For many people in recovery, abstinence from drugs and alcohol is the only way to stay sober and sane. Simply keeping away from substances can help prevent a relapse—if you don’t drink, after all, you have a zero chance of getting drunk. But what about the other areas of a sober person’s life? Not everything is so black and white. Once someone has gotten into recovery and started rebuilding their life, they often realize that they need to make other changes as well.
Romantic and personal relationships can be problematic for those of us in recovery as we learn to negotiate life without a pair of beer goggles on. Here are four tried and true suggestions for navigating the choppy waters of relationships in recovery.
Put Yourself First. This may seem counterintuitive, especially since the word “relationship” implies a connection between at least two people. However, when we put ourselves first, it gives us the freedom to be our most authentic selves. Ask yourself, What do I want? Who am I? What do I need? Instead of looking for a partner to fulfill or complete you, or even do your heavy lifting for you, see what you can do to take care of yourself. Earn your own money, cook your own food, explore your own spirituality, pay your own bills, and love your own self. Be your own best partner and see how you grow! At the end of the day, all we have is ourselves. It’s important to be able to rely on yourself first before you reach for another person.
Putting yourself first also means putting your recovery first. Although it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of new romance—or sucked into the responsibilities of an established relationship—taking care of yourself must be a priority. Whether your self-care plan includes a support group, therapy, 12 Step meetings, meditation, yoga, exercise, or just plain old time alone, make sure that you don’t sacrifice your recovery to your relationship. Maintaining a healthy relationship with yourself makes it possible to relate to other people in a healthy way.
Tell the truth. Addicts and alcoholics are often experienced liars. We’re comfortable living in denial: many of us refused to acknowledge that we had an addiction problem for years. Even if we aren’t lying, or deliberately telling untruths, we need to practice being honest. Most of the big problems in relationships can be solved by open, honest communication. It may be uncomfortable at the moment, but can save us from so much unhappiness and pain down the road! Imagine: what if you told someone you weren’t interested after a first date, instead of going out with them for three months? You’d spend those months looking for a relationship that was fulfilling and exciting, instead of waiting for “the right moment” to break up and move on.
Or another scenario: what if you told someone that you weren’t ready to move forward, physically? Being dishonest about your desire (or lack thereof) could leave you feeling like you had to have sex, or feeling like you were using sex to keep your partner around. Instead, telling the truth lets you keep your sense of empowerment. And when you do decide that you want to get naked, you’re more likely to enjoy yourself. Saying “yes” or “no” to what you really want not only keeps you honest but makes life more satisfying.
Think Carefully Before You Commit. Relationships are exciting. The good ones make us feel whole, loved, full of butterflies. They can make life sweet. The bad ones? Nothing is worse. Jumping into a relationship with someone we don’t know, just because the sex is good or they’re really attractive or because we want to be partnered up instead of single is risky. It sets us up to feel trapped, disempowered, and foolish—which can also be a setup for a relapse. Commitment means something different to everyone, so take the time to talk to your potential partner as well as the people you trust. What does it mean to you, when you say you’re ready to commit? Do you hear wedding bells? Living together? Dating each other exclusively?
When we let someone into our private lives, it’s a big move. Alcoholics and addicts are emotionally sensitive, which means we can be wonderful partners. It also means that we are vulnerable to disappointment and heartache. Before you invite someone into your life, make sure they are worth your time, energy, and love.
Figure Out What’s Healthy from Healthy Examples. Why would you take relationship advice from someone who’s in a bad relationship, or unhappily and chronically single? That’s like asking the drunk in your local bar how to sober up. If you want to improve your relationships or find a relationship that is worth having, talk to people who have the kind of relationship you want. You get to choose your healthy relationship models. Seeking the Barack to your Michelle? Make friends and connect with people who seem happy, healthy, and balanced. It’s okay to ask questions. Try to learn what makes other people’s relationships work: what are the core values in a relationship? When did they know it was time to get engaged or talk about having kids? How do they argue, or resolve conflicts?
Having relationships—even a lot of relationships—doesn’t make us experts on love. Try to approach romantic and personal relationships with the same attitude you brought to your recovery. It’s a new journey, and when we come to it with an open mind and the willingness to learn, we will be amazed by the wonderful things (and people) we get to experience.