Addiction, recovery, and relationships – this is such a broad and important topic that it is tough to address all of these ideas in one post, but I’m going to try. I have seen so many people experience problems with relationships throughout my recovery that it is just ridiculous.
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Recovery is all about relationships, in fact. Think about it. What would recovery be like on a deserted island? You wouldn’t even need a recovery program or anything else to help you get through your day. The only relationship that would need cultivating would be the one you have with yourself, and there would be plenty of time for that because there wouldn’t be any other people around! This little thought experiment gives us a key insight into recovery: it’s all about relationships and finding peace and balance within them.
Those of us in 12 step programs have undoubtedly heard the saying: “resentment is the number one offender when it comes to relapse.” But what is a resentment? It is a problem that we have with a relationship.
So relationships in recovery can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Of course they are necessary and they can provide us with joy and fulfillment in many different ways, but at the same time, relationships can be somewhat dangerous, especially for the newly recovering drug addict or alcoholic.
Let’s dig in and examine relationships and see if we can find some universal truths and any practical conclusions here:
Your relationship with yourself
They say that in early recovery, you have to develop 3 relationships in order to be successful: a relationship with yourself, a relationship with a higher power, and a relationship with a sponsor. For the bewildered newcomer in recovery who is just coming off of drugs and alcohol, figuring out how to have a “relationship with yourself” can be a bit perplexing. I mean really….what the heck does that mean?
For me it meant a couple of things, much of which I did not figure out for the first several years of my sobriety. The first thing it meant was that I had to forgive myself. When I first got clean and sober, the shame and guilt I was carrying for all of the crap I had lived through in active addiction was dragging my down and keeping me stuck. I had to let go of all that emotional turmoil and allow myself to start living again. People in recovery would say “give yourself a break” and I never understood what they meant. What they meant was that you have to allow yourself to start over with a clean slate and forgive yourself for all the chaos you just went through if you ever want to hold your head up again. So forgiving yourself is critical in early recovery. It’s a big part of building a strong relationship with yourself. The biggest amends you make is to yourself.
Another part of your relationship with yourself really takes a long time to uncover–this is the process of truly getting to know yourself all over again. In active addiction, I had covered up those parts of myself for so long with the drugs and alcohol that I had no idea what my life was about anymore. Strip away all of the drugs and alcohol and you are left with a shell of a person–one that needs to learn how to live again and start putting themselves out there and trying new things.
The creative theory of recovery addresses this specifically because it pushes people to find both passion and purpose in their new life. Developing a relationship with yourself becomes natural when you are living with real purpose, helping others in recovery, and creating a powerful new life for yourself.
Your relationship with a higher power
This can be a touchy subject for some but it doesn’t have to be. Consider the different ranges of beliefs that various people will have upon entering recovery: some will believe in God, some will be hard line atheists, others might believe only in the force of the “universe” or in nature as their higher power. All of these belief stances allow for some cultivation of a spiritual relationship, be it through prayer and meditation, studying of religious texts, reconnecting with nature, or simply expressing gratitude to the universe for existence itself.
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In other words, regardless of your specific belief system, you can work on your relationship with a higher power in some fashion. Doing so is part of the foundation of the creative theory of recovery, as spirituality is the “glue” that holds the whole program together. Focus on the spiritual principles that come from your spiritual relationship, such as forgiveness and gratitude and compassion for others. These principles are the guiding forces in your recovery and a key reason to continue cultivating your relationship with a higher power.
Romantic relationships in early recovery
Romantic relationships are only one small part of recovery, but they can be of critical importance, and can literally make or break your sobriety. Particularly in early recovery, romantic pursuits can and usually are extremely dangerous. The primary reason for this is because of this fact right here:
When we first pursue a romantic relationship, the other relationships in our lives get moved to the back-burner.
This is especially true when it comes to our relationship with a higher power. The reason for this is simple: a new romantic interest “fills us up” and “makes us whole” again, completely filling the spiritual void that otherwise would have been filled by our spiritual practices. This phenomenon cannot be denied and has been played out over and over again by other recovering addicts and alcoholics, almost all of which eventually relapsed due to their romantic endeavors.
