Ask Katie: Is the One Year Rule in AA Worth Breaking?

By Katie MacBride 02/07/17

Even the best new relationships have emotional highs and lows, just like early sobriety. And we are people who have tried to regulate life’s naturally occurring highs and lows by using substances.

Image: 
A rumpled piece of paper with a banned heart image.
It's an old (and annoying) rule, but it's a good rule.

Dear Katie,

I've been in recovery for about three years, with a month or so of sobriety after a recent relapse. A new girl recently started attending my home group, and I've found that I have an easier time talking to her than I do with most people. The problem is that I'm starting to view her as more than a friend. I don't know if the one-year rule on relationships applies to relapses, but it's a moot point since the girl in question has less than a month. My sponsor doesn't even think that I should be friends with her, but I can't imagine finding anyone else that I connect with this well. What should I do? Are there exceptions to the relationship rule? Am I really not even allowed to be her friend? This isn't some predatory 13th step thing, I really like this girl. Please tell me there's some way to pursue this without selfishly jeopardizing her sobriety. I don't want to put her at risk, but I hate the thought of not talking to her anymore. I guess I just don't like the idea that doing right by someone I care about means not being in her life.

I know you'll probably have to edit this question for length if you publish it, but I hope you'll still consider everything I've said. I've never been this torn over somebody before. And frankly, it's giving me some pretty strong resentments against AA. Being sober shouldn't mean that I'm not allowed to feel like I'm worth anything to anyone.

Congratulations on a month sober and on the three years you put together before that. I know how hard it can be to get back into the rooms after a relapse, and you should be commended on doing that work.

For those who are unfamiliar with 12-step programs and this so-called rule, let me explain quickly: many 12-step groups discourage folks with less than a year sober from getting involved in a new romantic relationship. This is doubly emphasized when it’s two people who are newly sober. I’m fairly certain this isn’t a written “rule” and more of a strongly emphasized suggestion, but I’m well aware that the difference between those two things often seems minuscule.

It’s an annoying rule. It feels patronizing, and insulting. If AA is so much about one alcoholic talking to another, shouldn’t they be encouraging relationships between recovering alcoholics?

Are there exceptions where two people in early sobriety have a relationship and everything ends up fine? Sure. If you look for those examples, you can find them. But it still doesn’t make getting involved with this girl a very good idea.

Here are a couple of reasons I don’t think you should pursue a romantic relationship with this girl (I’ll get to the friendship stuff after):

The reason people suggest not getting into a new romantic relationship in the first year or so of sobriety is because even the very best new relationships inevitably have significant emotional highs and lows. It’s just part of the deal. Early sobriety by itself also has very pronounced highs and lows. As addicts, we are generally people who have tried to regulate life’s naturally occurring highs and lows by using substances. When we’ve been unable to regulate those feelings, we’ve used more substances to compensate. You know this.

Just by getting sober, you’re going to be going through these ups and downs—feelings that are triggering for addicts. Heaping a whole other mess of highs and lows on top of that with a new relationship is risky.

When you’re considering doing something risky, the best possible plan is to create as much stability as possible in the other areas of your life. If you’re thinking about leaving your job, have some savings as a cushion. If you’re going to move to a new area, try to establish a support system where you’re moving, etc. And if you want to start dating someone after you’ve been sober for a month, you’d better have a sober support system the size of a football field. If the person you want to date is also newly sober, you both need support systems twice as big.

Part of your attraction to her is the fact that you find it so easy to talk and connect with her. That’s a wonderful thing. But you need to have dozens of sober people whom you can easily talk to and connect with. You need to spend time finding people you’re not attracted to whom you can rely on. Because when things get messy in a relationship—as inevitably happens even in the best relationships—you’re going to need that support. I strongly believe that a support network like that takes more than a month to cultivate. It takes many, many months.

Similarly, most of us are a little bananas in early sobriety. It’s not a judgement on you as a person, it’s just a strange experience. You’ve been drinking and/or using for so long and now you have to figure out how to experience life without that coping mechanism. You know what’s a great substitute coping mechanism? Sex. Falling in love. Again, this isn’t personal. It’s how all of our brains are wired. The very same reward centers in the brain are activated when we fall in love (or lust) as when we use substances. This makes our brain, which has been missing all the junk we used to flood it with, very, very happy. But it’s important to teach our brain how to exist without the immediate gratification stuff, at least for a while. You have to retrain all those neural connections and pathways to not expect a giant hit of dopamine the moment you want it. That takes time.

If this girl—and a potential relationship with her—is really important to you, I would encourage you to wait on pursuing a relationship. Not because AA tells you to, but in the hopes that both of you take the time to grow your sober support system, get your sea legs in sobriety, and become a little more firmly sober individuals. If a relationship happens down the road? You’ll have a much better chance of having that be a successful relationship if you’ve given each other the space and time that you both need.

The first day of freshman orientation in college, I became friends with a girl I’ll call Jen. Immediately, we were joined at the hip. Jen and I had so much in common and right away we felt like we had been friends forever. Also, college was new and scary and exciting, and it was awesome to have someone to go to the dining hall and parties with. We were so closely attached, however, that we didn’t take the time to make any of our own friends. If you were friends with one of us, you were friends with both of us. We went everywhere together. Until, of course, we had an inevitable falling out. Relying that much on each other—especially when we were at a point in our lives when we should have been branching out—just wasn’t sustainable.

AA isn’t perfect. But suggesting that you not get involved romantically in early sobriety isn’t just an AA thing. I think it’s smart for anyone who is going through a major life change—anyone who needs some time and space to get their own footing.

I’m not going to tell you that you can’t be friends with another sober person with whom you connect. I would just encourage you to be careful. “Doing right by someone” doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t be in her life, but it does mean that you should be mindful of how you’re in each other’s lives. The falling out that Jen and I had wasn’t ideal, but once we weren’t as close—when we had other people in our lives in addition to each other—we were able to build our own communities. Whether or not you stay friends with this girl, you need to build that football field of support. Listen to other sober people you trust. It’s not that you’re “not allowed to feel like I'm worth anything to anyone.” It’s that your recovery is worth more.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Disqus comments
katie-macbride.jpg

Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

Disqus comments