Dating in Recovery: It’s Complicated

Dating in recovery is a complex subject. We come into recovery as broken people; detached from ourselves, and from our feelings. We’re told, ‘the good news that you get your feelings back.’ One of those feelings is our sexual instinct. We’ve all been there at a meeting when an attractive person walks in. Come on, we’ve all found someone attractive at some point or another! I recall an old sponsor who would take one look at the sparkle in my eyes, and would immediately tell me, ‘look at the floor, Olivia!’ Feeling berated, I often did what I was told. Until of course I gained the confidence to know who I was and be empowered to take actions that were right for me. In this process, my self-esteem grew from the gutter to celebrating my womanhood. But that process took time, and, like many others, I learned the hard way.

I have mixed views on dating in the rooms. First and foremost, we are at those meetings for our recovery. Having said that, I’m mindful that we are human beings, too; it is in our basic human instinct to pro-create.

Mindful of that human instinct, and being new in recovery, I had a little hard won experience in this regard. I was a single woman in her mid 30’s who had dated both in and out of the rooms—each with their own set of pros and cons. In what I may have considered to be rather unsuccessful attempts at meeting the right person, I actually learned some valuable lessons. I believe that these lessons are a rite of passage for everyone in recovery. But, if we listen carefully first, we might be able to avoid some of the pain of acting on impulse and jumping in with both feet first.

When I first came around the rooms it was very strongly suggested that I don’t get involved in a relationship for the first couple of years. At the time I found that odd and wondered, How could a relationship affect my recovery? Given my utter desperation to save my life, I listened to the outside advice. Well, mostly—I waited until about 10 months for my first date.

At that point I thought I was better than ever – I’d been through the steps, maintained the longest period of sobriety ever, and had gone back to work. By all accounts I thought I was well. On reflection, perhaps I had a little more to learn. I wish I knew then what I know now.

At that point, I had little idea of who I was. Outwardly, I portrayed an image of togetherness. Little did I know that, to the contrary, inwardly my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth were in the gutter. What has been particularly enlightening in this journey is the realization that I was both disillusioned and disconnected from myself and from reality.

Without identity, inner connection, and love for myself, how could I possibly have a healthy relationship? I had absolutely nothing but infatuation to offer. I now see that what I was doing was attempting to fix myself—distract myself even—and act on lust in a desperate attempt to fulfill that basic human instinct. The problem with that is that I didn’t have the skills or emotional maturity to do cope with a relationship. Consequently, I made a lot of poor choices.

I experienced one failed relationship—or encounter—after another. Or, one could say that I was graciously provided one lesson after another; about who I was, how I acted in relationships, the type of relationship I deserved, and the love I thought I was worthy of. I learned about my values, and the broken patterns of behavior that I had brought with me from childhood—none of which served me. Perhaps most alarming was the lesson that just because someone paid me attention did not mean that I should sleep with them.

Those lessons were illuminating. They have been fundamental to my growth as a woman: the honing of my instinctual values, and how I now act in a healthy manner in my relationships.

Reflecting upon these lessons, I wondered that what I would say if I were to advise the Liv who was new to recovery. These are my suggestions:

1. Stay single, for as long as possible

On a visit to San Francisco, I met up with a friend of mine. At the time, I was a little over three years clean and had been dating a guy for a couple of months. Yet, despite all the work I had undertaken, I still had much to learn; not only was that relationship wrong for me, but I was still so disconnected from my gut instincts. Sharing some of that relationship drama with her, she said these words to me that I think will stay with me forever:

‘Honey, men are like buses – just because one comes along, doesn’t mean you should hop on!’

2. First, look within

It is crucial to work on your emotional recovery and uncover the root cause of your addiction. What is your pain? Is it trauma, or is it stressors in your life? Until you uncover the cause you will struggle to recover, because you are simply dealing only with just the addictive behaviors— you need to get underneath them.

Read about developing emotional sobriety, mindfulness, and anything else that you can use to learn about yourself and develop your confidence and identity. I read a lot of Brene Brown, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, Gabor Maté, Marianne Williamson, Glennon Doyle- Melton, Noah Levine, Gabrielle Bernstein. Life-changing information is contained within these books.

While I have come on leaps and bounds in my emotional recovery, there’s no denying how emotionally stunted I was when I first got sober. This is because when we live in active addiction we fail to develop emotionally. To the outside world people say, ‘but this is just life‘ or, ‘toughen up‘, when we appear to be expressing emotions immaturely. My emotional immaturity has always been in relation to people and how to interact with them—that is where my greatest recovery has been.

By gathering this insight, you will be able to more effectively communicate your needs in a relationship, from a place of confidence. Being better informed about your identity, you are more likely to find someone who has a similar value system and relationship objectives. I realized in my emotional work that I had acted in such a way that demonstrates fear my thoughts, behaviors and actions. For example, when something didn’t go my way, I sulked and sought ways to punish the other person because I felt rejected and feared being abandoned. If there was conflict, I immediately thought it was over. In my work, I was able to see how childish I had become. I’m now better equipped to not act on my fearbased thoughts—instead responding appropriately, like an adult. If I enter into a relationship without this information and change in behavior, I’m likely to perpetuate the unhealthy relationships choices I made in active addiction.

By not looking within, and choosing a relationship to fix you, you’re simply transferring your addiction from drugs to people, co-dependency, and lust.

3. Fall in love with yourself

I cannot impress enough how important it is that you first fall in love with yourself, before you can fall in love with someone else. It’s unlikely you’ll gain the respect and love you deserve unless you first show it to yourself. When you do it that way around, you influence what you will and won’t accept and are less likely to be treated badly and abandon yourself in the process. Trust me, I know. That involves spending quality time with myself—taking long walks, candlelit baths, yoga, taking myself on dates, and having a well-practiced selfcare regime. I was at war with myself and neglected my soul for far too long in addiction; it became time to show myself love that I deserved. From that place, I understood the love that I was worthy of.

4. Practice congruence between your intentions and your actions

So many times I’ve said that I’m going to take this slow. That I’m going to get to know them first. My intentions were to meet someone who was capable of a longterm relationship that could potentially have the same goals as me down the line, with children. Except, my actions were to jump into something head first, let my recovery slip, and become physically intimate too soon. Consequently, I’ve ended up with guys that don’t really want to stick around. Either because I’d scared them off, or because they were only after one thing. Be wise and take things slow. The longer you take to get physical—if the guy is interested in you—it’s likely he’ll stick around. And, most importantly, you’ll have more respect for yourself. I have learned this the hard way.

5. Maintain your recovery, and keep talking

I’ve spent hours on the phone to my close and trusted female friends. I had no idea how relationships work. I had all of these feelings and I needed friends to help me sieve through them and identify what was going on. It was frightening. It is really no surprise that relationships are the biggest cause of relapse. We hear it all the time: people get involved, stop attending meetings, and then the relationship breaks-up and they relapse. It doesn’t always happen that way, but relationships are a sure fire way of affecting your equilibrium that you have spent months trying to achieve. This is why it is crucial to keep talking. I needed more recovery activities and conversations with female friends when I was in a relationship.

6. Protect yourself and your recovery

This means that your recovery comes first. Without it, you have no successful relationships. So be mindful of dating someone who is a drinker, or likes to party. Put your recovery and your friendships first.

All-in-all, my experience of dating has involved both a lot pain and growth. It has also involved pleasure, laughs, and joy. Without that experience I wouldn’t be who I am today, with the solid self-knowledge, respect and confidence I now have.

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