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  • Writer's pictureJennifer McCrackin

Why Should I Wait 1 Year? Early Recovery Relationships

Early in recovery, relationships are one of the leading causes of relapse. Addiction counselors strongly advise waiting until a person has achieved one year of sobriety. We have to learn to love ourselves before we can love someone else. Recovery, not romance, should be the focus.

The first few months of recovery from addiction are some of the most difficult. Insomnia, triggers, drug cravings, and the need to deal with emotions that were previously numbed with drugs make early recovery a period of enormous adjustment.

It will be easy for many to find replacement addictions, such as a love addiction, to replace the high the drug or alcohol provided. Many people enjoy the honeymoon phase of new relationships, feeling euphoria from the new friendship and potential for love, making it more challenging to address issues that underlie the addiction. Typically these underlying issues are related to our negative core beliefs, a difficult thing to uncover when we are viewed as ‘perfect’ by our new partner.

But have you thought, would you want to date yourself right now? In other words, are you the best that you can be? Early in recovery, people tend to have high expectations of others without thinking about what they themselves are bringing to the table. Only when people know who they are and what they have to offer can they find a mate who is an appropriate match for their values, interests and goals.

A new love interest has the potential to become the substance abuser’s "higher power" in other words, that they now have faith in someone to focus on. That’s dangerous because the person can fail you, and relationships end. Most people in early recovery aren’t stable emotionally, and relationships in early recovery are fraught with volatility and emotional instability. Such romances tend to be short-lived, and the collapse of a new relationship, even a close friendship can easily trigger relapse.

Nonetheless, many newly sober single people ignore the advice to stay single for a year, clinicians say. When Sarah Hepola, author of The New York Times best-seller “Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank to Forget,” a memoir of alcoholism and recovery, first tried to get sober at age 25, she thought swearing off dating for a year was unfair. Like many substance abusers in recovery, Hepola didn't get and stay sober on the first try. She went to support group meetings and quit drinking for 18 months, "which felt like forever," she writes in her book. As an attractive woman, many group meetings she attended had a barrage of men angling to befriend her and help "support" her through her recovery.

"A good looking, seemingly nice guy would listen to me share my past, really seemed to care and identify with what I was going through and it became a friendship. But then it would become something more. I can't say I wasn't at fault, it was a new thrill to feel good again and I liked the attention. But the impulse decisions to be with him all the time, were the same I had made during my addiction, and I knew it was wrong. Then reality hit and it hurt to see the truth. I felt betrayed and didn't have the tools or knowledge on how to handle such an emotional blow to my ego. Alcohol was what I had always turned to and I relapsed. All that work was again gone. I was angry, sad, life just worsened after that."

Hepola says she went in and out of support group meetings intermittently over the years, but couldn't quit drinking for long. It took about a decade later before she really tried to get sober. Though she remained skeptical about the advice to abstain from dating for a year. “I had no interest in following the rules, but I did end up abstaining from dating with the help of my women's support network of close, experienced friends in the program. This was surprising to me, alcohol had been an escape from my body and my insecurities, [and] it took a long time for me to feel comfortable being known and seen. A lot of the qualities a woman needs to date successfully – a sense of her own worth, proper boundaries, trust in her own gut – those had been plowed down by years of excessive drinking, and they took a long time to grow back.”

As women become more confident and emotionally healthy in recovery, their self-esteem and confidence improves, and they begin to actually like themselves. "We teach people how to treat us, so with longer term recovery, we are going to demand to be treated differently than when we are new to recovery."

The Pitfalls of Choosing Unhealthy Partners

People in recovery might choose to date a very different type of person when they first quit using as compared to when they have achieved a year of sobriety. Recovering people often have learned to either shut down and hold in their emotions for fear of being hurt or to romanticize their relationships and fall in love at the first opportunity, without discriminating.

“In recovery, people learn new skills that need to be practiced before they are able to make them part of their daily life without returning to old patterns,” she explains. “If they start dating too soon, they are likely to choose someone who is emotionally less mature, as they themselves are, than if they waited a year.”

Codependent individuals focus too heavily on the needs of their partner (“My happiness is dependent on making/keeping you happy”), and define themselves by their relationship, sometimes lowering their personal standards to please someone else. Most recovering addicts have a long history of dysfunctional and destructive relationships. Some women choose toxic partners in early recovery because they lack discernment or grew accustomed to being treated poorly in childhood. The dissatisfaction they feel in their relationships is often the stressor that led to their drug abuse in the first place.

Replacing Drug Addiction with Love Addiction

Recovery is hard work that requires a full-time commitment. Returning to daily life without the security of being able to use drugs as a coping mechanism can be terrifying, particularly when drug cravings and triggers to use set in. When people stop using and start dating right away, they run the risk of seeking comfort in relationships instead of drugs.

