If you’re in early recovery and feeling lonely, it’s natural to want to get close to another person. For many, this means dating. But is looking for a new relationship, or just playing the field, in early recovery a wise thing to do? How do you know when it’s okay for you to go back to dating?
As with any other aspect of addiction and recovery, everyone is different. Still, experts almost universally advise against making any major changes in your life in the first year of sobriety – and that includes dating and/or jumping into a new relationship, or ending an existing relationship or marriage. The “one-year rule” for waiting on romance/sex has been long used by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other self-help groups as a way to safeguard the individual’s recovery.
That’s because your primary objective right now should be caring for yourself, and a new relationship can distract you from those efforts. You’re also still learning about yourself — and especially your new self, without drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, or whatever your “drug” of choice might have been. That means you may not be in the best place to judge who would be a suitable partner. For example, it’s not uncommon to develop a strong attraction to someone who is also struggling with addiction, emotionally unavailable or even abusive while you’re in this very vulnerable stage.
Dating Dangers In Early Recovery
It’s also important to note that it’s easy to become addicted to the “high” of a new relationship or even to sex. (This, of course, is particularly dangerous for those who are in recovery from love/relationship, sex and/or porn addictions.) Limerence, which is the rush you get from simply thinking of a person when you’re in a new relationship, is a natural and healthy part of relationship development, but it can be damaging for a recovering addict. The neurochemistry of limerence is similar to that of drug use, alcohol abuse, sexual addiction and the like, so it can be used, especially in early recovery, as a substitute for the “high” of your addiction.
And then there’s the backlash of a break-up. Ending a relationship is tough for anyone, and it’s even more difficult when you’re learning how to deal with emotions and situations without the crutch of a drug(s) or a compulsive behavior(s). A break-up can trigger anger or depression, which can prompt you to want desperately to self-medicate.
Here are a few more reasons why waiting to date is best:
- Dating can be an unhealthy coping mechanism. You no longer drink, do drugs or “use” a compulsive behavior, but the allure of a romantic relationship may become so powerful that it serves as a replacement addiction. If you throw yourself into a new love, it can become an unhealthy preoccupation, so that instead of tending to your recovery you’re seeking escape in romance and/or sex.
- You may share too much, or too little, with prospective partners. While you’re in early recovery, there’s a lot that’s new and probably a little scary about the steep learning curve you’re on with respect to your sobriety. Factor in dating and you may find yourself either pouring out your troubles to someone who really can’t or doesn’t want to handle it, or hiding your addiction, which could lead to problems later. Good relationships depend upon honesty and you’re not in a position early in your sobriety to be able to handle the intricate psychological dance that dating entails.
- You may think you can’t live without the other person. As mentioned above, you’re extremely vulnerable in early recovery, and trying to invest the time and effort required to develop a romantic relationship exposes you to a potential predicament: You could become so fixated on this individual, believing them to be necessary for your emotional survival, that you become desperate, clinging to the person and wrongly believing that you simply can’t live without him/her.
If you’re still in your first year of recovery, be patient. Remember that your number-one priority is getting well and you need to focus on yourself for this period. With sincere dedication and effort you may well be able to restore an existing relationship, or create a new one when you’re ready. That said, before you even think about getting back into the dating game, ask yourself: Have you regained your family’s trust? Do you trust yourself again? Are you able to experience triggers without relapsing? Are you using healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with daily stress and turbulent emotions? If you’ve answered, “yes” to these questions you’re less likely to tailspin into relapse over a failed or difficult relationship.
Your Dating Plan
Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is, Have you developed a dating plan with your counselor, sponsor or therapist? This is especially crucial for recovering love or sex addicts, who tend to have a long history of unhealthy relationships but it can benefit any type of addict. This plan will include a list of healthy dating goals and can include things like:
- I don’t want to date anyone I’m not willing to introduce to my family or friends.
- I don’t want to date anyone who uses me for sex.
- I don’t want to date anyone who is actively addicted.
- I want to develop a serious long-term relationship.
- I want to date someone who values and appreciates me.
- I want to date someone who has shared interests and a steady job.
Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute, suggests taking this approach a step further by utilizing what he calls “traffic lights for dating.” Although Weiss primarily uses this technique for sex and love addicts, it can be helpful for all types of addiction. Again, review this with your counselor, sponsor or therapist to evaluate whether your expectations are reasonable or whether you’re overselling or shortchanging yourself:
Red Lights – A Goner: Here you would include any “red flags” or signals that would prompt you to stop dating a person. For example, he/she is living at home; unemployed; in a relationship; doesn’t return calls or texts and/or is an active addict.
Yellow Lights – Maybe In/Maybe Out: These are any potentially problematic character traits or qualities that you should keep an eye on. For example, someone who just ended a long-term relationship; someone who seems more interested in himself/herself than in you and/or someone who doesn’t want you to meet his/her friends.
Green Lights – A Winner: These are the qualities you’re really looking for. For example, someone who has a life, hobbies and friends outside of you; someone who helps and appreciates you; someone who shows you they’re thinking of you and values your relationship and/or someone who shares your interests, like a love of movies or sports.
In general, when you start dating it’s best to go slow and to date people with whom you have something healthy in common, rather than seeking someone only because of a physical attraction or some other external quality. You want to be with someone who’s safe and whom you feel comfortable being around — a person who’s good for you and whom you’re good for, too.