At what point in recovery is it OK to consider dating again?
The ideal timeframe recommended by most addiction professionals is one year. Although I don’t have a hard and fast rule on one year of abstaining from a relationship, I do think it is extremely important for those in recovery to gain basic recovery skills and develop a deeper self-awareness and self-love before coupling. A year of sobriety tends to be a good benchmark for achieving a solid foundation in recovery, while also developing a healthy sense of self and healthy boundaries with others. Those in early recovery are still trying to figure out, “Who am I without drugs or alcohol?” and “What do I want and deserve in a relationship?” Many individuals have never dated sober before, and are experiencing intimacy for the first time without their go-to coping mechanism of alcohol or drugs. It is also common in early recovery to trade addictions, and to use love and sex as a replacement for the drug. This can lead to an obsessive or unhealthy attachment with the partner, which places an individual at a high risk for relapse. Also important to note is the high degree of core shame and damaged self-esteem associated with addiction. Individuals in early recovery often experience a poor sense of self-worth, don’t feel loveable, and struggle to know their true value. They are far more likely to choose inappropriate partners that may be abusive, controlling, codependent, and/or emotionally unfit for a relationship. Not only does the year timeframe allow individuals to get a solid foundation in recovery where they are less affected (triggered) by the emotional stressors of a relationship, they get time to develop and greater sense of love and appreciation for themselves, which will allow them to pick better partners.
Should you be upfront about your sobriety? How much should you reveal about the reason why?
I absolutely believe that one should be upfront and honest about being in recovery. Not only is honesty an important cornerstone of recovery, but the current dating culture is so intertwined with drinking and social scenes that involve alcohol. Many first dates are set up over drinks or meeting in a bar. Disclosing recovery status will help prevent uncomfortable and triggering situations. As far as how much someone shares, I think as with any personal disclosures in early dating, it’s better to go slow and share little by little. Sharing basic, need-to-know information at the start, and then disclosing more as you deepen the connection with the other person. Building trust and security is key.
Is it OK to date someone in your 12-step group? Is it beneficial to date someone else in recovery?
It’s natural to develop a sense of closeness and trust with others in the same 12-step group or treatment center, which is why I understand how many might be tempted to couple up with others in the same support group. I recommend against dating anyone within the same recovery support system for the simple fact that it creates the potential for drama and/or losing that support system if the relationship doesn’t work out. I caution clients about the pitfalls that might ensue, and encourage them to develop another support system if they are adamant about pursing the romantic relationship.
How does continuing in therapy or aftercare help people in navigating new relationships?
Therapy is a safe space where those in recovery can not only examine the issues and situations that lead to their addiction, but where they can also identify core beliefs that influence how they relate to others and the types of relationships they seek out. Clients can begin to identify relationship patterns (including patterns of abuse or codependency), and learn how to establish healthy boundaries with others and set higher standards.
Should you date someone who is also sober or is it OK if the person is a social drinker?
All professionals will agree that dating someone with an active addiction is a big no-no. When it comes to dating a person who is a social drinker and does not have a problem with addiction, the answer is: it depends. It depends on the individual in recovery and how equipped they are to manage cravings and urges while around others who are drinking. Visual cues and stimuli can be triggering, and some may find themselves experiencing intense cravings when, for example, they are dinner with someone who is drinking a glass of wine. I believe that the stage of recovery has a lot to do with a person’s capacity to manage the risks associated with being around others who drink. The most important factor if dating a social drinker is how supportive and respectful the partner is of the individual’s recovery.
What is the biggest piece of advice you would have for someone thinking about dating in recovery/entering into a new relationship?
Don’t get into a relationship with someone with the intention of changing them. This speaks to: not trying to “save” others, not believing that someone who is abusive will change their ways, not trying to date the same “type” of person and expecting a different outcome (Einstein’s definition of insanity), and not expecting that someone who is actively drinking/using is going to suddenly give that up for you. It is important to get into a relationship with someone for who they are today, not who you think they can be down the road. If the person they are today is not a healthy partner for you, not ready or available for you, and not possessing the qualities you deem important then it is the wisest choice to move on and keep looking.
Tiffany Dzioba, PsyD is an expert in the field of addiction, and licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.