In the early months of recovery, you’ve given up a lot — your go-to coping strategy, your social network, your approach to life. It’s natural to look to the comfort of new love to counteract the loneliness. Relationships can be part of healing, but finding healthy partners who support your recovery is a challenge. While the guidelines for dating in recovery are similar to the rules of engagement for “normies,” a few rules are critical to your success:
#1 Be a stranger.
Dating carries obvious risks. You’re sharing personal information with someone you don’t know well who may or may not be who they say they are. Safety can be of even greater concern for the 40 million people dating online where it’s easy to hide behind anonymity, make up personas and date multiple people at the same time. “Safety should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” says Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, author and assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “In this digital age, we mostly know nothing about our courting partner.”
As a couples therapist, Dr. Tatkin has seen many online dating success stories. But, like other ways of meeting someone, he says it’s a “roll of the dice.” It’s important to carefully vet a prospective mate and avoid feeling too familiar too quickly. Ask yourself: Would you feel confident introducing this person to your friends or family? Does the person show signs of addictive thinking or behavior? Does this person share your interests and have the characteristics you’re looking for in a partner?
“There is no way to know someone right away,” Dr. Tatkin warns. “There’s no forcing this process of knowing, only ways of fooling ourselves. It takes approximately a year to know another person as separate from our fantasies about them and us. So the proper etiquette is to be a stranger, which is what you are.”
#2 Beware of nature’s love cocktail.
Compounding the fact that we know very little about a date, our brains release a powerful cocktail of arousing chemicals, compromising our judgment and making us more vulnerable to danger. We are at “hormone sea,” as Dr. Tatkin describes it, at the mercy of chemicals that drive us to procreate.
For those in early recovery from addiction, it’s especially important to ease into romantic relationships. Standard advice is to hold off on dating for the first year in recovery, largely because relationships take your focus off of your own healing and, with their emotional highs and lows, are a leading cause of relapse.
As your brain and body heal from drug abuse, it can be tempting to replace the high of alcohol and other drugs with the flood of chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine, phenylethylamine (a natural amphetamine), estrogen and testosterone that create the “high” of new romantic love. For some, relationships and sex emerge as an addictive behavior. Some may find themselves attracted to someone who is also struggling with addiction, emotionally unavailable or abusive. See infatuation for what it is — a powerfully intoxicating chemical cocktail in your brain — and resist jumping to conclusions that destiny brought you together or you’ve finally found your soul mate after just a few dates.
#3 Be the partner you would want to have.
When conflict inevitably arises in a relationship, it’s easy to point the finger at prospective partners as being flawed and needing to change. If you find yourself being a magnet for all the wrong people or feeling “relationship challenged,” the path toward genuine intimacy may start with you. “Most people are drawn to partners at their same level of emotional development,” says Neil Strauss, author of The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships. “Instead of trying to ‘fix’ the other person, get help for what you can control: yourself.”
Who you choose as a partner offers a wealth of insights into your own challenges. What drew you to a given partner? Use what you discover to heal yourself and the relationship if it’s one worth investing in. “By working on your own emotional health, you’ll be able to meet someone at a higher level of emotional maturity and capability for love,” says Strauss.
#4 Be honest about who you are.
Recovery is very personal, so should you open up about it with someone you barely know? If so, when? The answer depends on a variety of factors, including whether you think the relationship has potential, but as a general rule it’s wise to reveal your recovery right up front. But, warns Dr. Tatkin, “don’t go into detail unless asked. No one wants to hear about your trials and tribulations with your addictive past.” With 23 million people in recovery from addiction, there’s a good chance the person you’re dating also has been touched by addiction in some way.
Whether it’s your recovery or some other aspect of your personality or life experience, let a prospective partner get to know you for who you really are, not who you want to be or who you think they want you to be. “Your new courtship is an audition. You must be yourself but understand that you have no privileges with your stranger partner — yet,” Dr. Tatkin advises. “It’s good to let your new partner know who you are, including your annoying parts, as long as you rein in those annoying parts for a good amount of time. If you’re a distancer, it may be a good idea to signal that early. If you are someone who tends to cling, that too may be good to announce fairly early. Telling someone something unattractive about yourself is different than acting out those unattractive or threatening behaviors.”
#5 Assess your relationship potential.
Once you’ve started getting to know someone, step back and consider whether the relationship is worth pursuing. In his book Wired for Dating, Dr. Tatkin recommends assessing your relationship for these five characteristics:
- Security — you protect one another, regardless of whether you’ve been on a couple of dates or have been together for years
- Sensitivity — you recognize and respond to each other’s needs
- Fairness — you quickly work to repair any hurts
- Collaboration — you help one another learn about each other
- True mutuality — you recognize that what’s good for one of you is good for the other
If these principles are at work in your relationship, your relationship has a good chance of success, says Dr. Tatkin. However, “if you find a dating relationship does not embody these principles, you have good grounds for calling it quits and moving on,” he writes.
If you’ve spent a lot of time around people with addictions or other mental health issues (for example, growing up with an addicted parent or surrounding yourself with drug-using friends), it can be difficult to feel connected to people who are well. In early recovery, time spent figuring out who you really are is the best way to find someone to complement your sober life. When the time is right, “go for it!” says Dr. Tatkin, but set a pace that works for you and your recovery.
Sources: 5 Facts About Online Dating