This is part three of the recovery pitfall series and it’s all about romantic relationships. Compared to working out and money, romantic relationships are more likely to cause problems for a recovering addict. More than physical appearance and material wealth, relationships affect our hearts, egos, and sense of self-worth.

In rehab and in the rooms of the anonymous fellowships, one of the most frequently given pieces of advice to a newcomer is to refrain from engaging in romantic relationships in early recovery. One year seems to be a widely agreed upon waiting period. This isn’t a hard and fast rule but it’s a good guideline and there are several reasons for it.

When we enter into recovery as a newcomer, we’re either doing it for the first time or coming back after a relapse. Whichever it is, we’re feeling raw emotions like guilt, shame, anger, and resentment. It takes time and patience to feel emotionally and spiritually healthy again. It takes time to learn the skills and tools we need to deal with life and reality. In the beginning, we may not even really know ourselves and what we want. I know for me, my identity had been using and partying for all of my adult life. I really didn’t know my true self and what I wanted out of life and I’m still working on that. It’s important that we know ourselves and what we really want before we can have a relationship that is aligned with our own values with someone who is good for us. The excitement of a new romance can make us blind to warning signs that it may not be the right one. It can end badly and bring us back to that anger and resentment that we’re trying to get away from.

As our recovery progresses and we change as people, our wants and needs will change as well. We get more in touch with ourselves and what we thought that we were looking for in early recovery may not work for us anymore after putting together some clean time. In the beginning, we’re just doing whatever it takes to abstain from drugs, but over time, we deal with the inner demons that made us want to use drugs in the first place. When we’re just starting out it’s likely that when it comes to a romantic relationship, we just want a quick-fix to make us feel better about ourselves. We’re probably not considering if it’s actually a good idea or the fact that, as we get healthier down the road, it may not work for us anymore. We may simply have a fear of being alone. These issues get even more complicated when a relationship involves two newcomers. Both people are in impermanent states that are going to keep changing and they are trying to figure all these things out. Because of this, it probably is not going to work out and both newcomers are going to get hurt. Breakups are painful, especially so in early recovery when most people are emotionally fragile. The go-to way of dealing with pain for addicts is getting loaded and there is a real danger of relapse in this situation.

With these romantic relationships in recovery, we need to check our motives for getting into them. When we’re able to do that, there’s less of a chance of getting hurt by a relationship that ends badly because it should not have been entered into in the first place. We shouldn’t be looking for a quick fix to ease pain or feel better about ourselves. Validation can’t come from other people, it has to come from within. The disease of addiction manifests itself in many ways and relationships are no exception. We don’t want to trade one addiction for another. Even though we’re not using drugs anymore, we may use love or sex in the same way. If we’re trying to control another person or force them into loving us more, it’s not going to work and things will end in disappointment and frustration. Everyone wants to be loved but we have to love ourselves before we can give or receive it.

Two newcomers together can be a recipe for relapse but so can a relationship between a newcomer and someone with time. In the worst case, an old-timer may be predatory in nature and looking for someone they can easily control with no regard for that person’s recovery. An old timer might just have the same insecurities and fear of being alone that a newcomer has. The newcomer might have more of a risk of relapse but it can still end badly for both. The relationship is based on selfish motives rather than on a mutual willingness to build one based on honesty, openness, and trust. The old timer may think that they can save a newcomer or help keep them sober but that is never the case. We are responsible for our own well-being and recovery. No one else can do it for us.

A newcomer may get involved with someone who is not in recovery at all. Someone who can drink or use in moderation or has chosen not to do those things. In recovery, associating with people from the past who use or drink can be a trigger. Some addicts can handle being around drugs and alcohol and others can’t. The temptation may be too great. If we get involved with someone who isn’t an addict but uses recreationally, we may end up fooling ourselves that it won’t be a problem. If this person doesn’t understand addiction, he or she might inadvertently put us in a bad situation that puts our recovery in jeopardy. This lack of understanding could become a source of anger or resentment for both people. Relapse for an addict often starts well before the drugs are used. We justify and rationalize risky behaviors, fooling ourselves with seemingly good reasons but in reality, we’re trying to get in a position to get loaded again. Getting together with a recreational drug user can be part of a plan like this if we tell ourselves that being around this person’s using won’t affect us when, in reality, it will.

A relationship in early recovery may be entered into by people who are a good match for each other. They have mutual values and a genuine desire for intimacy with one another. There are no selfish motives and both people are open, honest, and trusting. A problem can still arise if that relationship ends badly. When one of those people is not spiritually strong enough to deal with a loss like that, it can seem like the end of the world. As good as our intentions may be, life just does not always go the way we planned it to. As I mentioned before, people change and what worked in the past may not work in the future. If we’re not equipped to deal with the loss of a relationship, when one ends, we can be in real trouble. We can’t put relationships before our recovery.

Rebuilding and having real relationships is one of the great things that we get to do in recovery. If we’re working a program and staying clean, we should be able to have much more meaningful and healthy relationships than we have had in the past. But we need to give ourselves time to get spiritually and emotionally healthy enough to nurture those kinds of bonds with people. Being willing to hold off on romances in early recovery can be the best thing we can do for ourselves to have successful, lasting relationships when we’re truly ready.