to find them is no easy task. Where once you looked for someone who was fun to party with — or your friends might even have simply been the people you grew up with or worked with — now you need to seek out specific traits and qualities that will foster sober living, too.
Finding Friends Who’ve Been Where You’ve Been (and Are)
Individuals who want to remain abstinent need at least some friends who share both a history of addiction and the experience of recovery. That’s the advice of Harvard Medical School’s John F. Kelly, PhD, who has spent nearly two decades studying the nature of relationships in dependence and treatment. “What the research seems to show is that general support is helpful but it doesn’t really relate to remission and recovery,” explains Dr. Kelly. “The only relationships that relate to remission and recovery are with those who abstain. They’re the ones who really carry the weight.”
However, just because someone is in recovery like you doesn’t mean he or she will be a good friend, especially if you’re both new to recovery. Nicole Martinez, PsyD, a practicing clinical psychologist in Chicago and a BetterHelp counselor, says that many addicts seek to befriend those who are going through treatment with them. While this sometimes works, these relationships can be unstable and lead to temptation. A safer route is for those who are newly abstinent to develop relationships with individuals who have been in long-term recovery. “These are the people who can guide them about how they deal with things in their early days, can provide them the support of someone who has walked in their shoes and who can recognize the signs of a relapse that is impending,” says Dr. Martinez.
Where Your Next Friends Are
It’s one thing to know what to look for in a new friendship, but it’s something else entirely to know how to find it. Mutual aid programs such as 12-step fellowships (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA) offer great potential for those seeking positive, recovery-specific relationships. These programs link people who are new to recovery with those who share their experience but also set an example when it comes to honing practical skills like following through on commitments and saying no to temptations. The “long-timers” also provide emotional support. In fact, says Kelly, “I think that’s one of the reasons AA is so effective — it has all those components in it.”
But 12-step groups aren’t the only way to meet others looking to remain abstinent. Paul Lavergne, , a licensed psychotherapist with The Turning Point Counselling Services, in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, says that as with any friendship, common interests are all-important too. He stresses making friends based on “social interaction over a shared activity, such as sports, hobbies, music or something else that is fun and enjoyable.” Depending on where you live, there may be a recovery community center nearby, adds Kelly. These drop-in facilities host recovery meetings as well as help with getting a job, providing advice on revamping resumes and writing cover letters, and offer a chance to connect others you can help or who can help you. From there, a friendship may naturally emerge.
Or you can choose a program like Phoenix Multi-Sport, which has facilities in five U.S. cities and uses fitness to bring sober people together and help them build emotional strength. Participants climb, hike, run, bike and practice yoga. Teenagers and young adults may find recovery-specific high schools and collegiate recovery programs helpful in forging new friendships as well.
And don’t count out family when it comes to providing the emotional support that friends do and looking out for good potential friends for you. While parents, siblings and relatives may not have firsthand experience of dealing with addiction, Kelly says they still have a great deal to offer. “Family can do a lot in terms of emotional support and helping loved ones access recovery resources,” he says. “They don’t have the experience to transmit but they can be instrumental in helping the loved one find recovery friendships.”