07 Feb Romantic Relationships in Recovery – Probably Not a Good Idea, And Here’s Why
If you’re in recovery and thinking about starting a romantic relationship, you may want to think again. That’s because the consensus among substance use disorder experts is: “don’t do it – for at least a year.” Probably not what you want to hear if you’re reading this article, but there are many good reasons why holding off on love may be in your best interest – in both the short- and the long term.
Committing to recovery is one of the most challenging things you can do in your life, and the truth is, it can be incredibly isolating. If you’re in recovery, you’ve likely had to sever ties with unhealthy friends, you may be on shaky ground with family, and you may have even gone through a divorce or other serious breakup because of your substance addiction. When you’re in a place of rebuilding, the prospect of meeting someone who wants to be by your side may feel very tempting. Who doesn’t want to feel loved and seen when they’re in a vulnerable state?
Unfortunately, one of the main problems with romance is that it can make you feel good…really good. It can even make you feel high—and not just feel high – it can make you actually high because it stimulates the brain like drugs and alcohol do. And that’s not good for recovery.
Romance As a Replacement Drug
“Your heart sweats, your body shakes…You can’t sleep, you can’t eat…Oblivion is all you crave.”
This isn’t a list of drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It’s the lyrics to Robert Palmer’s 1986 hit song, “Addicted to Love.” One of the top reasons experts say it’s good to wait on romance while in recovery is because love addiction is real – and it can end up being a replacement drug that hijacks your recovery.
In 2010, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published a paper titled “Shared Brain Vulnerabilities Open the Way for Non-Substance Addictions: Carving Addiction at a New Joint?” The paper argues for removing the compartmentalization of and diagnostic boundary that had always existed between non-substance (gambling, sex, love, food) and substance (drugs and alcohol) addictions. The reason for the reclassification, the writers argued, is the “shared vulnerabilities underlying the pathological pursuit of substance and non-substance rewards.”
The article discusses how new romantic love experiences are similar to substance use.
“We found in a brain mapping study that early-stage romantic love activates the VTA of the midbrain and the caudate nucleus, suggesting that it does, indeed, use brain systems that mediate mammalian reward and drives and is not so much an emotion as a survival motivation. Participants in love also showed deactivation in the amygdala.” Further, brain scans of people who had been recently rejected by their love interests showed “reported activity correlated with craving in cocaine addicts.”
While a primary reason to avoid relationships in recovery is that they can produce brain activity similar to, if not exactly matching, drug use, it’s not the only reason. Unlike drugs or alcohol, or other substances where it’s just you and the inanimate substance, relationships involve other people with their own wants, needs, desires, ideas, goals…and problems. Once the initial rush of new love subsides, reality begins to reveal itself, and with it can come situations you’re just not ready for.
Romantic Relationships Can Cause Drama and Conflict That Can Impede Recovery
Recovering from a substance use disorder is hard work. It takes a lot of commitment, time, effort, and energy. Can you guess what else takes a lot of commitment, time, effort, and energy? Relationships. Starting a new relationship when you’re still new to recovery is not recommended because it can distract and detract from the work necessary to build the systems and structures in your life that can keep you clean over the long term.
Recovery is hard all by itself. When you throw another person into the mix, you now have to consider their demands on your time and energy, and you may not have enough bandwidth to handle both recovery and a relationship. Not being able to meet your partner’s needs can lead to conflict, which can further drain you of the time and energy you need to manage your recovery. This can create a spiral that leads to an eventual breakup, which is the last thing you need when you’re leaning into sobriety.
Studies show that relationship problems and breakups are common relapse triggers for both men and women. Breakups can cause depression, anger, anxiety, sleeplessness and loss of appetite. When you’re new to recovery, these types of feelings and challenges only make maintaining sobriety more difficult.
Before You Can Really Love Someone, You Have to Learn How to Love Yourself
If you’re in recovery, the odds are good that you’ve suffered trauma or abuse, and perhaps you have a co-occurring mental health disorder. Further, substance abuse is often related to poor self-esteem –a major relationship killer. People with poor self-esteem have difficulty trusting others and do not believe in their own importance. A study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that “Low self-esteem individuals (LSEs) tend to react to relationship threats with self-protective and relationship-destructive behaviors that decrease their partners’ satisfaction with the relationship over time.”
A big part of recovery is learning how to manage mental health diagnoses and build self-esteem, self-love and self-efficacy. These capabilities can help you build healthy relationships, but they are not skills that develop overnight. They take time. If you rush them, you could end up in a situation that leads to conflict, depression, or worse – relapse.
The number one relationship people in recovery need to be working on is the one with themselves
Being alone can be…well…lonely, but it’s a necessary part of recovery for a lot of people. Rather than seeing it as a punishment, think of it as a time to get to know yourself as an individual and foster the interests, goals and ambitions that come out of that self-reflection. Use this time to get back into your hobbies or explore new pursuits. Get physically healthy with regular exercise and a healthy diet. Do the work to understand what causes you stress and develop the tools to manage the discomfort. This is the time to build esteem for yourself, and this work will allow you to be a good partner and to have the potential for a healthy, lasting relationship.
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