Recovery and Romance: How to Keep Relationships Healthy

When I counsel clients, we eventually discuss the topic of relationships. Single clients often want to find a partner who “gets them.” Unfortunately that often means someone who shares their addiction or mental health history.

Many people in recovery have tumbled into “rehab romances” because of a sense of loneliness, a feeling of emptiness, a sex addiction — or simply the proximity of another person. These relationships can distract from recovery, which needs to be the top priority.

Although it’s not an official recovery policy, conventional wisdom within support group rooms is that it’s good to be consistently sober for a year before entering into a new relationship. Other risks of dating too quickly during recovery include higher relapse potential, possible unsafe sex practices and failure to maintain aftercare.

It’s natural for clients to want companionship, especially after they’ve ended friendships with people they used to engage in addictive behaviors with or who might still use. Figuring out what’s been helpful — and what’s been harmful — to each party in a relationship is key to finding a loving, long-lasting partnership.

Friendship First

Recovery and Romance: How to Keep Relationships HealthyFor example, a couple who met in Alcoholics Anonymous took nine years to get to know each other before becoming romantic. They dated a few more years while continuing treatment and going to meetings. On their wedding day, they recited vows declaring that their relationship was the gift that came with sobriety — and that they would end the relationship if the marriage got in the way of their recovery. They knew that without sobriety they couldn’t have healthy involvement with each other.

Many clients are surprised when I tell them that when they were using, they weren’t in a monogamous relationship with their partner. I’d explain that their loyalty was to the substance or behavior. If their partner was using as well, the relationship became even more complicated because it involved four parties.

Some people want another person to fill in the missing pieces of their lives. “You complete me” might have sounded romantic when Tom Cruise said it in the movie “Jerry Maguire,” but for those of us not living in a movie, life’s problems don’t disappear simply because we started dating someone new.

It’s important to be aware of potential pitfalls when entering and developing a relationship. Certain steps are crucial to keeping it healthy: learning the right questions to ask, having the courage to ask them, and using the answers to determine compatibility.  Skip these steps and you risk getting trapped in codependent patterns.

Are You Ready for Romance?

When discussing the subject of romance with clients, I often ask, “Would you want to be married to you?” If they’re confused, I rephrase it: “Could see yourself in a long-term, committed relationship with someone like you? What do you bring to the table?”

I encourage them to list the qualities that would make them a good partner. If they can’t come up with more than a few, I suggest that they work on those areas where they feel they could step up a bit more.

Certain conditions signal they’re not ready. I encourage waiting in clients who:

  • Are still in the throes of addiction
  • Aren’t fully engaged in their treatment
  • Aren’t consistent with employment
  • Aren’t honest
  • Rely on other people to fix or save them
  • Blame others for their situation
  • Have untreated anger management problems
  • Feel they’re incomplete without a relationship

On the other hand, some clients are ready for a healthy romantic partnership. I support clients in seeking a relationship if they:

  • Are willing to follow through on treatment recommendations
  • Are examining which of their relationship patterns are productive and which are destructive
  • Are open to trying new ways of interacting with potential partners
  • Are likely to learn different communication styles to express feelings in safe, healthy ways
  • Are focused on personal growth beyond the addiction
  • Are learning to be flexible with their needs
  • Are honest with themselves about why they want a romantic relationship

“You May Now Kiss…” Yourself

A fun and empowering exercise I invite clients to do is to create a ceremony in which they symbolically marry themselves. Consider this: If you’re unwilling to marry yourself, why would anyone else want to marry you?

The ceremony can be done privately or with loved ones present. Write your vows, making the same promises to yourself that you’d promise to another person. Offer yourself a token of your commitment, whether it’s a ring, a pin, or a coin you might receive at a 12-Step meeting. Incorporate whatever spiritual or cultural rituals feel appropriate.

At the end of your ceremony, feel free to “kiss” the bride or groom — with deep appreciation, love and self-respect for all you are and all you’re becoming in recovery.

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