Relationships In Recovery

Romantic relationships within the context of recovery from substance or process addictions is a hot topic. This may include codependency, sex addiction, eating disorders, self-harm, alcoholism, or any number of things. Whether you, your partner, or both are committed to some program of recovery (or apparently uncommitted), there is much to say on the matter.

Some couples decide to get sober together. Some relationships begin as a “rehab romance.” Still, others use relationships or focus on their partner to avoid the work of recovery. There are those who go the twelve-step route, the religious folk, secular types, self-helpers, micro-dosers, white-knucklers, new-age hippies, “plant medicine” aficionados, therapy goers, and everything in between.

There are countless permutations, and I couldn’t possibly address them all in one article, but I’d like to share a few guiding principles.

Basic Understanding

Compulsive habits are generally trauma responses and maladaptive coping mechanisms. So, the day you stop drinking, using, binging, purging, gambling, or whatever, you have definitely not solved your problem. You’ve only stopped using that form of self-medication and escape.

I can tie you to a fucking tree and you’ll stop drinking — abstinence is not recovery.

However, it’s often the first step in finally identifying what you’ve been running from all along (hard to understand what you’re self-medicating while you’re self-medicating). Most people then either get busy solving the real problem or find another way to bury their head in the sand (food, work, school, exercise, dating, shopping, social media, porn, video games — literally anything but healing).

So if you or your partner are still in the grips of an addiction of any kind… or if you’ve managed to stop putting new bandaids over old bandaids but still haven’t looked at the festering wound beneath, it’s unlikely you’ll produce anything like a healthy, mature, and mutually satisfying partnership. With anyone.

Single Noobs

If you’re single and have just barely managed to stop obliterating your consciousness with compulsive bouts of unbridled self-destruction, for the love of God and small children, please don’t jam a whole innocent bystander into the throbbing void in your life. It can be quite harmful to both you and the other person. In most cases, dating in early recovery is:

  1. Selfish, inconsiderate, unskilled, and immature
  2. Another form of dissociation and self-medicating
  3. A tremendous distraction from your healing journey

Roughly speaking, I would define early recovery as your first full year of complete and continuous abstinence while working a rigorous program of healing.

A dear friend of mine managed to somehow white-knuckle his way out of drug and alcohol dependency but stayed bat-shit crazy for quite some time. You can imagine the confusion when his employer wanted to send him to rehab and he pleaded, “But I’ve been sober for three years!” Awwkwerrrrrrd.

Again, abstinence is not enough. Recovery begins when you ask for help and actually start doing the difficult work of resolving the underlying trauma. And until you have a relatively firm grasp on the mechanics of a recovery-based lifestyle, a new relationship can be a real slippery slope.

When To Date

For those involved in twelve-step recovery, the obvious metric is to have fully worked all twelve steps under the guidance of a sponsor before hitting the dating scene like you don’t have an untreated illness. People with no such affiliation may want to ask a relationship coach or mental health professional when they think dating is safe and appropriate.

Generally, if you hate yourself while single, you’re probably not bringing a whole lot to the relationship table. Probably a good idea to get that sorted out before “sharing” it with someone. You don’t have to be perfect or have it all figured out before dating (pretty sure no one achieves either of those). But if you’re suffering, your life is in disarray, or you don’t even have the bandwidth to care for your own basic needs, dating will likely serve as just another distraction or coping mechanism — not a means of building a healthy partnership.

To use Marshall Rosenberg’s analogy, it’s best to desire a romantic relationship like flowers for your table, not air for your lungs.

There’s no hard and fast rule. Obviously, wounded and dissociated individuals who’ve been desperately bludgeoning their dysregulated nervous systems into submission by any means necessary for decades are likely to do whatever they gotta do to get by. And that’s fine.

I know drugs and alcohol kept me from tying any nooses until I was able to finally get the help I needed. So if shitty relationships are what keep you from rinsing your mouth with buckshot, I ain’t mad atcha. But if you can resist the temptation to use another human being as a drug or a crutch, that would be my recommendation.

Love does not “heal all wounds.” Sometimes you need to take your single ass to therapy.

Who To Date

I know many sober folks in particular are faced with the dilemma of whether to date in or outside of recovery circles. They feel like they can relate much better with someone who understands the unique challenges of addiction, which are utterly baffling to non-addicts. Partners in recovery speak a common language, live a similar lifestyle, and share many of the same values. Their compatibility is off the charts.

However, when you date someone in recovery, you’re basically choosing someone with a profound trauma history right off the bat — a dues-paying, card-carrying, official member of one of the most self-destructive groups of human beings on earth. Knowing quite well that a relapse could obliterate your entire relationship.

Some people think it much safer to date outside of recovery for exactly this reason. But then they have to compensate for fundamental differences in their life experiences and worldviews. And perhaps there will always be an underlying sense of “You just don’t understand, and how could you?” This presents obvious challenges with intimacy and connection.