Now does this mean that you cannot pursue a relationship in recovery? Of course not. But any sane addict will want to have a foundation of recovery before they venture out into this dangerous territory. Some people suggest waiting a full year in recovery before getting into any sort of a relationship. This is probably good advice, although the specific length of time really depends on how solid a foundation you have built and what kind of relationship you have built with a higher power.
This can be misleading sometimes because there are some very religious people who do not necessarily have a strong relationship with a higher power. There is a difference. If you are seeking a romantic relationship so that it will “fill the void” or “make you whole” then you probably have some more work to do on your spiritual foundation before you can safely get back into the dating scene.
Letting go of old “friends”
One of the biggest stumbling blocks, especially for young people, is letting go of their old friends that they use to drink or get high with. This can be especially tough because in many cases, these people were actual friends and not just “using buddies,” as the recovering community usually likes to dismiss them as.
I personally had some true friends in active addiction and it hurt badly to let them go when I got clean and sober but it was absolutely necessary. There is no way to successfully continue those relationships when the relationship involved drinking and using together on a regular basis and the other person is continuing to use.
There is no easy way around this in early recovery. And again, it is especially painful for younger people, because their friends will tend to be more important to them. But keep in mind that new relationships will form in recovery to replace the old ones (no one wants to hear this of course, but it’s true). Living the creative life in recovery will open you up to many new and healthy people.
Stick with the winners
This goes along with the idea of getting rid of your old drinking and using friends. You will undoubtedly be attracted to the “winners” in recovery–the people who are genuine and helpful and really seem to be working a solid program of recovery. Stick with these people! They are your lifeline and guide to a creative new life in recovery. If you are seeking a sponsor, then pick someone who you think is one of the “winners,” someone who has what you want.
Our peers have a powerful affect on us, there is no doubt about it. If you hang around with shady characters in recovery then you’re probably going to get led down a road that you weren’t planning on going down. Stick with the winners in recovery and use them as inspiration to create a powerful new life for yourself.
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Communicating feelings – a critical concept
I did not want to admit that this was important in early recovery but communicating feelings is extremely critical. Let me give you the quick crash course:
Feelings versus opinions – when you make a feeling statement to someone, make sure that you are not stating an opinion. Your feelings can be either sad, mad, glad, or scared. That’s it. There are no other feelings (only synonyms and variations on those 4). So when you are having a fight with your teenage daughter about her coming home late, you could say:
“I feel scared when you come home late like that. I also feel hurt that you don’t think to call and let me know you’re running late.”
Those are feeling statements. They cannot be refuted because they involve your personal feelings. No one can take those away from you. So you can’t argue about them. They are what they are.
But instead, if you said:
“It’s irresponsible and inconsiderate of you to come home late like that and not call me.”
That is stating an opinion, and it is therefore arguable. You might think you are communicating feelings but in the second example you are not.
The whole key to communicating in recovery is to accurately convey your feelings to others. This is usually very simple but hard to do. You don’t have to dress it up or talk around it or play games–just state your real feelings (sad, mad, glad, or scared).
Once you practice this a bit you’ll come to realize that you don’t even have to state why you have those feelings or try to explain them at all. Just state them, and the other person can do what they want with it. This leads to a much higher level of healthy communication, rather than just slinging accusations and opinions back and forth at each other.
Connecting with a sponsor
One final relationship I want to mention is that with a sponsor. I’m usually not a huge proponent of sponsorship but I can see where it is an important part of some people’s recovery, and I have certainly benefited from having a sponsor myself. Here is what I have learned about sponsorship:
* A sponsor is merely a guide. They are not a guru.
* A sponsor can hold you accountable, but they can not make you accountable. Understand this difference and realize what a sponsor can and cannot do for you.
* Seek a sponsor who lives the way you want to be living, not one that agrees with your ideas and philosophies.
Action items – what you can do:
1) Cultivate your relationships with yourself, your higher power, and with others in recovery (such as a sponsor). In that order.
2) Remember to communicate feelings, not opinions.
3) If you’re in early recovery, get honest with yourself when entering a new relationship. Are you trying to “complete yourself” by getting involved with someone? If so, back off and regroup spiritually first (hint: this will take a long time/lots of effort).