Relationships, no matter how compatible two people are, require a lot of work in order to succeed. Many professionals recommend that anyone who is in early recovery should not form a new relationship for at least a year after treatment. And for a good reason. People starting a sober lifestyle are literally starting a new life. Recovery is the best thing you can do for yourself – but it can also be time-consuming, and you will need to dedicate effort to adjusting to this change. Since the risk of relapse is highest in the first few months of recovery, you should focus on your new life. Any time spent on a relationship is time not spent on recovery.
While studies show that supportive relationships can be helpful in recovery, most of the time, this is not the case. This is particularly for those based on romance. Recovery has to be the priority for the newly clean and sober.
The Trouble with Relationships in Early Recovery
Relationship troubles, and especially dysfunctional relationships, are one of the major causes for relapse. This is why there is so much emphasis placed on having a stable support network, especially in early recovery.
There are many reasons why relationships should be avoided in the first year of sobriety. They can spell trouble for both the newly-sober partner(s) and the non-sober one as well.
People starting sobriety are building a new life. They need time to find themselves again, focus on recovery, create new goals and return to a normal life. This can be tough if someone is also focused on a relationship, which demands a lot of attention if they want it to succeed. For example, someone involved in a relationship may forgo a support meeting in order to not miss a date.
On the other hand, if someone is truly focused on their recovery, they may not give the proper attention to their partner. This could cause a rift, which in turn, might make you more stressed and anxious.
All relationships come with stressful situations, be it minor disagreements, major fights or break-ups. They’re unavoidable. A newly sober person is very sensitive, especially in the early part of their recovery. This stress can easily trigger relapse.
Fear of Stigma
Someone fresh out of rehab may be hesitant to tell a new partner about their addiction. This can cause a lot of problems, because the other partner may feel they were dishonest. Supporting a newly sober person is not easy for anyone. Someone who is in the early stages of dating may not be ready for that responsibility.
Likewise, they will likely feel uncomfortable in the relationship if they do not open up in the beginning. Not opening up can also lead to their partner unknowingly enabling them.
Two Birds with One Stone
Just as a relationship between a sober and non-sober person can fall apart, a relationship between two recently sober people can fall apart too. And if one person relapses, the other is highly likely to as well. It is wise to try and avoid this potential threat to recovery.
Codependency is a serious issue for both partners. Someone in recovery who is rebuilding their identity and self-esteem can easily become dependent on someone else to provide it. The opposite is true as well. A person who has to take care of someone in early recovery can become too focused on their partner’s well-being. They may begin to neglect their own. If this continues, this could lead to the relationship becoming unhealthy, or a break-up.
Especially in early recovery, a relationship, or sex itself, can easily become a substitute addiction. People who are newly sober are seeking a new hobby to occupy themselves. They are eager to latch on to anything that fills the void that their previous addiction left. Moreover, neither party may notice this problem until the relationship starts to collapse. If that happens, the relationship can turn into a dysfunctional one, and the person in recovery is likely to relapse.
False Sense of Success
When one is in recovery and restarting one’s life, there are a lot of changes and a lot of checkpoints that give the addicted person the sense of making good progress. Starting a new relationship feels like one of them, but it may be an illusion.
They will feel like they’re getting better and getting on with their life – but maybe too well. This may lead them to believe they are recovering faster than they thought would be possible. Overconfidence is one of the factors that can lead to relapse.
Doomed from the Start
Most relationships that start too early in recovery don’t last. It may be better for the newly sober person to wait until they are in a more stable situation before starting one. They can avoid stress this way, at a time when stress is most risky to them.
Benefits of Relationships in Early Recovery
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Two people can meet when one, or both, is in recovery and form a lasting, loving relationship. If built on a healthy foundation, recovery-based relationships, can help both parties in the long-run. If both partners are focused on staying sober, this can truly create a strong bond that supports you through recovery.
In addition, you will have the same experience of battling addiction. This can take a lot of stress out of the “getting to know you” part of the relationship. There will be no, or fewer, feelings of embarrasment and shame, since you have both gone through the same thing. You can serve as each other’s support systems, helping one another avoid relapse. Your partner can also be someone you will aspire not to disappoint, which can be motivational.
It is still best to avoid relationships in early recovery. But once a person is ready, they can make it work for the better.
Tips for Starting a New Relationship In Early Recovery
No matter what stage you are at in recovery, you should always be prepared for the problems a new relationship can pose to your sobriety. It can be hard to build a healthy relationship in recovery, but the outcomes are often worth it. Perhaps your first year in recovery has passed – or perhaps you feel really ready for a new relationship before that time has come. Whether you are starting a relationship with another person in recovery, or not in recovery, it is wise to keep a few things in mind.
Understand the Consequences
Before jumping straight in, make sure you understand what you’re getting into. A relationship requires attention and time. Are you able to commit that time, or will it get in the way of your recovery? If the person isn’t sober as well, are you ready to tell them that you are? Are you okay with the fact that they may drink around you?
Prepare for Disclosure
While you are not obligated to tell anyone about your past or your recovery, it may be a good idea to do so. People who have not told their partner in the beginning said they felt really uncomfortable afterwards. This can get in the way of your recovery. In addition, it is best to know in the beginning if the person is comfortable with the situation. If you are sober from alcohol, they may feel awkward drinking in front of you. Or if they don’t know that you are, it can be awkward if they invite you to parties where people are drinking alcohol.
Don’t Neglect Continuing Care
No matter what, your recovery should always come first. Make sure you stick to your recovery plan, even if you’ve been sober for a while. Don’t miss a fellowship meeting just because your significant other has planned a date.
Take It Slow
Always remember to take things slow and don’t rush the relationship. It may be tempting, especially if you’ve been single for a while, but it helps avoid problems in the long-run.
Watch Out for Signs of a Toxic Relationship
It helps to examine your old relationships before initiating a new one. This is especially important in recovery, where a toxic relationship can spiral you into relapse. If you find the person is not being supportive, or worse, enabling you, the best decision may be to leave.
How to Support Your Newly Sober Partner
Whether you’re in a new relationship or picking up from where you left off before treatment, you have to realise that things are going to be different after treatment for your partner, and it is important for you to be their support.
Take some time to educate yourself about addiction and understand that they have a chronic psychological illness that will require a lifelong commitment to recovery. Being understanding and compassionate is very important if you plan to be their support system. Don’t guilt or shame them for their past, and especially so if they begin to relapse.
Take Care of Yourself
While it is important to be supportive, it is also necessary to take care of your own well-being. This means avoiding being codependent, and avoid putting your partner’s priorities ahead of your own.
Encourage Healthy Habits
You can be a great role model for your partner, so why not be one? Encourage them to eat well, exercise and engage in healthy hobbies that do not involve alcohol or drugs. Ultimately, try to remain positive. They will greatly appreciate it.
Communicate and Listen
Communication is key in any relationship. Make sure you pay attention to your partner if they say something is bothering them. You may be inadvertently enabling them, or there may be something that is stressing them out that could cause relapse.
It’s Best to Wait
Whether in early recovery or not, it is wise to exercise caution before initiating a new relationship after addiction treatment. Loneliness and isolation are a big problem for people with an active addition as well as those in recovery. Having a strong support network and plenty of friends can help combat those negative feelings, without the need for a relationship. People who took the time to focus on their recovery for at least a year do not regret it, and say it genuinely helped them get better.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | January 29, 2020