The Ugly Side of Dating in 12-Step Programs

By Talia Branson 03/15/19

When someone acts perfectly, their best selves, when that's what they present to us, we often fall for it. I wasn't special or not special. I was typical.

Man and woman arguing, dating in 12-step program, relationship problems
Then he said the most threatening thing anyone's ever said to me: "if you think this is bad, try pouring alcohol and coke on it." ID 130071828 © Vadimgozhda |

Recently I was in a relationship with a guy I met in the program. We’d been together about four months, on again-off again. Really twice on, twice off.

The first breakup wasn't pretty — we'd had an argument one evening and when we parted he wasn't happy. I'd say he was disappointed, but it was more than that. But after years of working my AA program, my "people pleaser" was quick to reassure him we were "good." In fact, while the argument wasn't really that bad and could have even been food for growth, his anger had frightened me. I'm eleven years sober, he had four years. I thought the recipe was for love, not disaster.

The truth is: I'd been on the fence about him since we met.

On our first date, he told me that he'd threatened to kill someone during a relapse. This left me feeling unsettled, but when I told my friends and therapist, I learned it was apparently really, really bad. I thought well, it was a relapse, not the type of thing he would do sober. I remembered him also telling me of a breakup that had happened when he was still using. Maybe all of his negative behavior was when he was using. I'd been through this before with sober men, and it was altogether confusing. An ex had gotten physical with a few women before I knew him, and I assumed it was while he was drinking. I learned at the end of our relationship that it was actually during a dry period. 

I sound so judgmental. I guess we all have to be, to some extent, while we're choosing who and who not to date. But apparently I'm not judgmental enough. I ended up dating the man who'd threatened someone's life, and now here we were, post-fight, all my protective feelings swirling around inside me. I hate it when people say they were a hot mess, because it implies that they are or were hot, which is a little too narcissistic for my taste, so let's just say I was a mess. (Not that I'm completely free of narcissism, but I choose to believe in the good in myself and focus on my character defects one at a time, rather than bundling them together.) 

I'd like to say I was fine, but really I wasn't fine. I was going to act like I was, though, to maintain the status quo. In other words, I'd said everything was okay, so I'd act like it was. Acting as if is a skill I learned fairly early in sobriety, and it had served me well.

The morning after the fight I awoke to a long Facebook messenger message, really a few long messages from him, clustered together. This was the guy I was dating exclusively, and sleeping with, and basically in a "sober" relationship with. His messages were angry and spiteful. I’d thought all was okay enough to at least be civil to one another, but no such luck. And I felt sick about it. 

I can't remember if we spoke after the messages, but I don't think we did. I was livid and hurt, an ugly combination of emotions. I broke up with him. Over messenger. The way we loved, we died.

The Resurrection

Until he started love-bombing me. I call it "The Resurrection." It started with things he was going to give me, restaurants he wanted to take me to. He gifted me with a very personal family heirloom... and on and on. After about a month, I caved. Our second-round first date was at a park near my home. When this guy was on, he was on. We ended up kissing at my place, just kissing, and I was falling in love like I never had with him before. When someone acts perfectly, their best selves, when that's what they present to us, we often fall for it. I wasn't special or not special. I was typical. 

The love affair lasted about two days, and then the old him reappeared: not listening well, an underlying frustration, a continuation of great and comforting sex (that's where the connection stemmed from). All in all, except for the sex, nothing very exciting. Except I'm leaving out my behavior in the whole episode. Knowing I didn't feel as strongly about him as he did about me, I should have ended it the first time around.

Then the second time, about a month in, we went to a couple of galleries and walked around on a Friday night when everyone in New York City, like us, was mulling around for free. I wasn't in a very good mood; my insecurity and self-hatred were getting the best of me. We had an argument — again, not so bad — but he got too angry for the situation.

I woke up the next morning, upset and out of sorts, and called my sponsor, as I had a few times during our courtship. I asked her if I should keep my date with him that night. For the third time, she suggested I take a break from seeing him, but I didn't listen. Suggestions are just that, I told myself, and at 11 years sober, who was I to have to listen to my sponsor.

I went over to his place around six that evening. We took a taxi to a restaurant we liked, and the whole ride there was awkward, with short bursts of forced conversation. It got worse at the restaurant and culminated in me telling him I didn't have the same feelings for him that he had for me. Read: My Part. I shouldn't have gone in the first place, should have broken up with him the night before (as I didn't hesitate to mention during what I now realize was a fight from the minute I set foot in his apartment).

But then his anger moved in, like a dark cloud.

"I'm breaking up with you, bitch," he said and slammed his hand on the table. He started to walk out, which I feared would leave me stranded, far from home, with no means of getting back to my warm apartment and my sweet cat. At times of high stress, I, like so many others, go to the worst place, a place of abandonment and rejection. And as much as he really might have been rejecting me, I knew in my heart I had left the relationship months ago.

I ended up begging him to let me ride home with him — that feeling of being stranded, scared, and alone that reminds me of all the reasons I drank and drugged — and we ended up sharing a taxi back to his apartment so I could take the subway the rest of the way home. During the 45-minute ride he alternated between yelling at me and saying he wasn't going to be mean to me any longer, an agreement he broke countless times during the drive. He spewed hate at me while I mainly stayed silent and looked out the window. And then he said the most danger-filled and threatening thing anyone's ever said to me: "if you think this is bad, try pouring alcohol and coke on it."

The moral? I should have left sort-of-well-enough-alone. After I knew who he was, I never should have gone back and dated him the second time. Or, if I am honest with myself, the first. I'm glad I got out before something really awful happened, though I remain worried that he might stalk me. I don't know if that's his style, but he did tell me that I had reason to be terrified of him. He said there are only a few people in the city who he hates, and they are scared of him.

Learning to Trust Again

I'm dating again and it's hard. I've had difficult breakups, in and out of sobriety, but this has to be the worst. It's an all-time low; the one that leaves you with the most vile taste in your mouth. I don't even know if I want to publish this, for fear he might read it, for fear you might. I'm going to go with HP on this one — pray like there's no tomorrow, pray to be of service, to learn what HP has brought me in offering me this experience which I have embraced and then, finally, un-embraced, and to affirm that whatever happens, I'll be taken care of.

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