People who aren’t in recovery are sometimes referred to as “normies” or “earthlings.” Cheeky, but I think it’s actually unhelpful and misleading in many ways. The truth is trauma, shame, survival, and loss are universal human experiences. Sure, some people deal with (or avoid) these difficulties in different ways — some more or less destructive, costly, socially acceptable, or illegal than others. But we’re all out here trying to protect ourselves, get our needs met, and make sense of this life one way or another.

Same boat, different oars.

Either which way, you’re gonna shake the dice. Just remember, you don’t “get into” a relationship; you build one from the ground up. Make sure your partner is ready to do work.

Recovering In Relationship

In already well-established partnerships, sometimes one or both people embark on a healing journey. This can really shake things up. Oftentimes, the relationship til that point may have been largely held together by a dysfunctional web of codependency, dissociation, self-abandonment, and addiction. And when you begin to untangle that mess, the relationship itself can start to unravel.

In one interview, physician and author Gabor Maté (authority on trauma and addiction) says, “Recovery means to find again. Ask anybody who has recovered, ‘What did you find?’ They’ll say, ‘I found myself.’”

After rescuing an authentic self from behind thick walls of trauma responses and coping mechanisms, many people are no longer willing to self-abandon in order to maintain a relationship created by an old, wounded, and unconscious version of themselves. It’s nearly impossible to fathom without once again deadening their spirit with some other sedative or method of dissociation.

Therefore, people are faced with recreating their whole relationship based on the new version of themselves that comes to life in the recovery process. Which brings to mind the immortal words of Esther Perel, “Your first marriage is over. Do you want to build a new, second marriage together?”

When One Partner Recovers

Occasionally, two partners take to personal growth in lockstep. They take accountability for their own issues (instead of projecting them onto each other) and clean up their respective sides of the street. They emerge renewed, more beautiful versions of themselves and become all the more committed to their undying adoration of one another. Oh, what a satisfyingly magical tale of “love conquers it all.”

But that shit is pretty rare, actually.

In most cases, one person breaks first. And because the pain required to pierce the veil of dissociation is so great, the tipping point is often quite distressing. Now more than ever, the plaintiff desperately needs their partner to snap out of complacency and help address a rapidly unfolding tragedy. However, rousing someone from a deluded state is nearly impossible to do on command. So a deep fissure occurs in the relationship that may be difficult to ever mend.

Imagine coming out of a blackout, pinned under an overturned SUV, and seeing your partner just sitting there on a sofa watching Seinfeld with chips and a Heineken. A completely natural response would be, “What the FUCK is wrong with you! Are you seriously gonna NOT help me right now?” In many cases, this painful disconnection mirrors exactly the abandonment wound of early childhood that produced a relationship propped up by self-abandonment in the first place.

Also, unfortunately, so long as the unconscious partner still has “a” relationship (even if it’s trash), they are likely to conclude that everything is fine, good enough, or at least manageable. Someone is willing to put up with their shit. Ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

It often takes complete dissolution of a relationship for people to wake up and get help. Although, sometimes one partner’s well-supported recovery is enough to improve the relationship significantly.

It Takes Two

A universal truth at play here is that we date at our own emotional level. Hence, there is no such thing as a couple comprised of one super healthy partner and one “bad” partner. A healthy and emotionally mature adult doesn’t forge a long-term relationship with a raging alcoholic. So healing is never solely one person’s responsibility.

If one partner needs to recover, both partners do.

Might be recovering from different things altogether, but nobody gets to stand on the sidelines and shout at their teammates in this game.

When Both Partners Recover

When two people decide to get into recovery, they will soon find that everyone’s healing journey is unique, with lots of ups and downs and unexpected plot twists. Thus, the likelihood of synchronizing your trajectories is quite slim. Resolving deeply embedded trauma and lifelong survival strategies can be extremely challenging, but the desire to “help” your partner along their path (i.e., codependency) can be downright debilitating. It’s best that both parties “keep their eyes on their own yoga mat,” so to speak, as much as possible.

Gandhi once said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” We have to be willing to allow our partner to recover imperfectly, drop the ball from time to time, and find their own way. But also, we must be vigilant for chronic assholery and excuse-making.

“Progress, not perfection” is a lovely and useful saying in the rooms of recovery, but it’s never an excuse for shitty behavior.

If your partner’s therapist is basically a paid friend, if they go to AA for free coffee and don’t work the steps, if they bury themselves in self-help books but are clearly the same unwavering dickhead they’ve been for decades, their “recovery” could be just another facade. Yes, it’s possible to use all the trappings and paraphernalia of recovery to cleverly avoid the actual work of healing. Don’t co-sign that malarkey.

However, when a couple has sincerely committed to their own individual healing and growth while staying in their own lanes, the results can be quite wonderful. Well, to be fair, it can also be difficult as shit. But wonderful nonetheless.

Two awakened spirits trudging the road of happy destiny, side-by-side… what’s more beautiful than that?


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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

6 thoughts on “Relationships In Recovery

  1. This is so well said, exactly our experience as a couple in recovery. And you are so right, there is nothing more beautiful than two people walking through the boggy mess of life together when both are committed to their own recovery and the recovery of the coupleship.. It’s hard but oh so rewarding! Thanks for this post.

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