Early recovery is full of changes. After we put down the drink or the drug, we have to learn how to communicate, build healthy relationships and routines, work a daily program of action, connect to a Higher Power and those around us, and take responsibility for ourselves. In my experience in treatment, I was often told that relationships in early recovery could be a setup for disaster. Trying to navigate the often turbulent emotions of sobriety and maintain a romantic, committed relationship is risky, I was told. Therapists, my sponsor, and my sober supports all emphasized how important it was to focus on myself and my sobriety rather than dating, for at least the first year of recovery. As a recovering addict and alcoholic, I had to follow a lot of suggestions in order to stay clean and sober that the first year, and even to this day. One suggestion I failed to follow was to stay out of relationships in early recovery, and I learned a lot from that risky choice. My experience taught me that listening to my sponsor and my treatment team is always a good idea and that the risks of investing in a romantic relationship at the very beginning of my sobriety journey simply weren’t worth it. This is my experience.
Relationships in Early Recovery: A First-Person Account
When I got sober, I was already in a relationship. Many people told me that I shouldn’t make any major changes in the first year of my recovery because I was still learning how to communicate, process my feelings, and develop a healthy sense of judgment. In short, I wasn’t yet capable of making good choices, so major decisions were best left for later. The only exception to this rule was that everyone in my life urged me to leave my relationship. This was for many reasons, but the most important one is that my partner was also in active addiction and (allegedly) trying to get sober. The argument of my treatment team and my sponsor was that we both needed to focus on ourselves and our own health and that if we stayed together we ran the risk of one of both of us relapsing due to the pressure or because we weren’t making sobriety our number one priority. Early recovery is full of drastic changes that make romantic relationships difficult. Rather than focusing on cutting out the factors in my life that made sobriety hard, I was focused on the eliminating the things that made my relationship hard. Unfortunately, many of these things were what my sobriety depended on, like:
- Spending time with sober people
- Attending regular meetings
- Making friends with women; focusing on gender-specific support that is vital to emotional and spiritual health
- Developing a connection with a higher power
- Following treatment recommendations, like going to a halfway house after inpatient rehab rather than moving in with my boyfriend
- Prioritizing my mental health over that of my partner
- Codependence and Putting on the Oxygen Mask
When I got sober in 2013, codependence was arguably my biggest obstacle. I didn’t want to focus on myself and confront my own problems, and it was easier for me to try to “fix” someone else than to take a good, hard look at myself. By focusing on someone else’s recovery and needs, I could try to avoid examining my own behaviors and changing them. Unfortunately, no matter how much I tried, I could not fix another human being. My change had to come from within, but by directing all of my mental and emotional energy towards helping someone else when I was drowning myself, I stunted my own growth. When you get on an airplane, the flight attendants remind you that in the event of a crash or an emergency landing, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else put on theirs. It’s the same concept as the one that says that you can’t save a drowning person if you can’t swim. But here I was, fumbling with my boyfriend’s oxygen mask and checking his breathing when I couldn’t get any air myself. It nearly ended in disaster, but for the grace of God (my Higher Power) and the help of some dedicated loved ones and professionals, I am still sober today. That only happened because eventually the pain got great enough and I had to make a choice of what to pursue: my new life in sobriety and all of the gifts it had in store for me, or my old relationship with all of its dysfunction.
Risks of Relationships in Early Recovery
Relationships in early recovery can be damaging to both people in them. Everyone’s experience is different, but my personal experience illuminated some of the most serious risks of that choice that my treatment team had expressed to me. Engaging in a relationship before you’re ready in your sobriety can create a risk for:
- Isolation from friends, your sponsor, and sober supports
- Prioritizing the relationship over recovery commitments, like meetings and therapy
- Codependence and people pleasing behavior
- Relapse for one or both people in the relationship
- Stress and anxiety
- Deciding not to follow aftercare recommendations
- Relying on another person rather than a Higher Power
- Failing to take care of your mental, spiritual, or emotional health
- Hurting another person’s recovery
For me, the end of my relationship marked the beginning of my real transformation. With that distraction out of the way, I was in enough pain to be willing to focus all of my efforts on my steps and my treatment. Once I began prioritizing my recovery, my whole life improved and my emotional pain was replaced by a sense of peace, serenity, and faith. Today, I look back on the choice to end that relationship as my true moment of surrender. I was already sober, but I had not yet fully given over to the program of recovery and the journey. Once I did, my life became something from “beyond my wildest dreams,” as it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. But, as they say in the rooms, first things first. Before making any major decisions, it’s vital to make the very first step into recovery. If you’re ready for a sober life but you can’t seem to put down the drink or the drugs, major decisions can be left for later. The only decision you need to make now is the decision to ask for help. If you’re ready for that, call Detoxes.net at 800-232-0657.