We all want to find someone we love and who loves us back, but what happens when we realize that our loved one is recovering from an addiction? Can a recovering addict ever make a good long-term partner and, if so, what do we need to know?
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We’re going to look at the challenges of dating a recovering addict and the most important tips to make sure your relationship is healthy for both of you.
Recovering from an addiction is difficult. If you’re falling for someone who is a recovering addict, whether this is drugs, alcohol, gambling, or anything else, you should be aware of the challenges they are going to face.
If you’re thinking about dating someone who is in recovery, the first thing you need to know is that recovery is hard. Really hard. It can be physically difficult if they have cravings or withdrawal to deal with. It’s mentally and emotionally difficult.
They’re having to confront deep, painful parts of themselves and face up to how their actions have hurt others.All of this comes at a cost of time and energy1.
Coping with daily life while in recovery can be like trying to run a marathon while trying to carry someone else on your back. You might be able to manage it, but it’s much more difficult than it is for everyone else and there’s always a chance you’re going to fall on your face.
Someone in recovery is probably facing one of the most difficult times in their life. It’s important that you acknowledge that before committing to a relationship with them.
Someone who is battling their addiction can be tempted to replace one addiction with another2. Sometimes, that new addiction could be you.
Being in love, especially in a new relationship, is exciting. It’s full of emotional highs, which activate the reward centers of the brain in a very similar way to drug or alcohol abuse, for example. This lets your new relationship become a substitute for their original addiction.
This might not sound too bad at first glance. They’re going to pay you a huge amount of attention and be incredibly loving. There are two main problems with this, though.
The first problem is that the brain chemistry rewards are going to tail off pretty quickly. Once your relationship stops being new, they’re going to have to find ways to increase the excitement and drama. That can lead to an unhealthy or even dangerous relationship dynamic.
The next problem is more about their needs. They’re not just in recovery to stop their specific addiction behaviors. They need to deal with the underlying problems that push them toward addiction. Moving on to a new addiction, even if that is a much healthier option, doesn’t help them in the longer term.
One of the challenges of being an addict is that you really want someone to rescue you. One of the biggest challenges of dating an addict is that you really want to rescue them.
Unfortunately for both of you, that’s not how addiction (or relationships more widely) work. You can’t rescue them, no matter how hard you try. Their recovery is just that; theirs.
Trying to rescue them usually leads to a codependent relationship which is unhealthy for both of you3.
We’ve already talked about just how hard recovery is. Someone who is trying to overcome an addiction is doing something really tough and, just like the rest of us when faced with a really difficult job, they can look for distractions.
Dating you might be just the distraction they’re looking for. Your relationship can become an excuse for not giving their full attention to their recovery. You will need to be really alert to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Going through recovery is an intense process. Most people who go through that experience find that they have changed in some fundamental ways. Often, it’s not possible to know beforehand exactly what kind of changes someone in recovery is going to experience, or who they’ll be by the end.
This can be unsettling for them, but it also means that there is a risk in dating someone early in their recovery journey. You can’t be sure whether you’ll still be compatible by the end.
If you’re thinking about dating someone in the early stages of recovery, it’s worth being aware that most experts would recommend that addicts should wait about 12 months after the start of recovery before they date4. You will always have to make your own decision, but it’s worth thinking about whether it might be better to wait.
Being in recovery can often mean avoiding places that encourage you to return to your old addictions behaviors. If you’re dating someone who is going through this, you might need to avoid some traditional date options.
If you’re dating a recovering alcoholic, for example, you might need to avoid bars and clubs on your dates. Some former addicts become more comfortable with these venues while others might need to stay away long-term.
Some people find that it helps their recovery if the people they love avoid the things they are addicted to as well. They might ask you to avoid drugs or alcohol when they’re around, or even promise to be sober permanently as well.
One of the hardest things to understand and accept when you’re dating a recovering addict is that there’s a very strong chance that they will relapse at some point5. It can be even more challenging to recognize that this isn’t a sign that they just weren’t trying hard enough.
It can be helpful to look at the “stages of change” model of addiction recovery which shows it as a circular, rather than linear, path. This emphasizes that relapse is often a part of the recovery process and that recovery can continue after relapse.
Given that addiction is typically a chronic condition, your partner may never be in a position to say that he’s “cured.” One of the side effects of this is that the stigma of being a “recovering alcoholic” might never go away.
This might mean that your family and friends have trouble accepting your relationship. Your partner might have difficulty finding work or face other forms of prejudice. Unfortunately, some of this stigma can even rub off onto you.
Some people who have successfully battled one type of addiction can find themselves substituting a second addiction instead of their first2. For example, they might overcome an addiction to opiates only to become an alcoholic.
This is not true for everyone with an addiction, but it can be helpful for addicts and their loved ones to be alert to the risks.
If you’re hoping to start a family, you might want to be aware that there is a genetic component to someone’s susceptibility to addiction6.
Having a baby with someone who is in recovery doesn’t mean that your child will definitely develop an addiction of their own, but you should know about the additional risk.
This shouldn’t stop you from having a child with someone you love, but you might want to do some research on other factors that can influence addiction and look for ways that you can minimize the risk.
Someone recovering from an addiction will probably hear these questions over and over again, but that doesn’t mean that you should be asking them. Here are some of the inappropriate questions recovering addicts are asked and why they’re unhelpful.
Staying sober can be difficult enough for addicts. Asking them to justify their decision to their addiction entirely can increase both their shame and the temptation.
When it comes to alcohol, drugs, or similar addictive substances, there’s no need for anyone to justify saying no.
Some illnesses can be cured completely but others might go into remission or become manageable chronic conditions. For many people, addiction is a chronic disease. They manage it by avoiding the things they were addicted to.
