Relationships, Unfiltered: A Guide to Dating in Recovery

Dating while curbing substance use and other addictive behaviors has its own set of challenges and rewards.

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Think you are ready to date in addiction recovery?

Some people get their kicks from reality TV, sky-diving, or venturing out with no cell phone. For me? I like to observe people who go on dates when sobering up. This is people-watching at its finest. Many people decide to pick up a significant other after they have put down the bottle, the dice, the pills, or *fill in addictive behavior.* And sometimes … well, sometimes it does not turn out very well.

I once heard an addiction treatment center therapist say, “I’ve never had a couple that met at rehab later come back to tell me what a wonderful and happy life they have together.” (Take a moment and make the mental note of that one couple that you think is an exception to this rule …).

Early recovery can feel very much like a middle school dance, where you date without any perception of the future. “I know I am in med school and he still deals drugs, but he’s super spiritual, ya know?”

“I know I am in med school and he still deals drugs, but he’s super spiritual, ya know?”

What is the advice about dating in recovery? Wait a year. Keep a plant alive, then a pet, and then date. Get through Point X and then you should be able to date successfully.

From my perspective, there will be challenges whenever you decide to date. All kinds of fun issues with yourself and others will surface, and you’ll need to be prepared to handle them. Dating while curbing substance use and other addictive behaviors has its own set of challenges and rewards.

Things you need to be prepared for if you’re newly sober:

  1. You are used to a level of drama that most “normal” people would think only belong in Tyler Perry dramas.

  2. You are not used to being by yourself. And by that, I mean being unsupervised in your own head, without any mood-altering substances. It can be a scary place. People have been known to settle for bad relationships to avoid going there.

  3. You will change as time goes on. What works well now might not work well later.

  4. There’s no nice way to say this: You might find yourself, well … emotionally stunted. You might not know how to handle the first argument without screaming and blocking their number.

  5. You will read into EVERYTHING. You will be the worst Sherlock Holmes, Special Victims’ Unit, CSI detective. You are used to being hard on yourself and expect others to be hard on you, too.

I don’t believe in rules for grown-ups, unless they are laws (I do believe in those!) So there’s no hard and fast rule on when you’re “allowed” to date. I do have some questions and guidelines to help you figure out whether you’re ready.

Guidelines for dating in early sobriety:

  1. Are you okay with being alone? Should things not work out with your sweetie, you’ll probably be sad. That’s normal. You should also be confident that you can stand on your own two feet. Take some time to get to know yourself and feel confident in your ability to stand alone.

  2. Do you know what you want in a partner? Breathing, cute, and into you are not enough. Think through your own values and what you need from a partner.

  3. What tools do you have in your toolbox to deal with relationship issues? Two completely mature, sane, and well-communicating adults will still have problems and need to know how to deal with them. When those problems crop up, do you have coping skills and healthy support to help you deal with them?

  4. You have the ability to say “no.” You know what works for you and what doesn’t. Relationships are all about compromise … within limits. Compromise is for things like trying Thai food out, not for being pressured into letting someone freeload on your couch for months.

  5. Is most of your life calm? If you are successfully paying bills, showering, and showing up to work—you know, taking care of your life—then you may be ready to invite someone to the party. If you can’t accomplish basic adulting 90% of the time, then you should put the focus on you.

What if you have dated or are currently dating in early sobriety, and didn’t take the time to check my handy lists? Be aware, be forgiving, and be prepared:

  • Be aware that your relationship might have been started on a rocky foundation.
  • Be forgiving to yourself (and your partner) if you have not always acted in the best ways.
  • Be prepared for the fact that not all relationships end with wedding bells and bliss, and that it is completely okay. You can leave a crappy relationship and survive—trust us, we know. It’s what we do with our life experiences that makes the difference.

Go out, love yourself, love your life. And then love someone else.

Guidelines to help you figure out whether you're ready to date in addiction recovery

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Chrissy Taylor is a clinician with over a decade’s worth of experience working with various disempowered populations to promote self-efficacy and resource acquirement.

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