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Relationship Red Flags: Navigating Dating in Recovery

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Dating is one of the hardest things to navigate as a sober person. Paying attention to relationship red flags can help you throughout the dating process. 

During my eight years of recovery, I’ve been through it all: being lied to, having my recovery endangered by dating someone who was (unbeknownst to me) using, being gaslit and held emotionally hostage, and being so concerned about someone else’s mental well-being that I have had to call the police to do a welfare check. 

Even though I think it is probably an unrealistic guideline, I do think there is value in waiting a year before dating in early recovery — it isn’t for the faint of heart. Dating can create a lot of disruption and can pose a risk of returning to use. 

Just like the vast majority of those in recovery, however, I didn’t wait a year. I fell for the sweet talk of the emotionally unavailable people in Narcotics Anonymous — I was a sucker for the excitement of these bad boys. As expected, I only ever got hurt in these situations because the relationship was destined to fail and there were red flags all over the place that I ignored or wasn’t even aware of.

Lessons in dating

Dating in recovery has been a steep learning curve. It has taught me a lot about myself: my unresolved issues from childhood, my lack of knowledge about how to have and maintain healthy relationships, how to set boundaries, and how essential a sense of self and self-esteem are when trying to have a romantic relationship. 

The hardest and most painful observation of my dating experience is how desperately low my self-worth was. I didn’t believe I was worthy of a healthy and loving relationship, which is why I accepted being treated terribly. I’ve dated people who challenged my sexuality and who dismissed my needs and put theirs above mine. I’ve had sexually selfish partners seeking only their own satisfaction, I’ve been dated just for sex, and I have been misled about the other person’s intentions.

I’m not without accountability here, quite the contrary: I lacked such a sense of self and body autonomy that I didn’t realize that these situations were within my power to change. I let these harmful relationships carry on when really they shouldn’t have continued beyond the first date. I was just so desperate for a person to complete me.

“I think in the modern world we expect the other person to be the puzzle piece behind the couch that will make us happy,” says Joe Schrank, MSW.

“I blame Jerry Maguire for the iconic line ‘you complete me.’ The truth is, we have to be the best version of ourselves separate from the relationship to attract the person we want on our boat,” he warns.

This level of expectation of a relationship totally distorts our conception of how healthy relationships are supposed to function. We can end up harming each other, warns Schrank:

“Relationships are deeply personal and individuals all have unique needs, wants, and expectations so red flags will vary. In general, I think we all crush each other with colossal expectations,” says Schrank.

It is possible, however, to teach yourself red flags to watch out for in your relationships. Spotting these early and acting upon them to protect you and your recovery can help avoid a lot of pain and dysfunction down the road. 

Key red flags to look for

I asked the recovery community about their top relationship red flags and they came up with an eye-opening list. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is comprehensive enough to spot most of the major warning signs that should lead you to pause and reflect on the relationship moving forward.

    • Gaslighting:
      • You may have heard this phrase, but are unsure what it means. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation. A person may seek to sow a seed of doubt and make you question a memory, perception or judgment. 
    • Communication: 
      • Being unwilling and unable to resolve conflict. If someone is unable to rationally and calmly resolve a disagreement then you probably don’t want to be in a relationship with them. Conflict is inevitable and people within healthy relationships are usually able to navigate difficulty, even if it is uncomfortable.
    • Grand gestures:
      • Promising to rescue you or take care of you. I’ve personally experienced this: both in terms of seeking a person to rescue me and having a person promise to look after me financially. As alluring as that is, we should try to be financially independent early in relationships. 
    • Personal identity
      • Lacking a sense of self/personal identity. 
      • Having no hobbies or personal interests beyond your relationship, and/or attempting to elicit guilt for you pursuing your own interests, friendships, and commitments
    • Codependency/lack of boundaries:
      • Placing your needs ahead of their own
      • Early emotional intimacy
      • Wanting to spend all of their time with you
      • Suggesting moving in within the first few months of the relationship 
      • Revealing deeply personal information on a first date
      • Asking to pick you up from your home on a first date, or even asking to have a first date at your home.  I’ve personally had a guy ask me this and he didn’t get to the first date
    • Unreasonable Behavior:
      • Outbursts of anger
      • Big mood swings 
      • Acting like a child when they don’t get their own way
      • Emotional abuse
      • Being unwilling to compromise, saying things like “This is me — take it or leave it.”
      • Making distress calls very early in the relationship
      • Imposing extreme religious points of view on you without first being cognisant of your beliefs
      • Treating service people poorly
      • Having a victim mentality
      • Displaying a high level of entitlement
      • Ignoring and crossing your boundaries
    • Trash-talking:
      • Talking negatively about their exes and family members early in the relationship
    • Dishonesty
        • Lying, cheating, stealing, or deceiving in any capacity
        • Displaying inconsistencies in their communication
        • Misleading you, or using their recovery to suggest they’ve worked on themselves when they haven’t
    • Avoidant type
      • Ghosting — although this takes care of itself. However, if they reappear don’t engage
      • Avoiding emotional intimacy
      • Ignoring calls, texts, emails
      • Disappearing regularly
      • Being emotionally absent or distracted in the relationship 
      • Being anti-commitment
    • Holding you emotional hostage
      • Threatening to harm themselves if you don’t do what they want
      • Any disagreement results in conflict so you avoid speaking your mind to avoid the conflict
    • Over-reliance on substances:
      • can’t spend time with you without drinking or using.


Olivia Pennelle (Liv) has a masters in clinical social work from Portland State University. She is a mental health therapist, writer, and human activist. Her writing has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, Life After 12-Step Recovery, and Tera Collaborations. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Instagram @Livwritesrecovery and @teracollaborations

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