7 Tips for Relationships in Early Recovery

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7 Tips for Relationships in Early Recovery

By Emily Glover 11/23/16

You're supposed to avoid intimate relationships for the first year of sobriety, but sometimes this is easier said than done.

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If you must.

According to popular wisdom, people new to recovery should avoid intimate relationships for the first year. The logic behind this is well-founded: The idea is that it’s necessary to come to terms with your own emotions—without the distraction of a new romantic partner and the potential pitfalls that go along with romance. As many have discovered, however, following that advice is easier said than done.

For example, me. As a sophomore in college, I was just coming to grips with my eating disorder and my recovery was still on shaky ground. For me, anorexia had been a way to maintain some semblance of control over my life, which was filled with the standard woes of a college student trying to find her way as a young adult. As much as I tried to sever my relationship with my eating disorder, the rituals I developed kept drawing me back in. For months, my eating disorder had taken the place of close friendships and kept me trapped in a place of selfish actions.

Then I met him. It could be because I allowed myself to be more vulnerable than usual. Or because I didn’t have any expectations. Or even because of some special pheromone sent out by a person who really isn’t seeking a partner. Whatever the case, I became one of the cliché stories of “finding love when you least expect it.”

I found ways to justify the romance, despite subconsciously knowing the risks for my health if something went wrong. As I told myself, my therapist encouraged me to turn my attention outward. However, her suggestion was more along the lines of volunteering or joining a low-stress club, not tying my emotions up in a new relationship. But the heart wants what the heart wants—and I quickly found myself falling.

As I was, it soon became apparent I needed to be honest with the new person in my life. As someone recovering from anorexia, my battle was pretty obvious. But that didn’t make baring my heart much easier. Difficult as it was to first say the word “anorexia” aloud to a person I really wanted to stick around, retrospect shows me it was the most important conversation we had in the early days of our relationship: By communicating about that tough subject, I saw he was in the relationship for the right reasons and began to accept that I was worth loving despite my struggles. Then, with someone compassionately keeping me accountable, my recovery really began to take hold.

Years later, I am healthy and happily married to that same person. Although I know starting a relationship during early recovery is far from the recommended course, for those who find in a similar position, here is what experts suggest for the best chance of success.

  1. Know thyself: Before getting into a new relationship during the early stages of recovery, Brooke Novick, marriage and family therapist, said it’s essential to be honest with yourself about your emotional and mental preparedness. Along with asking if your recovery has a solid enough foundation, she advised considering if you have the necessary tools to cope with the uncomfortable feelings any relationship can bring to the surface, such as jealousy, fear, sadness and anger.
  1. Consider trends with past relationships: Even when you are on the healthier path of recovery, destructive relationship habits may re-emerge. For those who never struggled with personal boundaries and had successful relationships in the past, that may not be an issue. However, Linda Lewaniak, senior director of integrated services at Eating Recovery Center, Insight, said a history of co-dependency is troubling. She explained that unlike friendships, romantic relationships are inherently driven by passion and can become problematic when you aren’t able to see yourself “as separate from the other.”
  1. Be aware of red flags with the new partner: Although people are typically on their best behaviors in new relationships, Novick said there are early signs that could signal trouble for your recovery. “A person who does not communicate with integrity can be a red flag,” she said. “This means they do not say what they mean or mean what they say. A bunch of subtext can exist in their communication, which can be difficult for you to sort through.”

    Beyond that, Lewaniak said it’s a warning sign if the person is unwilling to learn about the addiction or has unrealistic expectations for you.

  1. Be upfront about your recovery and seek to engage them: Whereas a controlling partner can signal danger, a supportive partner may be a secret ingredient to a successful recovery. One key, Lewaniak said, is involving your partner in support groups, therapy or family days. “Because addictions functionally change the brain, if the other person doesn’t understand that, they won’t get it,” she said, adding the new romantic partner also needs to understand recovery is a process often wrought with emotional twists and turns. “They also need to know that when someone stops using or engaging in the behavior, they are going to feel better initially. However, depression, loneliness, and anxiety can set in, and the boredom can be very hard.”

    As a marriage and family therapist, Novick said her experience shows the traits of compassion and respectfulness are essential in the partner of a person in recovery. “It's important to find a person you can resolve conflict with in a healthy manner,” she said. “Someone who communicates honestly, and gently, can be a wonderful partner.”

  1. Continue to prioritize recovery: Putting your recovery first isn’t selfish—it’s essential. Because recovery is a process that takes conscious effort, Novick said you need to set boundaries. “Pause if you want to skip that meeting to see your new boyfriend or girlfriend,” she said. “Talk about it if you find yourself putting your relationship before your recovery.” Remember, the right partner will support and also prioritize these efforts.
  1. Take it slow: As easy as it is to immerse yourself wholly in a new relationship, that isn’t going to work when you also need a big space in your life for recovery efforts. Beyond that, take your time to really get to know the new person in your life. “People jump into new relationships very quickly and go from 1 to 100 right away,” Lewaniak said. “But it takes time to know someone and what they need and like. In the beginning, or ‘honeymoon phase’ of a relationship, people are always on their best behavior, but it takes time to know who they are.”
  1. Know you can get through anything: The assumed risk with any relationship is that it might not work out—but just remember that you can still come out on top with support. “Someone in recovery going through a breakup may have intense urges to use, so it's crucial they stay connected to the program,” Novick said. “Know the uncomfortable feelings will lessen and pass with time. Take everything just one moment at a time.” She suggested finding ways to stay engaged with a supportive community, helping others “to get outside of your own head for a bit” and practicing self-care. “Breathe, trust, let go,” she said. “Accept the situation and surrender to doing the next right thing one moment at a time.”
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