Sober Romance: Why We Act Like Teenagers When It Comes to Relationships

By Olivia Pennelle 09/06/18

So many people rush into relationships in early recovery. This may be related to neurochemistry: we're suddenly deprived of the substances that made us feel good and we need to find a substitute.

Young male female couple outside, lying down and embracing.
I can’t imagine many people would want a relationship with a needy, insecure, obsessive woman.

I’ve spent the last six and a half years of recovery wondering why I have been so emotionally immature when it comes to romantic relationships. Why have I sulked over communicating my needs? Why have I formed such insecure attachments that I wonder when I’ll see the person again before they have even left? Why have I felt so crazed and simultaneously flummoxed at my behavior? Reflecting on my relationships during my recovery, I can describe them in one word: disaster. But they’ve also been a blessing.

When I found recovery, relationships were the last thing on my mind; I could barely function. I spent most days struggling to sufficiently caffeinate myself to get out of my apartment and to a meeting. For the first few months, I lugged my 300-pound body around wondering where this elusive pink fluffy cloud was, because it certainly wasn’t on my radar.

As time progressed, my body began to recover: my liver regenerated—which is quite remarkable considering the quantity of cocaine I snorted and the four bottles of wine I drank each day—my depression lifted enough that I was able to function, and I lost weight. I was hardly experiencing the promises, but I could see that my life had improved. The fact I no longer felt compelled to drink was a miracle in itself.

Sufficiently recovered—or so I naively thought—I looked for romantic distraction in the rooms. A smile from someone at the break would elicit a rush of feel-good hormones. I wonder if they like me? would play through my mind (well, that’s the PG version I’m willing to share, but you get the picture). Needless to say, this didn’t end well.

I ignored the guidance to stay single for a year after finding recovery, because in my mind I was thinking: I’m a 32-year-old woman. Why shouldn’t I date? I’m an adult! Off I went and dated, just like every other person in the room because—let’s face it—few people actually adhere to that rule!

And so I chose some lovely chaps from that swimming pool of dysfunction, Narcotics Anonymous. Promises that they’d treat me right, and that they really liked me, were exactly that: just promises. Even though I expressed my desire for a relationship over just messing around, my experience was that once these guys got what they wanted, they were off. Wondering what was wrong with me—and playing the victim role really well—I’d move on to the next dude.

I couldn’t see until much later in my recovery why I was so terrible at picking a suitable partner. I was blind to my part in these encounters and all of the emotional baggage I brought to them. I’d often act like a teenager: sulking, gaslighting, and holding the person emotionally hostage. I was incapable of adequately and maturely communicating my needs, or of listening and hearing theirs.

It took several years of recovery to unpack my insecurities around attachment and the trauma I had suffered that made forming a healthy attachment nearly impossible. I can’t imagine many people would want a relationship with a needy, insecure, obsessive woman. And that wasn’t helped by my choices: people who were completely avoidant. It was never going to work.

Keen to explore why we act this way in early recovery, I asked recovery scientist Austin Brown about it. He explained that we have to look at our inclination to use external objects, or people, to provide instant changes in mood—just like we experienced with drugs. Also, Austin says, many of the social developmental benchmarks we pass from childhood to adulthood are slowed by active use.

“The early stages of romance offer a thrill and an escape,” he goes on. “In fact, they operate on many of the same pleasure pathways as our substances used to. One interesting phenomenon I have noted in clinical work is the almost overwhelming desire to get into a relationship that occurs when people initially get into recovery. To me, this is likely a neurochemistry issue; a starvation of the stuff that makes us feel good. So, we act on it, having neither the maturity or the self-awareness that is required for a complex adult human relationship.”

Explaining why we act so immaturely in relationships, Austin says, “If we started using as teens, emotionally we are still there those first few months. This is a well-known facet of the disorder. But we want—and therefore think we are ready for—a relationship, often before we even get out of treatment, have a stable job, or even have a place to live. Entering into any relationship under those conditions is statistically unlikely to succeed.”

About our inability to communicate, Austin says, “At a more scientific level we are talking about the ability to identify AND verbalize our emotional states. Often all we know are ‘want’ and ‘relief’ when we come into recovery. Those are woefully short-sighted emotional states when it comes to equitable human relationships and partnerships. It's like bringing a juice box to a gunfight.”

The upside is that if we work hard to grow in recovery, we can mature fairly quickly. “I usually calculate about a year to six months of growth per every month of recovery. If we started using 12 years ago, it takes us at least a year to emotionally resemble our peers. Might even take two, depending on how hard we work at it,” he says.

Even though we think we might be ready for a relationship after we’ve achieved a few weeks of recovery, Austin says, we might want to be cautious. “Unfortunately, early recovery relationships slow our emotional maturation as well, just like substances,” he says. “If someone else can give us a sense of relief, why do all the hard work to achieve emotional growth? Early-recovery relationships prolong our process of healing and can often throw our recovery off disastrously, sometimes even to the point of a return to use and even death. So, it is quite serious business, and yet no one really talks about it in any tangible or helpful way.”

“Personally,” he goes on to say, “I have seen relationships in early recovery ruin more lives than substances themselves. Why relational health isn’t the central focus of early recovery support is frankly beyond me.”

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including, Workit Health, Ravishly, Recovery Campus, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE. Find Liv on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Liv also co-hosts a podcast — Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Listen here.

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