Asking someone who is in recovery when they will be done can be like asking someone with Parkinson's or MS when they will be cured.
Most addicts will understand that you’re just curious about how recovery works, but being reminded that they might never be able to have a healthy relationship with whatever they’re addicted to can be upsetting for many addicts.
When it comes to an illness with a lot of stigma such as addiction or HIV, it’s often kinder to google answers to simple questions rather than ask someone who is living with it.
Questions that are designed to make addicts feel ashamed are counterproductive. Shame doesn’t cure addiction. It’s also often redundant. Most people with addictions already feel a huge amount of shame about their illness. We don’t need to add to that burden.
Some people with addiction problems are open about their experiences of hitting rock bottom, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is or should be.
The experiences that push someone to seek treatment for their addiction are usually deeply personal and can be humiliating or make them feel ashamed. Don’t assume that you have the right to that kind of information.
It honestly doesn’t matter what you follow this with. There is no “just try” solution to addiction. It’s a serious, chronic disease and requires treatment and empathy, rather than being trivialized.
Even if you’re trying to help, someone suffering from an addiction will almost certainly know more about the potential help and treatments available to them than you do.
There are so many reasons that this isn’t an appropriate question. Firstly, it’s designed to make someone with an addiction feel ashamed and guilty about their problem. That’s not going to help in their recovery.
It also implies that you think that their addiction is just a failure of willpower or not wanting something badly enough. Remember that addiction is an illness, not a moral failing.
Someone who is battling an addiction doesn’t want their illness. As we’ve mentioned, it’s not that they’re just not trying hard enough. Addiction can change both the biochemistry and the structure of someone’s brain. No amount of trying to “just stop” can fix that.
People with addiction issues are entitled to be happy and to have fulfilling relationships, but it’s important that you know how to deal with some of the specific difficulties you might face when dating someone who is recovering.
Here are some of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and your partner as you build a healthy relationship.
The single most important thing you can do to ensure that your relationship with a recovering addict is a healthy one is to be really clear about your boundaries.
Knowing what you will and won’t accept in your relationship will help you avoid the dangers of codependency and domestic violence that can often occur in relationships involving addiction.
Having strong boundaries isn’t just good for you. It can help your partner as well. Dating someone with firm boundaries can make them feel secure, which is important for their recovery.
It’s always easy to dive straight into a new relationship head first. Falling head over heels can be intoxicating, but that might not be a good thing if you’re dating a recovering addict. Taking things slowly can give both of you time to adapt to the new relationship and build trust.
Remember that someone with addiction issues may have a history of breaking people’s trust. They may need to overcome their fear of letting you down as much as you need to be sure that you can trust them.
It’s really hard to see someone you love suffering as a result of their illness, but making excuses for them and trying to cover up their relapse can make things worse. This is known as enabling.
Having to live with the consequences of their actions is one of the things that pushes addicts to change their behavior. If you try to make their life easier by removing those consequences, it’s exhausting for you and makes it harder for them to stay motivated.
Healthy communication is important for every relationship, but it can be an even bigger factor when you’re dating a recovered addict. Addiction is often sustained by a pattern of lies and deceit7. It’s essential that you create a habit of open, honest communication from the start.
Having a healthy communication style means that your partner will hopefully feel safe enough to talk to you about their struggles with sobriety which makes it easier for them to seek help early.
Dating an addict, even one in recovery, can be challenging. Make sure that you have a strong support network that can help you navigate those challenges.
It’s important that you feel safe to open to your support network. That’s tricky if you feel that they’re judgemental about addiction.
If you don’t think that your friends and family can accept your partner’s issues, try working with an experienced relationship coach. A great relationship coach, or even a therapist, can give you the support you need without judging you or your partner.
Lots of people with addiction issues have done things that they’re not proud of. As their partner, you might have to accept that the person you love has left a trail of hurt and damage behind them in the past.
If you’re going to date a recovering addict with this kind of history, it’s essential that you really do accept their past. Holding onto it or throwing it in their face during an argument isn’t fair or helpful. If you don’t think you can let go of what he did in the past, you might need to let go of him.
If your partner is in recovery, it can really help them to stick with it if they feel as though you’re working on it as a team. Find ways to support them in their recovery both emotionally and practically.
Take them to appointments or meetings. Choose activities that avoid places or people that might encourage them to use. Most importantly, ask them for more ideas for how you can be supportive.
When you’re dating someone who is recovering from an addiction, it can be tempting to blame all of the problems in your relationship on their illness. That’s not going to lead to a healthy relationship with mutual respect.
You’re still fallible and you’ll make just as many mistakes as you would in a relationship with a non-addict. By taking responsibility for your own mistakes, you’re giving them another example of how a healthy relationship works.
Recovering addicts come into a new relationship with baggage from the past, just like everyone else. This doesn’t stop them from having healthy, fulfilling relationships. You do need to be aware that there is a high (40-60%) chance that they might relapse but this doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed8.
The general consensus among experts is that addicts should wait at least a year into their recovery before they start dating4. This gives them time to build new, sober habits and to deal with the intense feelings they experience early in treatment.
A relationship between two addicts isn’t generally a good idea in the early stages of recovery. They are both in an unstable state and can sabotage each other. Later in recovery, dating another addict can be helpful as they have shared experiences and can hold each other accountable.
Dating a recovered addict can bring some specific challenges, but there’s no reason that your relationship can’t be both healthy and happy. Focusing on boundaries and honest communication can help you build a solid relationship that is good for both of you.
What are your experiences? Have you ever dated an ex-addict? How did things work out? Is there anything you wish you knew at the start? Let us know in the comments. Remember, dating an addict isn’t always easy. If you know someone who’s in this situation, show your support by sending them this article.