Learn / What to Know Before Dating Someone in Addiction Recovery
Recovery is a life-changing journey and an admirable undertaking. It also comes with significant challenges that can impact how someone shows up in a relationship. If you’re dating someone in recovery, anticipating and learning how to navigate these challenges—and taking care of yourself in the process—is key.
Here’s what you can expect, and how to ensure the relationship is healthy for everyone involved.
Recovery is a transformative journey that people take on when overcoming addiction and its underlying causes. It’s not just about abstaining from a substance, but also a deeply personal healing process. People in recovery often undergo profound transformation, rediscovering their sense of self-worth and purpose in life. They learn to cope with past traumas, unmask what drives their addiction, and learn new coping skills. For most people, recovery is a lifelong endeavor that involves continuous self-improvement.
It’s helpful for loved ones of those in recovery to understand this process, both to establish healthy boundaries for themselves and to be supportive to their partners.
Addiction experts generally advise against dating in early recovery. That’s because this stage—the first year of sobriety—is a vulnerable time in which people are processing traumas and going through changes. It’s a good time to focus on introspection and healing.
It may also take some time before the dust settles enough to see relationship patterns clearly. One man in recovery, Chris Boutte, explains how he used women to fill the same void he filled with drugs and alcohol:1
“As with my moment of clarity about drugs and alcohol, I had to sit back and think about what else I was using to fill this void, and the answer was women…I then realized that I wasn’t only dependent to drugs and alcohol, but I was dependent to relationships.”
People can get addicted to sex and love just as they can to substances. But true happiness comes from within, and much of the work of early recovery has to do with cultivating happiness without the use of addictive behaviors.
In any relationship, honest communication is the key to trust and intimacy. This is especially true when dating someone in addiction recovery. To foster this, you can create a safe space for candid discussions about recovery, including past addiction issues.
This vulnerable sharing can bring couples closer. But addictions are rooted in trauma, which is a sensitive subject. Remember that your partner has a right to open up about their past if and when they’re ready. Talking through it can be healing, but pressuring someone to disclose their trauma2 is often triggering and counterproductive.
When you do enter these conversations, practice listening actively and without judgment. That means not only hearing the words your partner says but also understanding their feelings, concerns, and needs. By being non-judgmental, you create an environment where your partner can open up without fear of criticism.
The journey of recovery involves ebbs and flows. As your partner progresses through their healing process, they’ll run into challenges. Past traumas may surface unpredictably as they venture into parts of themselves they previously avoided. They may be elated at times as they feel newly empowered or connect with joys they didn’t feel during addiction.
It helps to know that processing the past can influence your partner’s present emotional state. And while you can provide safe space and a listening ear, it’s not your job to soothe their negative feelings. These emotional shifts are a natural part of recovery, and their own experience of this journey—even when unpleasant—is important.
The world is not a trigger-free place, and while your partner should learn to manage triggers, it’s also a good idea to avoid them if they’re feeling especially vulnerable. Relapse triggers3 can be environmental, emotional, or social.
Recognizing these triggers is the first step to minimizing their impact.
Understanding signs of relapse can help you proactively avoid it:
If you notice these signs, address them early on with compassion and care. Be prepared to act quickly and seek professional help if the risk of relapse becomes imminent. If your partner does relapse, remember that backsliding is part of the recovery process for some and doesn’t mean total failure. Reconnecting with professional and social support can be a great opportunity to recommit to sobriety.
Keeping lines of communication open and allowing your partner to discuss their concerns freely, as well as encouraging habits that support their sobriety, can go a long way in empowering their recovery.
Boundaries are a cornerstone of any healthy relationship, but are especially important to prioritize when dating someone in addiction recovery. This protective framework ensures the relationship remains healthy and supportive for both of you. By setting, respecting (and when necessary, reinforcing) boundaries, you create an environment of safety and trust.
Your boundaries may require adjustment as your needs change over time. As your partner progresses in their recovery journey, situations or topics that were initially off-limits may become acceptable as they feel less activated. Be willing to engage in conversations about modifying boundaries so they reflect the evolving needs of both partners.
Your partner is taking on a huge endeavor. You can be a source of encouragement and belief in their ability to overcome challenges. But it’s crucial to understand the difference between support and control. Your partner’s recovery journey is their own. Trust your judgment and avoid enabling behaviors4 that could hinder their progress and lead to a dysfunctional dynamic.
