Dating in the Rooms, Break-Ups in the Rooms of AA

By Charlotte Grey 07/10/15

If something's meant to be, there's nothing you can do to screw it up; if something isn't meant to be, there's nothing you can do to make it work.


My pre-sobriety taste in men was questionable. True to the adage water seeks its own level, I magnetically attracted heavy drinkers and drug users to complement my shady lifestyle choices, always preferring to score an eighth of coke to the more socially acceptable dinner-and-a-movie. But even when I first got sober, I had some disastrous relationships. One was with an abusive actively alcoholic boyfriend and another was with my old weed and angel dust dealer. Since I obviously had no idea what I was doing, I heeded my sympathetic sponsor's advice and thereafter waited until I finished the sex ideal of my 4th step before dating again. This essential exercise asked me to articulate what I wanted in a partner, the characteristics I wanted to cultivate in myself, and what that ideal relationship would look like. It required profound introspection to discover which qualities are non-negotiable to me, like cheating and arguments ending in fistfights.

Post-4th step, I shifted to dating guys in recovery. Since my partner and I had both adopted sober lifestyles, I didn't have to worry about things like winding up at a bar for his friend's birthday. The common spiritual foundation connected us deeply, while working a 12-step program merged our weekly routines when we went to the same meetings. It was easy to go to the boyfriend for sober advice since we already shared an emotional intimacy, but then our programs became unhealthily enmeshed and the boyfriend took the role of my sponsor. Since getting sober seven years ago, I've dated four guys in AA and when we broke up, I would run into them seemingly everywhere—parties, concerts, meetings, spiritual retreats. We sometimes had to divide meetings and friendships, but I eventually learned it's important to just keep our programs separate from the start.

Sickeningly codependent in relationships, I reached out to SLAA for structured dating advice. They suggested that I stay close to spiritual support in my network of sober women. Not only would I strengthen my program, but I would also have an auto-imposed distance that would then give me a safe place to heal after a breakup. In women's meetings, I heard some strong messages, too. One girlfriend once comforted me with the saying, "If something's meant to be, there's nothing you can do to screw it up; if something isn't meant to be, there's nothing you can do to make it work." They reframed the breakup as part of my divinely guided path instead of a dead-end of senseless grief.  

AA taught me that I couldn't think my way into healthy action and needed to act my way into positive thinking. At home, I didn't let myself give into depressive behavior by oversleeping or catatonically inhaling pints of ice cream. It might sound cliché, but being of service to others has been my best coping tool. It's distracting and esteeming; asking a newcomer or a friend how they're doing and being able to help them through a problem gave me confidence that I had the strength to get through the breakup. Funnily enough, for the first six years of my sobriety, I got new sponsees every time a relationship ended, and only when a relationship ended! I guess the universe thought I needed to focus on others instead of magnifying the misery in my head.

I self-soothed, too, pampering myself with massages and fancy dinners. I filled my daily schedule to distract myself and limit isolation. Making meetings helped; I didn't want to hear about alcohol problems, but it got me out of my apartment. I tried to be as conscientious and respectful of others' friendships with my ex. I once offended some mutual friends by processing the breakup through AA meetings when my angry share turned into character assassination. SLAA meetings have been a great place for me to be emotionally honest and get constructive feedback when I was "withdrawing" from the relationship. And while my sponsor gave me her experience, she wasn't my therapist. I went to my sponsor for spiritual-related guidance and saved the hysterics for my therapist who's professionally trained to help me process them. 

SLAA suggested cutting all contact with ex-boyfriends after the breakup. This included blocking them from social media, where a seemingly harmless "like" once snowballed into two months of sleeping with an ex-boyfriend. While some people are comfortable with casual hookups, it made me feel sick because I was acting against my values. SLAA emphatically asked that I didn't call or text the ex and to not respond when the ex reached out to me. To drain the emotional venom seething from my pores, my therapist had me text him verbatim what I wanted to say to my ex, cursing and all. It was nearly impossible to uphold the "no contact," but AA and SLAA taught me to love myself even when I messed up.

When I finally upheld it, this boundary gave me enough distance to reflect and gain honest perspective about the relationship. It was the only tool that worked for me. When I fantasized about getting back together, my sponsor had me reread my 4th step sex ideal to honestly reflect if rekindling was wise. There was a reason my partner and I broke up, and I needed to honor that truth. The sex ideal was just another channel through which my higher power spoke to me.

Breakups are a loss and healing takes time. I gradually stopped judging myself for being upset and let myself grieve. I gave myself permission to cry when I needed to, and if I didn't feel strong enough yet to be around the ex, I extended the "no contact" time. Moments of apathy intertwined with intense bursts of sadness or anger, a sign I still had feelings for the guy. I used this emotional awareness to gauge where I was in the healing process and thereby prevented a lot of stress and anxiety from premature post-breakup socializing and heated post-breakup arguments. And when I finally reached a place of emotional neutrality, I knew I was over the guy. 

The shame I've experienced from post-breakup emotional turmoil has made me want to relapse. The depression and anger can become overwhelmingly intense. There's also sometimes a stigma in recovery that it's "not a big deal," "everyone goes through it," and "you'll be fine." But I've gotten dozens of phone calls from sober men and women wanting to relapse, having already relapsed, or feeling suicidal after a breakup. Parting with a romantic partner is a profound loss. It's important that we know we're not alone in feeling this way and how to cultivate enough positive self-esteem to combat the pain and recreate meaningful, joyful lives. 

As challenging as they've been, my four breakups with men in AA have been the healthiest ones I've had. Thanks to AA and SLAA suggestions, I was able to express my needs honestly and kindly during the breakup conversation, like my intention to give the other person their space. It left as little room as possible for tripping on anxiety that we'll run into each other. By cutting contact, I also didn't leave the relationship open-ended. If it's my higher power's will that we get back together some day, we will. By letting go, I turned my will and life over to my higher power. 

I've gotten to experience beautiful healing with my AA exes. Two of them and I made amends to each other. I'm genuinely happy for them when they date someone new and see our past relationship as an extension of a deep friendship we now get to have. Once I've moved on, I feel comfortable reopening contact through social media and mutual friends. Moreover, breakups are a key moment for me to strengthen my spirituality. As I heard in a meeting: "My higher power only has 3 answers: 1. yes, 2. yes, but not yet, 3. I have something better in mind." It reminds me that there's a bigger plan and I'm being taken care of.

My relationships have each helped me grow in some way, even if I was a batshit crazy basketcase afterward. Romantic relationships are the gift of getting to open my life to someone and share it with them. They're not there to complete me; they're there to enrich my already abundant life.  

Author-recommended books for further reading:

Easy Does It Dating Guide: For People in Recovery by Mary Faulkner

Calling in "The One" by Katherine Woodward Thomas

Things I Wish I'd Known Before We Got Married by Gary D. Chapman

How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Harold H. Bloomfield, Melba Colgrove, and Peter McWilliams

Become Your Own Matchmaker by Patti Stanger and Lisa Johnson Mandell

Charlotte Grey is a pseudonym for a writer in New York.

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