7 Strategies for Balancing Early Recovery with a Serious Relationship

To date in early addiction recovery, or not to date? That is the question.

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To date in early addiction recovery, or not to date? That is the question.

I met my now fiancé in early recovery—despite the people around me warning that it was a bad idea. Early recovery, they told me, is supposed to be about self: self-love and self-care. It’s the one time in life where it is okay to be selfish. Rebuilding those burned bridges, finding out who you are and who you want to be is crucial during early recovery. Me? I wanted the option to be in a relationship, and I didn’t take my friend’s advice. Sooo … I chose to get into a relationship in early sobriety. Everyone said that it wasn’t going to be easy to form my new life while beginning to care for and sometimes worry about a significant other (who was also in recovery).

Looking back, I can see why they were worried

Somehow we have made it this far, but many people don’t get to say the same. A relationship in early recovery is a big risk—emotionally, we are like children in many ways. We have poor life skills and few coping mechanisms. The pain of a break up in early recovery could send you into a relapse. How can someone who is still figuring out themselves simultaneously figure out how to be a partner to someone else? How can a person in early recovery know what they need enough to know whom they want to start a relationship with?

The word relationship can be defined as, “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.” Connection. Interesting choice of word. As humans, we try to connect with things, places, and especially other people. Physiologically, humans feel better after having a hug. Humans need humans. Creating connections is vital for recovery, but sometimes full-blown romantic relationships might blind you from the more important things that can help you maintain sobriety. If you take the time to focus on yourself, your growth, and your self-esteem before beginning a romance, you might attract more stable people with similar goals and morals as you. You essentially attract the people you want to be.

I learned a lot about relationships and recovery from this experience

Building your foundation for recovery is imperative. As I was beginning this relationship with my partner, I had to quickly decide which is more important, him or me. As a person in early recovery from addiction, I needed to keep my recovery first and foremost before anything else … including him. If I’d prioritized him, my coping tools and recovery could have so easily dissipated. The next thing you know, I would have been focused on him and not on trying to better myself. It’s dangerous. That’s probably why people suggest that anyone in their first year of sobriety get into a serious relationship.

Coming into this relationship, I had to remember that my recovery was #1. I had to commit to myself that if my partner were to relapse, I would have to protect my own sobriety and leave him until he figured himself out. Now, this is obviously much easier said than done. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry too much about his sobriety as he had more “sober time” than I did, but it was always at the back of our minds. Here are some lessons I learned from finding love and navigating recovery at the same time:

1. Keep recovery as a first priority

I said this before: recovery is numero uno. The first priority. If you don’t think that recovery has to come first, then you will be more susceptible to relapse. If you relapse, you risk eventually lose everything, including that relationship. Being in active addiction is no way to try to navigate a relationship. Learning to grow together, tapping into potential rather than into old addictive behaviors should be the goal.

2. Head to separate support groups or other recovery activities

Having female- and male-only 12-step meetings made it super convenient for my hetero relationship. We could use meetings as they’re intended: a place to keep our sobriety intact, to reach out to newcomers, a place to come together. Even when attending a social recovery event, it can be important to make sure to mingle outside of the relationship instead of treating it as a date night. Networking is very important to finding new activities, friends, and opportunities.

3. Have separate lives from one another

Ensure that each of you have separate friends that you can spend time with outside of your relationships. Spending most of your time with your significant other may cause turmoil in the relationship. Get out and do other things. It will make the time together mean more than when you see each other every moment of every day.

4. Understand that you are involved with someone who technically has a mental illness

If you are dating someone in recovery, remember that addiction is a disorder. Understand that you are committing to another person who had a separate life of addiction other than yours. Just like any other type of mental health condition or physical illness, this person is trying to rebuild their life and get better, and that might take time and extreme amounts of self-work. You cannot begrudge them the time and effort they need to dedicate to their own recovery.

5. Boundaries

Plain and simple. Set comfortable but effective boundaries between one another. Situations may arise that may not be easy to swallow for both people—you may face the death of friends, the interference of ex-significant others, or clashes between your families when they meet. Setting boundaries can make you more comfortable and understanding of your relationship, which will help you build a more solid foundation together.

6. Trust

Having a foundation of trust in your relationship is vital. People in recovery can be a small, close-knit community. In that environment, rumors can spread, priorities can conflict, and there can be jealousy or other negative feelings. How can you trust someone who may not have the best history? You can appreciate the fact that they are trying to better themselves and rebuild their most important qualities.

7. Open Communication

Communication is important not only in romantic relationships, but in all of the relationships you make in recovery. Having the ability to communicate will also help with your building of trust. Your feelings are better expresed in a healthy way than kept inside waiting to explode.

Much of this applies to friendships, too

Friends are also serious relationships to have in your new life. Have you ever heard the expression, “You are the company you keep”? The people around you are often an indirect reflection of the kind of person you are. Friendships will grow with people who have the same personality as you, the same goals, the same values and morals. All of the tips above could also apply to any personal relationship if your life, including your friends. Friends are incredibly important to have as support systems when going through early recovery. They can be there to help build you up, introduce you to new hobbies or activities. Sometimes they can even be the root of a future romantic relationship, you never know!

Relationships are a complex part of early recovery. Any personal connection between you and another will help you feel less alone on your journey. When you feel connected, you won’t feel as depressed, and you’ll have people to reach out to when cravings do strike. Relationships are that important. Romantic or platonic, relationships can help you through the toughest times in early recovery. My fiancé and I have lived by those tips above and we have made it through the toughest times and the greatest times together. I would never give him or our relationship up even though it was against my better judgment early on in my sobriety. Along this journey, you will discover new things about yourself and your connections. You’ll find out what you need and what you want in a partner and relationship. Remember to keep your recovery as a high priority, because you won’t have any relationships if you don’t have sobriety. So get out there and start connecting!

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Corissa Lappin is passionate about helping others bridge the gap between addiction and long-term recovery, as she did herself. She has a BA in Psychology from SFSU, and has previously worked in the recovery field as a medical assistant and clinician supervising those on methadone and buprenorphine.

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