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Dating in Early Addiction Recovery: Proceed with Caution

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Dating in Early Addiction Recovery: Proceed with Caution

Dating isn’t easy. Connecting with new people, wondering who and when to trust, dealing with the possibility of rejection – it can be a lot to navigate. Dating is even more complicated for individuals in early recovery. Early addiction recovery is a challenging time, with many potential pitfalls. People in early recovery may be dealing with cravings. They may still be working through emotional and psychological issues that they used to numb with drugs and alcohol.

If the addiction went on for a long time, they may need to learn or relearn how to think, behave and interact as sober individuals. During addiction, the relationships people form are often dysfunctional, toxic or abusive. Early recovery is a time for developing the self-esteem and confidence to break those patterns.

Tiffany Dzioba, PsyD, LMFT

Tiffany Dzioba, PsyD, LMFT, Clinical Director, Malibu Beach Recovery Centers

“Those in early recovery are still trying to figure out, ‘Who am I without drugs or alcohol?’ and ‘What do I want and deserve in a relationship?,'” explained Tiffany Dzioba, PsyD, LMFT, Clinical Director at Malibu Beach Recovery Centers. “Many individuals have never dated sober before, and are experiencing intimacy for the first time without their go-to coping mechanism of alcohol or drugs.”

Yet dating and being open to the possibility of finding love can also be exciting. And creating a lasting, healthy romantic relationship can be one of best parts of sobriety, not to mention life’s greatest joys.

Dating in Early Addiction Recovery Q & A

To help those in early recovery with some of the questions that may arise, Dr. Dzioba offers this advice:

Q. At what point in recovery is it OK to date?

The ideal timeframe recommended by most addiction professionals is one year. Although I don’t have a hard and fast rule on one year of abstaining from a relationship, I do think it’s extremely important for those in recovery to gain basic recovery skills and develop a deeper self-awareness and self-love before coupling. A year of sobriety tends to be a good benchmark for achieving a solid foundation in recovery, while also developing a healthy sense of self and healthy boundaries with others.

Q. Are there risks associated with dating in early recovery?

There are. Individuals in early recovery sometimes trade addictions, or use love and sex as a replacement for the drug. This can lead to an obsessive or unhealthy attachment with the partner, which places an individual at a high-risk for relapse.

Addiction is also associated with a high degree of shame and damaged self-esteem. Individuals in early recovery are still working through those feelings. As a result, they often experience a poor sense of self-worth, don’t feel loveable and struggle to know their true value. They are far more likely to choose inappropriate partners who may be abusive, controlling, co-dependent and/or emotionally unfit for a relationship. Not only does the year timeframe allow individuals to get a solid foundation in recovery where they are less affected (triggered) by the emotional stressors of a relationship, they get time to develop a greater sense of love and appreciation for themselves, which will allow them to pick better partners.

Q. Should you be upfront about your sobriety, or share that you’re in recovery?

I absolutely believe that one should be upfront and honest about being in recovery. Not only is honesty an important cornerstone of recovery, but the current dating culture is so intertwined with drinking and social situations that involve alcohol it’s important to set those boundaries up front. Many first dates are set up over drinks or meeting in a bar, which we don’t recommend for people in recovery.

Disclosing recovery status will help prevent uncomfortable and triggering situations. As far as how much detail someone shares, as with any personal disclosures in early dating, it’s better to go slow and share little by little. Share basic, need-to-know information at the start, and then disclose more as you deepen the connection with the other person. Building trust and security is key.

Q. Is it OK to date someone in your 12-step group?

It’s natural to develop a sense of closeness and trust with others in the same 12-step group or treatment center, which is why I understand how many might be tempted to couple up with others in the same support group. I recommend against dating anyone within the same recovery support system for the simple fact that it creates the potential for drama and/or losing that support system if the relationship doesn’t work out. I caution clients about the pitfalls that might ensue and encourage them to develop another support system if they are adamant about pursing the romantic relationship.

Q. Can participating in an aftercare program or continuing to receive therapy help individuals navigate the dating world and new relationships?

Absolutely. Therapy is a safe space where those in recovery can not only examine the issues and situations that led to their addiction, but can also identify core beliefs that influence how they relate to others and the types of relationships they seek out. Individuals can begin to identify relationship patterns, including patterns of abuse or codependency, and learn how to establish healthy boundaries with others and set higher standards.

Q. Should you date someone who also abstains from alcohol or is it OK if the person is a social drinker?

All professionals will agree that dating someone with an active addiction is a big no-no. When it comes to dating a person who is a social drinker and does not have a problem with addiction, the answer is: it depends. It depends on the individual in recovery and how equipped they are to manage cravings and urges while around others who are drinking. Visual cues and stimuli can be triggering, and some may find themselves experiencing intense cravings when, for example, they are dinner with someone who is drinking a glass of wine. I believe that the stage of recovery has a lot to do with a person’s capacity to manage the risks associated with being around others who drink. The most important factor if dating a social drinker is how supportive and respectful the partner is of the individual’s recovery.

Q. What is the biggest piece of advice you would have for someone in early recovery who is thinking about dating or entering into a new relationship?

Don’t get into a relationship with someone with the intention of changing them. This speaks to: not trying to “save” others, not believing that someone who is abusive will change their ways, not trying to date the same ‘type’ of person and expecting a different outcome, and not expecting that someone who is actively drinking/using is going to suddenly give that up for you.

It’s important to get into a relationship with someone for who they are today, not who you think they can be down the road. If the person they are today is not a healthy partner for you, not ready or available for you, and not possessing the qualities you deem important then it is the wisest choice to move on and keep looking.

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