One of the most common pieces of advice for addicts in early recovery is to wait before beginning any new romantic relationships. It’s often said that a person should wait at least a year,1 but this advice is usually not accompanied by much explanation about why romance may be a bad idea in early recovery. So what are the specific benefits of having that time to oneself?
Early Recovery Is About Self-Discovery
Being an addict is an inherently self-involved lifestyle. Addicts often give up many other aspects of their lives — careers, relationships, goals — in the pursuit of alcohol or drugs. While reaching out to make connections with others after rehab may seem natural, people who have completed addiction treatment and are returning home are strongly encouraged to focus on themselves and their recovery process.
While reaching out to make connections with others after rehab may seem natural, people who have completed addiction treatment and are returning home are strongly encouraged to focus on themselves and their recovery process.
The life of an addict is very different from how a sober person lives. When free of addiction, one is able to pursue many different types of relationships and activities. But in the early stages of recovery, individuals are building an entirely new life.2 To safeguard newfound sobriety, an individual needs a period of time to create new routines and find a new direction for his or her life. This is a period of profound self-discovery that would be challenging to fit with a romantic relationship that commands much of a person’s time, energy and focus.
No matter how strong a couple’s relationship might be, there are always trying times. Perhaps the couple doesn’t see eye to eye on an important issue, or maybe one has made a mistake that angers or hurts the other. When these instances occur, emotions are bound to run high, and each person will want to seek some type of consolation for the pain. Since abstinence is a skill that takes time and practice, a person in early recovery may still feel the compulsion to alleviate physical or emotional discomfort with substance use. His or her ability to remain sober depends on how well he or she can implement the skills and strategies acquired while in treatment. The experience of romantic hardships can lead to an unnecessarily high level of risk for relapse.
A New Kind of Dependency
There have been numerous studies conducted on the effects of romance on the brain. According to some of the most recent studies, it’s been found that the experiences one has in a romantic relationship can activate many of the same areas of the brain that are targeted by substance use.3 In fact, there’s not much psychological difference between drug addiction and sex or romance addiction, which is why it’s so common for those with one type of addiction to fall prey to the other. Therefore, pursuing romantic relationships in early recovery puts individuals at risk of simply substituting alcohol or drug use with the thrill of romance and feelings of intimacy. Although alcohol and drugs are much more physically dangerous than romance, this type of dependence could still create an unhealthy situation. It may also make it more likely for the recovering addict to return to substance abuse if the relationship comes to an end.
Distracting You from What’s Really Important
Addiction recovery isn’t a task that you check off your to-do list. It’s an ongoing journey. Sustaining sobriety and remaining abstinent require a certain amount of continued effort, and it’s difficult to give one’s recovery the necessary level of attention while also pursuing a romantic relationship in early recovery.
After completing an addiction treatment program, an individual must still actively pursue recovery, which may involve attending 12-Step group meetings, joining an alumni program through the alcohol or drug rehab facility and having weekly sessions with an addictions counselor or psychotherapist. There are many options available for continuing one’s recovery efforts, but the most important thing is to continue putting time into recovery and keep learning ways of safeguarding sobriety.
“Addiction recovery isn’t a task that you check off your to-do list. It’s an ongoing journey.”
The problem with romantic relationships in early recovery is that a recovering addict is going to focus some of his or her energy on the relationship rather than on recovery. This can put the individual at risk of slipping back into old habits and behaviors. But once a recovering addict has accumulated more sober time and feels confident in his or her new lifestyle of sobriety, there’s much less risk that focusing on the relationship would mean neglecting one’s recovery needs.
It’s important for individuals in early recovery to consider the many benefits of postponing romance until he or she is more established in recovery. Although it may seem difficult in the beginning, sobriety will begin to feel second nature, at which time a person will have much more to offer to a potential romantic partner.
Written by Dane O’Leary