Romance in Recovery: Start With a Plant

Active addicts and alcoholics typically don’t enjoy being told what they can or can’t do. The reason for this is simple: they’re usually being asked to do the No. 1 thing they don’t want to do: stop drinking or using. It leaves the addict with an automatic bristling when it comes to authority figures. So when an addict finally gets in recovery and is told “don’t get into a relationship in early sobriety,” it’s natural to want to fight back. After all, as long as a recovering addict isn’t using, shouldn’t they be able to do whatever they want to do? The answer is not as straightforward as one might think. For better or worse, recovery doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Everything in our lives has the potential to impact our recovery. The more space something occupies in our life, the greater possible impact it has on our sobriety. As anyone who has been in a romantic relationship knows, dating and/or finding a significant other can be a pretty significant part of our lives. So while there are no hard-and-fast rules about any of this, here are a few common questions and guidelines for sex and dating in early recovery.

Why Should Romantic Relationships Be Avoided in Early Recovery?

The best thing an addict can do in early sobriety is establish stable, healthy patterns. Active addiction is chaotic and unstable in almost every way. When we are actively drinking or using, every day is an emotional rollercoaster. Early recovery is a chance to put a stable foundation under your feet. While there are many wonderful things about dating and beginning romantic relationships, ups and downs during the process are inevitable. Once stable, healthy patterns (including a support system for your recovery) have been established, you will have more bandwidth to cope with any ups and downs. Furthermore, once your feet are on more solid ground, you’ll be a much more appealing partner to anyone you might be interested in dating.

Does This Apply to Sex or Just Relationships?

Again, it would be lovely if we could compartmentalize all the aspects of our life into neat little boxes, but that’s just not the reality. Even if we could completely separate sex and relationships, both can be risky in early sobriety. Sexual arousal floods the reward center of the brain with neurochemicals — which is important for two reasons:

  • The so-called “reward” or pleasure center is the same area of the brain that’s triggered when drinking or using drugs. For addicts in early recovery, there can be a temptation to use sex as a kind of default drug as they adjust to life without drugs or alcohol.
  • Oxytocin, a neurochemical released during sexual arousal and orgasm, is sometimes called the “bonding hormone” because of the sense of attachment, trust and connection it facilitates. So, yes, there’s a physiological reason why sex and relationships/attachment are difficult to keep separate.

This doesn’t mean that sex (or a relationship for that matter) is a bad thing for recovery. But in early recovery, when everything feels raw and confusing, avoiding the things that so often create “natural” highs and lows is wise.

How Do I Know When I’m Ready to Start a Relationship?

There’s a great scene in the movie “28 Days” where one of the patients at the addiction treatment center poses that question to a counselor. The counselor (played by the brilliant Steve Buscemi), suggests that when the patient leaves rehab, he should buy a plant. “If the plant is alive in a year,” Buscemi says, “buy a pet.” If the pet is alive in a year, “then you can begin to think about dating.” Two years is a little extreme in my opinion, but the point Buscemi’s character is making is an important one: baby steps are key. First, find a recovery support system. Then, make sure you’re meeting the responsibilities and challenges in the rest of your life — be it work or family. Settle into recovery for a while. Most important, talk with other people in your recovery support group about how you are doing and any challenges you are facing. If you focus on creating a solid recovery program, the rest will fall into place when the time is right.

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