26 Feb Help Love Win! By Vonique Schmidt, LPCC
For anyone familiar with the 12-steps, or the 2000 movie 28 Days with Sandra Bullock, it is often said that one should wait until there has been a year of sobriety prior to getting into a new relationship. The thought, as I understand it, is the first year of sobriety should be utilized to focus on oneself, see if you can keep a houseplant alive, and then (maybe) try out a pet. After that commitment and receiving your 1-year cake, you may be ready to slowly enter the dating world. For what it’s worth, I can’t keep a houseplant alive but I’ve managed a 12+ year relationship.
I reached out to a few friends to gather their thoughts – 2 sober friends, who we’ll call N & J; 1 therapist friend who we’ll call A; and 1 sober therapist friend who we’ll call B. These are the questions I asked…
How long should you wait before you date? Or have casual sex?
How is love different sober versus when using?
So… how long should you wait before you date? Or have casual sex?
J, who is one of those people who makes you feel comfortable immediately, says, “I would never tell someone not to date in their first year even though that’s a spoken and unspoken suggested rule of thumb. I dated in my first year. As long as you’re sober, you’ll have an experience either way. In hindsight, I wish I would have waited until I knew more about who I was before deciding to involve someone else. It can be dangerous and divert away from deep healing. The chemical high of ‘falling in love’ diverted me away from a true withdrawal experience, but I had to hit that emotional bottom years later.”
N, who is exceptionally nonjudgmental and a reliable sounding board, says, “It’s best to wait until you can be sure you’re making decisions that are not based in an attempt to replicate the feelings that drugs and alcohol produced by substituting them with sex or a relationship.” And B, maybe the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, says, “It is commonly accepted that a newcomer avoid any kind of romantic relationship in their first year. This appears nowhere in the literature. All AA literature says is, ‘we are not the arbiter of anyone’s sex conduct.’ But what is more sensible is, ‘don’t make any big changes in the first year,’ and for most, romantic relationships are a big change. For the newcomer, the attention received from the opposite sex is the approval and validation they are looking for. But also what comes along with being new is the inability and proper skills to put that validation in proper perspective. With some a year or two is not enough. All that being said, most will date in the first year. Date when you have some recovery under your belt – which can be very subjective. Most think they have more recovery in this area than they really do.”
And lastly, A, who much like B is a pure delight to be around, says (in the context of working with people in recovery), “As a professional who works mainly with people in early recovery, I could never advise anyone on when to introduce dating or casual sex back into their life. I find that often enough, many people use relationships as merely a distraction to avoid what new and unfamiliar feelings may be emerging. I introduce Alexandra Katehakis’ notion of ‘sex addiction as affect regulation’ to all of my clients as a way to explain potential origins of their desire. At times, if clients can understand the desire to seek relationships or casual sex, clients can make better meaning of their behaviors and better decisions for long term sobriety.”
“Love is delusional, whether you’re using or sober.”What I took away from summarizing the responses to this question is this: most people date in their first year and some recognize, on their own, that it is likely an avoidance or distraction technique for the harsh truths and repressed feelings that come up in early sobriety. For those that don’t recognize this, they may find themselves in an unfortunate, or even devastating, situation in which they are hurt or taken advantage of. In my own experience working in treatment, many have relapsed as a consequence of a too-soon relationship gone wrong. While this isn’t the case for everyone, it is certainly something to remain aware of in one’s first years of recovery.
This should not come as a surprise but, I felt, the most powerful responses were garnered from question #2 – how is love different sober versus when using?
J says, “Love is delusional, whether you’re using or sober. It’s about perception. If there isn’t conscious healing on emotional sobriety, sober is just a word without works/action. Love when recovered, is REAL, it’s hard work, it’s effortless, and deeply fulfilling.” N says, “Love is love. The problem is that most of us don’t understand what love truly is so we settle for a poor facsimile. It takes most people a long time learning about what love isn’t (based on primordial wounding) before they figure out what it actually is. ‘Love’ in active use is not self-aware, so it often lacks the internal clarity needed to sustain a healthy relationship.”
B says, “The ability to join with someone else and experience intense feelings and deep affection can be distorted, hindered and numbed by addiction. Most addicts have difficulty with intimacy. Drugs and alcohol can successfully ease the sense of discomfort that comes with not knowing yourself or how to relate to others, especially a romantic partner.” And finally, A says, “In my experience, love differs in sobriety versus active addiction by the intensity of the interactions between the couple. Many clients in early sobriety struggle to identify love as it can appear ‘boring’ or uneventful due to lack of chaos in the relationships that is familiar in active addiction. For many folks in early recovery, they are redefining what love looks and feels like.”
In conclusion, there is a place for love in both active addiction and in sobriety; however, I think addiction can overpower love and therefore love has less of a chance to win when substance abuse or dependence is in the mix. Being in a healthy relationship is difficult enough without the added pressure of an active addiction. When one (or both parties) is actively using, the highs of the relationship will be few and far between and the lows will be heartbreaking valleys, some of which will be difficult to get out of. I tend to air on the side of caution when it comes to dating in early recovery and prescribe to the adage, “water seeks its own level,” which speaks to forming the best possible relationship with self is likely to lead to attracting an emotionally healthier mate than perhaps you have in the past. Help love win – make sure you have done your own work and have a loving relationship with yourself before involving someone else. Another’s love is not a replacement for the love and compassion we need to have towards ourselves.