“Dating in recovery has been compared to playing football without gear, running barefoot over sharp rocks, and having dental work without the benefit of painkillers. It can be the great escape, bounce you back into relapse, or trigger a new addiction.” – Mary Faulkner
Dating is hard. This is something we all can relate to. It is no surprise that dating and uncertainty go hand in hand. Inevitably we wonder if we will ever meet “the one” or whether someone will ever love us. We are not strangers to these feelings but for those recovering from addiction, these feelings may be intensified and scary. Dating during sobriety is something many recovering addicts struggle with as using drugs or alcohol as a crutch or liquid courage if you will, is no longer an option. As a recovering addict you’ve given up a lot – specifically your coping strategy and you have changed your approach to life. It’s natural to want to get close to another person and share your new healthy sober life with someone else. Relationships can be a part of the healing.
If you have decided you are ready to start dating again it is important to your recovery to make sure you are making healthy sound choices to maintain your sobriety. And while everyone is different, as with many aspects of addiction and recovery, and while there is no “one size fits all” universal guide to dating in recovery, there are, however, many useful tips and tools to help as you navigate the dating world on this new journey.
When Can I Start?
How should a recovering addict determine when he or she is ready to date? The basic rule of thumb is one year. Recovering from substance use is not a linear process meaning, putting down the bottle doesn’t solve all of the problems that lead to substance abuse and it doesn’t solve all of the problems caused by substance use.
Everyone Is Different
There is no finite amount of time that needs to pass before a recovering addict begin to date and how serious they should get with someone. If most of your substance use was encompassed by conflict with a significant other you may want to tread lightly when you decide you’re ready to date. You may want to be sure you’ve developed a relapse plan around conflict in future relationships in order to cope in a healthier way. Relapse plans can be individualized and can be developed in a variety of settings and the best bet would be to share it with your mental health and/or substance abuse counselor, close loved ones and sponsor (if applicable).
What’s in a Relapse Prevention Plan?
Relapse prevention plans are common in the substance abuse field because relapse is a common event. Relapse plans are also created for a variety of difficulties such as binging and purging, pedophilic tendencies, angry outbursts, sex addiction and several other areas of concern depending on the person. A relapse helps a recovering addict identify people, places and things such as a specific area of a neighborhood or watering hole with a bunch of old drinking buddies that may still hang out there. Can’t you hear it right now, walking into a bar you used to frequent, having your “friends” say to you, “C’mon you can have just one”.
Being in recovery is not always about turning your back on the people that were a part of your substance abuse and it might blossom into refusal skills when they’re saying “just one”. It’s not practical or healthy to become a hermit to avoid triggers. Navigating the practical and social aspects of recovery often means pivoting away from temptations and shaping your approach to your everyday life. The changes can be as small as having to walk an extra block to get groceries or as large as having to find new friends or find new ways and or places to see them.
Specific to dating, avoiding triggers early in the process will be important, as dating in itself can be stressful and anxiety provoking, which could’ve formerly been a trigger for someone to use drugs or alcohol to cope with the negative symptoms.
The possibilities are endless as to what could trigger a relapse and a relapse plan is there to support you with healthily coping in the face of triggers thereby increasing your self-efficacy over time and expanding possibilities for dating. Exposure to triggers, if necessary or a part of dating someone, should be progressive and start in small doses in order to gauge your tolerance in the face of triggers. Preventing relapse could mean missing a wedding with an open bar, going to the wedding just for the ceremony, having someone support you through the event and many other possibilities.
While a relapse plan accounts for several areas and can be as textured or basic as you’d like it to be, there are plenty more helpful tips for dating while in recovery.
Therapy is an important part of the process for dating while in recovery. Substance use disorders can be a result of a mental illness exacerbated by life stressors such as relationship problems, financial problems, a physical disability or discord in other areas. In therapy sessions, the patient can work on his or her relapse prevention plan, role play responses to stressors, explore their genetic propensity for substance abuse or simply vent as opposed to using drugs or alcohol to get that release.
Be Open About Your Recovery
Being a substance abuser can be frowned upon more than someone recovering from substance abuse. Being in recovery is something to be proud of, which is why you shouldn’t be scared to share that with your date. Putting the matter on the table early on is helpful so a date doesn’t end up somewhere that could trigger a relapse.
Monitor Your Impulses
Should you end up meeting someone that seems for like a potential mate for the coming years, remember to take it slow. Try not to make any drastic decisions such as getting married, having children or buying a house together early in the relationship. There are plenty of studies that demonstrate an addict or recovering addict’s reduced ability to control their impulses in a variety of contexts. Substance use is often something that brings instant gratification and a recovering addict should monitor their attempts to feel gratified immediately within the context of the relationship.
Sobriety is Kind Of Important
The basic model for recovering addicts is to work with their family, friends, co-workers and treatment providers to create a support system that will help prevent a relapse and eventually increase autonomy. When a new relationship starts, priorities can start changing and all of the sudden you and your new found love want to take square dance lessons together on Tuesday nights at 8pm. Suppose it turns out that an important recovery group, one of which you credit most of your success with sobriety to, happens to be every Tuesday at 8pm. You may need to look elsewhere to hone your hoedown skills.
Should you be in a position where you feel like you can pare down your support services, make sure your consulting with the people within your support system. Meeting someone new can be fun and exciting and can, at times, cloud judgement so make sure your sobriety comes first.
Have Rules for Dating
The idea that birds of the same father flock together is applicable to dating. We often look for people with similar interests or upbringing and sometimes that can be people that have their own problems with addiction. Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Robert Weiss, has coined what he calls “traffic lights for dating, and his concept is listed below.
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.
When someone has a history of substance abuse, their abuse may have created a chronic medical condition that can complicate dating. For example, alcohol can increase the risk for cancer of the liver, breast(s), esophagus and mouth. Alcohol abuse can also take a toll on the heart resulting in cardiomyopathy, stroke or high blood pressure. As badly as you may want to learn how to square dance, the ship, or wagon in this situation, may have already left town.
Having some restrictions on your physical capabilities can complicate relationships, especially if you meet someone that enjoys exercise or other aerobic activities such a bike riding, skiing or hiking. Naturally, you may want to share or create a new interest with a significant other, which can be mitigated by health effect from substance abuse. Being aware of and properly treating your physical health while in recovery is one of the many life domains that need to be managed to prevent relapse.
Dating in itself can be complicated, exciting, stressful, euphoric and can fluctuate on multiple spectrums in both directions. It’s important to keep in mind that you’re dating because you’re healthy enough to begin sharing your intimate side with someone again because you’ve gained some control over your impulses. It’s something to be proud of your success and you never hide your status from a potential mate if you want to have a successful relationship. If you’re honest and the person is understanding and supportive of your recovery, it’s one step closer to a fun time.