Why Relationships in Early Recovery Serve as a Poor Replacement Strategy

Why Relationships in Early Recovery Serve as a Poor Replacement Strategy

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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.


  1. 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.

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