Love addiction becomes a concern when infatuation replaces the ‘high’ of drug use. Whether the object of the addiction is drugs or an unhealthy attachment to another person, the individual is searching for something outside themselves to fill the emotional void within.

The “rush” of a new relationship can be emotionally damaging and can derail even the most valiant recovery effort. In most cases, individuals who can’t refrain from having a relationship in the first year of recovery are missing an opportunity to address the core issues underlying their addictions. They may have other mental health issues, compulsions and cross-addictions that need to be addressed as well, before they can truly focus on a relationship.

Other common pitfalls of dating in early recovery include:

 • Pressuring a partner into a relationship, and then holding them emotionally bonded to your needs instead of their own or vice versa

 • Being too desperate or clingy and thinking they can’t be without the other person

 • Waiting to hear what you want to hear

 • Trying to help the other person's recovery or expecting to be helped

 • Being consumed by lust, attraction, worry, insecurities, time

 • Telling too much too soon or not sharing any thoughts or feelings at all

Stay Close to Your Program.

By working your program, in your first year you will discover who you are and what you can bring to your relationships, rather than what you can get from them. Recovering addicts have to re-learn healthy intimacy by overcoming feelings of anger, isolation, fear and distrust and gradually begin to trust themselves to be able to share their hopes, fears and dreams with others.

Figure out who you are.

Learn to define for yourself the things that you will not compromise for a love interest (‘deal-breakers’), such as your values, personal interests and spirituality. Only then will you be healthy and whole as a partner for someone else.

Develop a support network.

Building a reliable group of sober friends you see at meetings and meet for coffee and lunch can reduce your temptation to date. If you have a strong network of sober people in your life, you’re less likely to feel lonely and try to date. You can do a lot of fun things together, like going out to eat, going to the movies or going on hikes. Being part of a group also means you’re less likely to get fixated on one person. Not everyone is equally adept at developing new friends, but keep in mind that all you have to do is raise your hand at a support-group meeting and say you're a newbie and want to befriend sober people, and you'll be surrounded after the meeting. Staying isolated or trying to "cure" your addiction with a self-help approach won't work.

Be Patient.

Recovery happens one day at a time. Even though it may feel like the process is agonizingly slow, there is no substitute for taking the time in the first year to focus exclusively on recovery. Recovering the mind, body and spirit requires time to clear the years of shame, guilt, denial and emotional wreckage, and the likelihood of staying sober increases with each year in recovery.


Share with your Sober friends your promise to commit to refrain from dating. They will help you stay focused on your recovery program and will assist you in following the guidance to not date for a year. Once we say out loud we want to remain relationship-free the first year, we have a host of people who will hold us accountable for this. Keep saying it out loud every time you share your story [with fellow substance abusers in recovery]. It helps remind you of your goal as you keep those who may be interested in you an arm’s length away.

Set and execute goals.

Make a list of things you’d like to do and didn’t while you were drinking excessively or abusing drugs, activities and projects that don't require a significant other, and do them. Always wanted to try bungee jumping? Do it! Experiment with new foods, games, activities or types of books. Try a variety of distractions to keep from using drugs or drinking. Those distractions, once repeated enough, become the activities that bring us healthy comfort.

Make a Long-Term Plan.

Once individuals pass the one-year mark, they can gradually ease back into dating if they feel ready. At the same time, they should continue in therapy for at least another year for help to maintain healthy dating habits. Many recovering addicts benefit from ongoing support to help them work through their insecurities, build confidence, and learn to feel and express emotions in healthy ways.

No Excuses.

Dating is never an excuse for using drugs or alcohol. Part of early recovery is learning how to have fun and meet new people while sober. Although bars may be off limits, there are plenty of other places to meet prospective partners, such as AA meetings, volunteer functions, self-help workshops and community events. Many local chapters of AA host a variety of sober functions, including sober surf retreats, sober camping trips and a sober softball team, where people in recovery can meet and get to know each other.

When beginning to date again, take caution against focusing too heavily on attraction, appearance and external qualities. Instead, people in recovery should choose a partner they feel safe enough around to truly be themselves and whose company they enjoy. Then give friendships an opportunity to blossom into romance.

Romantic relationships – and the ups and downs that come with them – are a natural and healthy part of life. Don’t keep secrets about your relationships. We’re only as sick as our secrets. People in early sobriety need to be completely honest with their sponsor – a fellow recovering alcoholic or addict who guides them through the 12 steps – or a therapist or trusted friend. If they’re thinking about dating or have launched a new relationship, they should share that. A sponsor could point out that a broken relationship increases the risks of relapse.

By taking the time to become whole before diving into the dating scene, you give yourself a chance not only to stay sober but to have a fulfilling relationship that can be better than your best “high.”

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CREDIT: Sierra by the Sea, Newport Beach, CA



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