Relationships aren’t easy under the best of circumstances, but addiction and early recovery can test even the strongest of bonds. That’s why it’s essential that you follow some basic guidelines to help maintain your sobriety. Here’s what to do and not to do to maintain your sobriety:
DON’T get involved in a new relationship for at least one year. You’ve heard this one a million times (okay, half a million). It may be tiresome to hear again, but treat this rule as sacrosanct. Why? A new love takes your focus off what must be your first, second and third priorities in the early stages of sobriety — staying sober.
For most addicts, a new relationship is like catnip to a feline: something to obsess and lose your mind (and focus) over. Until you have a grasp on who you are as a sober person and can better deal with self-destructive impulses, you will be in danger of substituting a substance or behavioral addiction for one to a romantic partner. Needless to say, this is particularly true of those in early recovery from a sex, love and/or porn addiction.
DON’T get bogged down by guilt. As a therapist who works with couples, I often hear this refrain from the spouse who’s in recovery: “I feel so guilty for everything I’ve done to [fill in partner’s name here]. I can’t live with myself if I mess up again.” This kind of thinking can create unbearable pressure.
Part of the 12 steps, of course, is making amends for hurtful things you did while you were actively using. But having your heartfelt apology accepted by the person you hurt doesn’t necessarily shut down your feelings of guilt and responsibility. Here’s a mantra I give recovery patients who writhe in guilt: Everyone makes his or her own choices. Your spouse is staying in the relationship out of free will. Guilt accomplishes nothing, but causes you immense psychological discomfort. And wasn’t avoiding those hideous feelings a major reason you became an addict in the first place? Which brings us to…
DON’T squash your feelings. As an addict, your MO has been to bottle up your emotions, and to talk instead to the bottom of a whiskey bottle (or whatever your “drug” of choice may have been). Addicts lie, manipulate and do other things that erode trust because the idea of voicing “truths” and feeling vulnerable is too risky. To build a healthy relationship it’s essential to communicate in a genuine way. Tell your partner that you know this will be hard but with his or her love and support you are committed to pushing through the discomfort. You will henceforth talk about your insecurities and fears and also how difficult it feels at times not to succumb to old habits.
Now you need some Dos:
DO have empathy for your partner’s feelings. Addicts are self-absorbed; it’s hard to make space for someone else’s feelings when you’re all about getting your next fix. Now that you’re sober it’s important not just to ask your partner what’s on his or her mind, but to practice empathetic listening. This means that while your partner is talking don’t interrupt. Put aside your own thoughts, emotions and prejudices as best as possible. A helpful tool: Wait 10 seconds after he or she is finished speaking so you have time to give a thoughtful answer.
DO have empathy for yourself, too. The most important relationship you will ever have is with yourself. So it’s essential to treat yourself with compassion. Likely one of the reasons you succumbed to addiction was self-loathing: I’m not worth anything. Why shouldn’t I throw my life away? At this pivotal time of your recovery, practice self-affirmations: I’m a worthwhile person. I deserve the best life possible. If you make a mistake, instead of self-attacking, tell yourself, I’m human. No one is perfect. I’m doing the best I can. Most of all, tell yourself every day that you are worthy of love. Because you are!