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Relationships In Recovery: AKA When is it OKAY for me to Date and Other Questions

By Rick Baumgartle CADC II

In the movie 28 days, which is about a woman (Sandra Bullock) who checks into an inpatient rehab, there is a scene where the head counselor (Steve Buscemi in one of his best roles) is answering a question about dating from one of the clients. He said, “I like the pet/plant plan. Get a plant, if it's alive after a year, get a pet, and if it's alive after a year then you're OKAY.” While I may not agree with Mr. Buscemi's timeline, I certainly adhere to the idea he was trying to get across about not jumping in head first early on. So let's move forward with some of the highlights of one of the questions that is often talked about and debated in our little recovery community.


1. Why is dating early on a bad idea?- As pointed out above, dating is not something people in early recovery want to try right away. Why? Because people in early recovery are usually a big open wound. We just put down the drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc...and we are trying to figure out how to just get through the day without returning to doing what got us into trouble in the first place. In short, we're a mess! And do you know who's attracted to messes? People who are a mess themselves. Early in recovery I was married (my poor wife at the time deserves a medal), but if I had been single I don't want to know who would have wanted to be with me in an intimate relationship.


Healthy people are attracted to other healthy people and visa versa. In 12 step programs they call it the 13th step when members with some time in recovery try to “hit on” or pick up the new members. It's frowned upon for a reason, the behavior is predatory. People who are looking for an intimate relationship with people, who are emotionally or mentally wounded, are looking for someone to fix, someone to control, and have their own self esteem issues, and a host of others that need to be addressed. Those people don't try an d date healthy people, because they know healthy people don't want to be involved with someone who has a host of unresolved issues.


In conclusion the people you are going to find to date in early recovery are more then likely to be people you won't want to be around as you get healthier.


2. But this sucks! I lost all my old “friends,” and I hate being alone.- There's nothing wrong with not wanting to be alone. Different people have different needs in terms of the amount of socialization that they are comfortable with. However, very few people are set up emotionally or mentally to deal with complete isolation. No one is asking you to do that. It's important to develop new friendships, new connections with healthy people who have your best interest in mind. The key word here is “friendship.” Not friends with benefits, just friends. Want to know a quick litmus test to see if someone is a good choice for a friend? You're not going to like the answer probably. They JUST want to be your friend. They want to be supportive, help, but not enable you. If they're healthy they aren't going to want to dive into an intimate relationship with the mess that is you currently.


How to develop those friendships is a topic for a different article and is even covered in our blog, partially in the article The Importance of Support.


3. So how long do I have to wait?!- The answer for this is different for different people. There's no timeline, like day 378 and you're good to go. Many of us in recovery have issues beyond drug and alcohol use we need to work on. One of them is codependency, which is definitely a topic for another article, but suffice it to say it's a problem a lot of us have and something we need to start working on in order to finds ourselves in not only healthy friendships, but intimate relationships as well.


I would say for most people that in at least the first year of recovery that it is necessary to work on yourself and yourself alone. No dating, no “putting feelers out,” hitting up Tinder, etc...just don't. You'll live, I promise. You may even thank me later. After a year you can evaluate where you are and what you feel like you are ready for.


A great tool that I know of, and picked up from a woman with several years of recovery, and who is in a healthy relationship with a great guy, is this; write down everything you want in a potential partner, like honest, caring, loyal, supportive, etc...and when you have all those characteristics, then you can date.


4. I'm already doing well. I've got some time. Should I date someone else in recovery, or should I date a “normie?”- For those of you reading this who aren't familiar with that last phrase, a “normie,” is someone who doesn't have issues with addiction. I like to call you all Earth People, but the idea is the same.


This is something that is also often debated in our community. The two main schools of thought are, that people in recovery should stick to dating others in recovery as they will be in relationship with someone who understands what they are going through. Others say two people in recovery (especially early on) are just going to end up compounding the problem. Kind of like two fat guys guarding a sandwich, one of them is going to convince the other to eat the thing.


I say you need to decide what's best for you. If your main social network is in the recovery community, then that's probably where you are meeting people. If you keep your recovery circles and life circles separate than you may not know a lot of people in recovery that you would want to date. I will say the single men and women with more than five years or so in quality recovery, who also happen to be single, are called “unicorns,” by the rest of us in recovery. Usually by the time they get that far they have straightened out their lives to the point that they have attracted, and are attracted to, healthy people and are usually involved in long term commitments. So it's really up to the individual, as I don't think there's one answer.


5. So I met some nice Earth Person, and I don't want to hide the fact I'm in recovery, but I also don't want to freak them out. When and what should I tell them.- This comes up a lot. There's way more Earth People than there are of us people with addiction issues. Inevitably, try as we might, we are going to have to interact with them, and may even find ourselves in friendships or relationships with them. This will require us to talk about ourselves, and for most of us being in recovery is a big piece of who we are.


No one should ever have to be ashamed of having addiction issues. It's a disease, period. That being said how often do you hear people talk about a disease they have in casual conversation? Not often I'm guessing. My advice is to let people, especially ones you are interested in being in an intimate relationship with, know about your being in recovery right away. It's a simple piece of information that it's OKAY, and probably appropriate for you, to share. This not only allows people to make their own decisions about what they want. They may ask questions about it. What was the issue, how long do you have clean, is it OKAY that if I have a drink, are all pretty typical ones. Ask yourself what you would want to know about other people? Would you want to know if they'd been in jail, had a history of domestic violence, if they were currently in active addiction? Probably you would, and so it's fair to let other people have that information.


A word of warning though, anyone that pries too much, ask too many follow up questions, wants to know all the sorted details of your addiction, probably isn't a good fit. Anyone that seems way more “curious,” than a normal person would be is probably looking for their next project or someone to fix, and oh brother do codependent people LOVE people with addictions. Steer clear. The only person that's going to fix you, is you.


If when people get that information, and they decide they would rather not be involved in an intimate relationship with someone in recovery, that's OKAY. It's not a reflection on you as a person. It's a reflection on them and their personal views and beliefs. It would be worse to hold off saying something to someone and then 6 months later when you have invested time and energy into a relationship, you go ahead and drop that bombshell, and they feel betrayed and lied to. Most people, to be honest, are going to be OKAY with it, so don't feel like you have to hide it in order to be accepted.


6. Moving forward- All of the above information really just skins the surface. Relationships and dating is an area so broad and diverse that it has counselors that specialize in it, and huge sections in book stores on how to find a decent one. If you're in early recovery, go grab one of those books. It will keep you occupied so your not obsessing on your current relationship status. I like Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie, but try a few out. The best self help book is the one that helps you. Terrance Gorski, who has written for years on recovery said, “Healthy people aren't obsessed with finding a relationship. They might however, be obsessed with developing themselves into a person who is worthy of being in a relationship.”


Relationships are tricky things even for people who don't have issues with addictions, so don't expect you are going to be any different. I know it can be frustrating at times. In the past I was talking with a friend in recovery and lamented that I just wasn't finding anyone I liked. She suggested just relaxing and that the right person would come along. Being the “know it all” counselor I replied that recovery was a program of “action.” To which she responded, “Waiting is an action.” POW! She was right, it is.


In closing I'll leave you with something I say frequently in my group. “Take time to work on you. Focus on bettering yourself, working on your goals and the type of people who come into your orbit will change. They'll just be there, because you have become someone that they want to associate with.” So hang in there, don't rush it, read a book or two, and you'll get to the place when you know you are ready and when you'll find someone ready for you.

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