If we could go back in history and examine hieroglyphics from an ancient recovery meeting (if there were such a thing,) I suspect there would be some version of “thou shalt wait to date” on at least one of them. This has long been very sound advice for people who are in early sobriety, and for good reason. But telling a person in early recovery to avoid dating for the first year is like telling a person not to date in the workplace – sure, it’s not a good idea, but when people are around each other on a regular basis, there's bound to be some hook-ups.
The problem is that these unions rarely work out and more often than not they leave one injured party. For 'normal' people, this might be something that they can chalk up to experience and move on, but for the alcoholic or addict it can be deadly. You might think these words are a little extreme, but the fact is, we are not wired like normal people and when a broken relationship leaves us hurt and feeling used our tendency is to reach for our drug of choice, and for some of us to use again is to die.
But, a person telling us that it’s a bad idea doesn’t seem to faze us - we think that just because we aren’t using anymore, we’re ready to enter into all kinds of unions, from raunchy rendezvous to domestic bliss. We want to feel loved again, spiritually and physically, to have that wild fling or comforting caress. I know how strong the pull can be, but I also know how badly things can turn out and unfortunately, most of us learn the hard way. After looking and feeling like the walking dead for so long, we tend to jump in with both feet if someone is even remotely attracted to us. And then, suddenly we have a new purpose in life! This works wonders while things are going well with the relationship, but what happens when the new center of our universe does the unthinkable and breaks up with us? The odds are good that we’ll lose our focus, that the bottom will fall out of our perfect new world. Suddenly we’re watching Fatal Attraction and craving rabbit stew. We go back to our old ways, analyzing every conversation we had with our new ex, thinking “If only I’d done this or done that.” Our insecurities come back with a vengeance, and the idea of taking a drink or a drug isn’t usually far behind.
It’s hard to stay out of the dating game, but try to remember that we’re putting ourselves in a dangerous position by getting into a new relationship that can leave us hurt. We don’t know how to handle arguments and break-ups without alcohol or drugs, and we’re going to be tempted to turn to using when things get rough. Against the advice of many, I got into a relationship during early recovery with someone who was also new to sobriety, and when things went south, I went straight to the liquor store. I was one of these people that always drank concerning relationships, whether I broke it off or they did, but this knowledge didn’t stop me from doing it. Mostly, it was because I loved the attention, no matter what the consequences.
Very often, men and women in early recovery don’t just decide to date; they decide to date each other. It's a bad idea to date anyone, but two newcomers dating are like two horny teenagers getting together, and the chances are very good that lust will get confused with love. We seem to be drawn to each other because we ‘get’ what the other is going through, but what we don’t know is that our judgment is clouded - we are not emotionally sober. ‘Emotional Sobriety’ in very basic terms, refers to a person’s ability to recognize if they have an unhealthy dependency on another person or thing and therefore unhealthy expectations. Having an expectation can lead to resentment - which can be deadly for any alcoholic or addict - especially a newcomer.
Unfortunately, two newcomers getting together is only one dating scenario, there’s also the case when a newcomer is attracted to a person who already has some time in recovery. During one of my failed attempts at sobriety, I met someone who had almost three years since his last drink. I only had three months myself, and anyone who could go a few years between cocktails was a winner in my book. It never entered my head that he could have other issues.
We started a relationship, and although I had a weird feeling about him, I pushed it aside because I was getting attention. It felt great just to be wanted. However, his affection quickly turned to an unhealthy need for control, which erupted into heated arguments and subsequently led to both of us drinking. The first time he relapsed, he became violent in a way that I’d never imagined he was capable. I was beaten black and blue, nursing a deep cut in my throat from being held down at knifepoint. It was a few days later, after being beaten unconscious numerous times, that I was finally able to escape to a safe house.
The problem was, I had no idea about emotional sobriety at the time and had already deemed myself ready to date. He could have been an axe murderer for all I knew, and it turned out that he very nearly was. But all I saw was a man with three years in recovery, and that amounted to an FBI background check in my mind. The weird feeling I had about him was an intuitive thought that was screaming “this isn’t right!” But, I chose to ignore it so I could get my needs met.
I did, however, learn valuable lessons from those bad dating choices and one of them was that I should have listened to the suggestions I was given by the people who had been there and done it before. Dating in early recovery is a bad idea, whether it’s another newcomer, another person with time in recovery or a ‘normal’ person. People can give the illusion that they work a perfect program or live the perfect life, but their actions will speak volumes about who they really are.
For example, it’s a huge red flag when someone who has time in recovery (more than a year) is dating newcomers, it's considered 'Thirteenth Stepping'. It's an unwritten rule in the rooms of recovery that we should not date a newcomer. And if someone is doing this, then chances are they aren't working a solid program or they'd be following this rule. It's also not a good sign if the person we are dating is controlling and manipulative - whether they are in recovery or not. The point is, there are people who have moral and behavioral issues that have nothing to do with alcohol or drugs and when we are not yet well ourselves, we’re hardly ready to judge who is safe and healthy from who isn’t.
Obviously, there are exceptions when people do the right thing, and in those cases it can work out. A sponsor told me a story about a man with quite a few years in recovery who was attracted to a female newcomer. After looking around for some advice from people with long-term sobriety, he asked the newcomer if she’d consider dating him when she had gone through the Twelve Steps and reached one year of sobriety. She agreed, and after her one year sobriety birthday, they began a relationship. They celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary a few years ago.
Try to remember, that in the first year of recovery especially - we are sick people getting well and we need to concerntrate on our recovery - not on another person. I may have kissed my fair share of toads, but I was certainly no princess either and two sick people getting together does not make one healthy relationship. Keep this in mind as you consider dating and ask yourself what is more important – romance or recovery? And don’t worry, there will be plenty of time for another romance down the line, but not all of us have another recovery.
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