Helping Addicts

City riverwalk

Why Relationships in Early Recovery Serve as a Poor Replacement Strategy

Share on Pinterest

The creative theory of recovery holds that the recovering addict or alcoholic needs a replacement strategy–something to take the place of our drug and alcohol use, as well as the lifestyle, attitudes, and beliefs that went along with it.

One example of a replacement strategy is the program and fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. The new associations can help to replace our old drinking buddies. The program itself can help us to change our way of living and our way of thinking. Of course, there are other replacement strategies out there; AA is just one example.

The most dangerous replacement strategy

Based on my personal experience in early recovery, I can honestly say that for most people, new relationships pose the greatest threat to sobriety. (I’m talking about a romantic relationship here).

I lived in long term treatment for almost 2 years, and I watched about 30 of my peers eventually relapse–almost every single one of them over a relationship.

A new relationship actually does constitute a replacement strategy. The problem is that it’s such a poor one. And it’s a common trap that I see so many addicts fall in to.

When first getting clean and sober, people are vulnerable, because they are on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. We’re just starting to feel our feelings again, so the intensity of those feelings will naturally be increased. This makes the euphoric infatuation stage of a new relationship all the more dangerous. In some cases, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, because we are not emotionally stable enough in early recovery to handle the inevitable ups and downs that come with any new relationship.

New relationships are common in early recovery. They are quick and easy to fall into, and they feel so good (at first).

A substitute for spiritual growth

Another reason that the new relationship is so dangerous is because they demand so much of our creative energy. Normally this is not a problem, but in early recovery, you need to spend that creative energy on your own life and on your own growth and progress. This is the critical distinction–that a new relationship in early recovery drains you of your power to work on your own self.

The reason that this is so dangerous is because the new relationship feels so good. We are in the infatuation stage and essentially turn the other person into our new higher power. All of our needs and wants are actually being met (temporarily) by the new relationship we are in. There is no need to develop our own spirituality or attempt to grow in any way, because the infatuation and positive feelings from the relationship have completely replaced (temporarily) any need for growth. Our new found love “fills us up” and makes us whole (temporarily). Eventually, of course, we have to face our addiction when we are not completely infatuated, and then where will we be if we haven’t been pushing ourselves to grow on a more personal level?

I’m not saying you have to avoid a new relationship forever….but it might be wise to work on yourself for a while first.

Action items – what you can do:

1) The 1 year rule – One suggestion you might hear is to avoid a new relationship for the first year of recovery. Based on the hundreds of people I’ve watched in early recovery who have relapsed over a breakup, this is probably sound advice. Use the time alone to work on yourself.

2) If and when you do find someone, make an effort to “step up” your recovery efforts. The added work on yourself might help save your sobriety if things don’t work out.

Share on Pinterest
  • Simone

    I’ve been in a long-term relationship, cohabitating, for five years. We both were drinkers, but I got introduced to drugs through him. We are both in recovery, he’s in a live-in residential treatment program end of this month he’ll have one year, I did a 6-month outpatient program. So, we have our separate programs, and are active separately in 12-step AA, NA, how risky is relapse for people in our situation? He’s 56, I’m 50.

  • Patrick

    @ Simone – Sounds like you both have a foundation in recovery. As long as you both keep your sobriety first, and do not depend on the other person for your happiness, you should be fine. Good luck!

  • Lola

    I really agree with most of your articles, but when I read your phrases using the word NEVER, I start doubting…Good critical thinkers, don’t use that word.

  • Lanny

    Please tell us where in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous this “cardinal” rule is laid out? It doesn’t exist, at least not in the 12 steps nor anywhere in the entire book. In fact, on page 99, as to whether a couple should re-unite, the Book specifically recognizes that, “Obviously, no rule can be laid down.”

    Anectdotes aren’t what we alcoholics have to come to rely on, nor should we, and there are plenty of anectdotes that contradict the “cardinal” rule. Love is a gift from God. And each one of us has our own path to recovery through the steps and reliance on our Higher Power. The Big Book clearly says that, which is why it is full of information about how to live with and love other people. Portions of chapters are devoted toward building and rebuilding relationships, including horribly damaged marriages. Every relationship is different because every couple is different.

  • Sofia

    Wow, thank God for these forums that I’ve read. My boyfriend is recovering and our relationship was only 6 month’s old. We felt it best that he and I wait till he gets his bearings and groundwork established before continuing our relationship. This also allows me to focus on my own personal growth and new life. Good things come to those who wait! I miss him terribly, but I would rather him better and in a good place, then take the chance of a relapse! No way! He means too much to me! When you care about someone that is going thru all of this, you cannot be a selfish person! You are in it for the longhaul. He needs time to be comfortable in his new shoes. No pressure! If it works out in the end, it is definitely worth the wait!

  • lisa

    My very good friend who is a Recovery Support Specialist and has been drug/alcohol free for 7 years himself just married a woman he met two months ago. She herself has been clean for only 6 months. It kills me because, it’s something he’s always reinforced in his friends and in his meetings. I know she is running from something and it’s doomed and he fell right into his impulsive ways. I’m so angry with him for his lack of common sense.

  • Rosemary

    I’ve been clean and sober for 3 years and i met someone (a person whose been in and out for 7 years) unfortunately I didn’t listen to the advise of people with more experience than me. I had to find out for myself that it’s a real BAD idea to get involved with someone like that. I have a wonderful loving sponsor who let me walk my own path. She said and of course I forgot this, that getting involved with a new comer is like going to THE WORST neighborhood to look for a partner. So for me it was going to the darkest “hood” there is. And I found the sickest junkie available to partner up with. BAD bad idea. We have been “duking” it out for at least six months. She hasn’t put more than a month together in all that time. Am I being selfish? You darn right I am.
    So listen up…….don’t go thru what I am……it SUCKS!


    My boyfriend and I started dating 07/11 he is recently been through rehab and is now in a sober house. I am 53 and have been in therapy since a teen, I have a the tools and support system to live a healthy mental and physical daily life. He had a head injury when he was 19 and is now 43 he struggles with alcohol and drug use. We have so much in common and love each other very much, and value our friendship very much. We work for the same hospital and see each other everyday. I love him so much that if not being intimate is in his best interest I will comply. It will be difficult for both of us.

  • Erin

    This is great. I’ve been “clean and serene” for a month now and just got dumped from my 7 month boyfriend. I’ve been an emotional wreck due to the numbing effect of drugs and alcohol wearing off. Boyfriend couldn’t handle my need for more support. Couldn’t give what I needed so, splittsville. If it wasn’t for my sponser and the support of NA, I’d definitely be relapsing right now. The road ahead is scary as hell but at least I’m on it.

  • Pingback: Relationships in Recovery: How To Get It Right • Sober Nation()