Managing Celibacy in Addiction Recovery: Why Can’t I Have Sex for One Year?

By Christian Castaneda, LCSW, Program Director at Promises Malibu Addiction recovery is about letting go of the substances and behaviors that got you into trouble and learning new ways of coping with life. It requires being in touch with true feelings and old trauma. You also have to find new ways to deal with sex and intimacy, which is why it is recommended that single people abstain from sexual relationships for their first year of recovery.

No Sex for a Year…Really?

In drug rehab, there are rules about fraternizing with other clients because engaging in a relationship in the delicate early stages of recovery can impede progress in many ways. It is also one of the tenets of 12-Step programs. Here’s why it’s so important:

1. Need to develop intimacy skills.

People in early recovery do not yet have the skills to be fully present in a relationship because they’re just learning to be present in their own lives. Intimacy skills may be impaired or non-existent. One year in recovery―with rehab, counseling and relationship-building therapies―prepares you to enter into relationships with a cleaner slate.

2. Replacing substances with sex.

Letting go of a drug or alcohol addiction is an intense process, and it’s easy to replace one compulsion with another. If substances were a self-soothing response to avoid dealing with unresolved trauma or symptoms of mental illness, opening the door to a sexual relationship can lead to a co-occurring addiction to sex. Sexual liaisons may help you temporarily forget some of your pain, but they are ultimately unhealthy and cause more problems.

3. A signal of sex addiction.

You may start out in recovery for drugs or alcohol and find other addictions were masked. If you get sober but find it impossible to temporarily resist sex or starting new relationships, it could be due to an underlying sex addiction. Cross addictions are common among people in recovery and it is easier to slip into other behaviors that evoke the same dopamine high than to face and resolve the underlying issues.

4. Risky sexual behavior.

In early recovery, it’s common for judgment and decision-making to be clouded. Some people, looking for somewhere else to direct their attention and feel good, may make reckless sexual choices such as having unprotected sex, or relations with multiple partners or risky partners.

5. Missed opportunities to heal.

Recovery requires a focus on oneself at the start of the journey, and then to focus on healing ties with family and friends. A sexual relationship will take your focus off of your own healing; and if you struggle with codependency, as so many people with addiction do, you may rely on the other person in an unhealthy way. This can lead to drama and intimacy issues that steal your time and focus.

6. Escape from emotions.

Since pain lies beneath all addictions, it is important to do the work that helps bring it to the surface. Any relationship established before healing is well underway can become a distraction from the critical work you’re doing and an emotional crutch.

Brain Chemistry, Chemicals and Celibacy

Drugs and alcohol can evoke dopamine reactions in the reward center of the brain. Research shows that a chemical cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters are also released with sexual attraction and interaction, as well as the pursuit of romance. So when two people are connecting on all cylinders, it is easy to be swept up in feel-good hormones and get distracted from a recovery program. You may begin to rely on feelings of love and connection for a sense of happiness and well-being at a time in your recovery when you need to be focused on learning to stand on your own two feet, completely sober.

Why a Year?

Medical practitioners say that chemical change takes about a year. You need this time to truly get into the groove of recovery and be chemical-free. The good news is you can get validation often sought in relationships by doing the emotional work it takes to heal. Eventually some of the urges will be counteracted by physical healing and inner empowerment and confidence.

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