Reader Mailbag – How Can We Maintain a Healthy Relationship in Early...

Reader Mailbag – How Can We Maintain a Healthy Relationship in Early Recovery?

Reader mailbag

Someone who goes by “T” wrote in and asked:

“I have been dating my boyfriend for 2 months, and he is close to 6 months clean. Doing the math, we met early in his recovery. I have fallen in love with him and he feels the same way. Everything was going well until last night and today, he is questioning the fact that he loves me too much and if having our relationship and working the program is possible. (I think he is hitting the 6 month freak-out, as he has never been this clean this long, willingly). I would really like to hear that a stable and constant person (me) being in his life will be good for him. But everything I’ve read cautions us against our relationship. He and I are both unsure as what to do, but do not want to lose each other in the process. I believe our HPs brought us together for a reason and would really like help/wisdom/knowledge as to what we can do to maintain a healthy relationship without jeopardizing ourselves.”

Well T, everything you’ve read “cautions you against the relationship” because they are so dangerous for the newly recovering addict or alcoholic. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that someone in recovery can never see people again! What we are looking for is to figure out what is safe and reasonable.

You mention that “I would really like to hear that stable and constant person being his life will be good for him.” Nothing wrong with stable people or a stable relationship, but watch out for the inherent danger in that statement: it almost sounds like a rationalization to use the relationship as a replacement strategy for recovery. In other words, if you get the addict thinking “well, at least I have this stable person in my life,” then they might be subconsciously using that idea in order to slack off on their own personal growth. It’s like they are substituting “the perfect relationship” for their own growth and development. No need to seek a higher power when you already have one in a relationship.

You also mention that “he is questioning whether or not he can work the program and have the relationship.” Normally, relationships and recovery coexist peacefully all the time. The problem comes in when it’s a new relationship in early recovery. He is probably thinking that way because he notices that he is not driven to work the program. In order to successfully work a recovery program, you have to cling to it with the desperation of a life ring thrown out to the ocean. You can’t just take an idle interest in the 12 steps and have them work out for you. In order to “get” the program, you have to approach it with passion and overwhelming force.

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A new relationship steals that passion and force away from you. It takes the emotional and mental energy that you would have spent working on the program and puts it into the relationship instead. This is perfectly natural, I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times in people all around me! The dangerous part is that the relationship feels so good, and it actually does function as a good replacement strategy for recovery. The problem is that it is not sustainable as a long term, feel-good recovery strategy. The new relationship feels good at first, but eventually that “newness” will wear off. That’s when the recovering addict or alcoholic will run into problems (if they have not been devoting their life to a program of recovery).

I don’t mean to harp on this concept so much but please keep in mind that I lived in long term treatment with about 30 to 40 guys and watched nearly all of them eventually relapse…..always over a relationship. We think that we are bullet-proof to the emotional turmoil of a relationship, and therefore we always underestimate how devastated we could potentially feel.

In early recovery, it’s like playing with fire.

I’m not telling you that you have to drop the relationship. And I did not just want to say “be careful.” Instead, hopefully I illustrated why you need to be careful.

Another question you might want to ask is “When does early recovery end? When is he out of the woods?” You hear “a year” thrown around an awful lot, but that is just an arbitrary figure, and different people grow at different rates in recovery. What’s more important is if the newly recovering addict has developed a solid support system and long term strategy for maintaining sobriety over the long haul. You have to be strong in your recovery while you’re single if you want to have a chance at making a new relationship work out. Otherwise you’re just playing with fire…

Does anyone else have any advice or suggestions for T? Please share it in the comments.

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