Joining your partner in support groups or therapy sessions can be a transformative experience. Attending therapy together allows you to gain an understanding of their journey, learn effective communication strategies, and address shared challenges. These experiences strengthen your connection and provide guidance for discussing issues you may not feel confident navigating on your own. It’s not just about your partner’s recovery; relationships are a shared opportunity for growth and healing.
Maintaining a substance-free environment is critical for the success of your partner’s recovery. Remove any substances from your spaces and communicate your expectations for your household. By creating an environment that prioritizes sobriety, you foster mutual respect and shared aspirations for a healthy, substance-free life together.
As a partner of someone in addiction recovery, it’s easy to focus all your energy and attention on their well-being. Keep in mind that your own self-care is not a luxury, but a necessity. The emotional demands of supporting someone through their recovery can be taxing, and neglecting your own well-being can lead to burnout. Self-care isn’t selfish; it’s an investment in your ability to show up as your best self.
Incorporate self-care strategies into your daily routine. This could include setting aside time for relaxation and activities you enjoy. Exercise, creative expression, and mindfulness practices are powerful stress relievers. Maintain boundaries to prevent your partner’s challenges from overwhelming you, and remember it’s okay to ask for help or take breaks when you need to. Staying close to your own social support network is also key. Surround yourself with friends and family who understand your situation and can provide emotional support when you need it.
Therapy or support groups are invaluable for partners dealing with the unique challenges of supporting someone in recovery. These resources offer a safe, confidential space to share your feelings, receive guidance, and gain tools for coping. Therapy can help you navigate your role in your partner’s recovery, manage your own stress and anxiety, and address any codependency issues that may have developed.
Prioritizing your own emotional well-being and personal growth makes for a healthier, more balanced relationship with your partner in recovery.
One common hurdle when dating someone in addiction recovery is miscommunication due to differing expectations or past issues. Past traumatic experiences5 can sometimes cause mistrust or insecurity, which can show up as hurtful behaviors. It’s helpful to anticipate these challenges and address them as they arise. With patience, understanding, and mutual effort, you can build a resilient partnership with someone in recovery.
Thankfully, plenty of resources can help you understand addiction and how to navigate your relationship with someone in recovery:
Sometimes, complex challenges require professional help. Couples therapy or counseling can provide a structured, supportive environment to address issues and build a healthier partnership. Trained therapists or counselors can help you navigate the intricacies of dating someone in recovery and provide tools to strengthen your relationship. You can also attend therapy on your own.
Remember that you’re not alone in this journey and don’t hesitate to seek support when you need it. Reach out to your own support network for advice or simply a listening ear. Seeking assistance is a sign of strength, and it can make a huge difference in how you navigate the challenges of dating someone in recovery. Prioritize self-care and your emotional well-being, and never underestimate the power of community and professional help when facing these complex challenges.
Boutte, Chris. “No Relationships Your First Year Sober: Silly Rule or Great Suggestion?” Medium, 16 Dec. 2017, https://medium.com/@chrisboutte/no-relationships-your-first-year-sober-silly-rule-or-great-suggestion-c70c8343c614.
Kimbley CT, Cox DW, Kahn JH, Renshaw KD. Feeling pressured to talk about trauma: How pressure to disclose alters the association between trauma disclosure and posttraumatic growth. J Trauma Stress. 2023 Jun;36(3):567-578. doi: 10.1002/jts.22930. Epub 2023 Mar 29. PMID: 36991577.
“5 Relapse Triggers and How to Avoid Them.” Verywell Mind, https://www.verywellmind.com/why-did-i-relapse-21900. Accessed 20 Oct. 2023.
“Enabling Behaviors.” Stairway to Recovery. University of Pennsylvania Health System. https://www.uphs.upenn.edu/addiction/berman/family/enabling.html#:~:text=What%20are%20they%3F,are%20enabling%20their%20chemical%20use.
Duke, Michael. “How To Recognize If Your Childhood Trauma Is Affecting You As An Adult (& How To Heal).” Michigan ACE Initiative, 1 Oct. 2019, https://www.miace.org/2019/10/01/how-to-recognize-if-your-childhood-trauma-is-affecting-you-as-an-adult-how-to-heal/.
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