As many people in recovery have probably heard, (and often ignored or debated) it is detrimental to early recovery to become involved in romantic relationships. This article will discuss some of the reasoning behind the often-proposed suggestion “no relationships for the first year.”
Perhaps it is best to start with a definition of a romantic relationship. Romantic in the sense it is being used here refers to experiencing feelings of attraction, infatuation, closeness, or what the individual considers love. Relationship in the sense we are using it refers to ongoing or regular contact between an individual or individuals who are experiencing these feelings. This article will describe some of the reasons that romantic relationships are detrimental to early recovery and some of the pitfalls that await those who attempt them. We will begin with describing Love.
Love is a difficult concept to define. It is usually referred to as an emotion and has also been described as a behavior. Both are accurate. If you experience the emotion love it goes to reason that you would behave accordingly. Nearly everyone agrees that there are different types of love, as expressed to different people. There is love for a child, parent, sibling, friend, and lover. We will concern ourselves only with love between partners. According to social psychologist Robert Sternberg there are four types of love in relation to partners. The three components to these types of love can be thought of in terms of the points of a triangle to better illustrate.
The three components of love are Intimacy, which can be described as getting to know the person and liking what you know, Passion, which is defined as infatuation and a strong desire to be close, and Commitment, for which I believe most readers know the definition. Combining the points of the triangle result in the types of love.
Intimacy combined with Passion results in Romantic Love. This is what most partners experience in the beginning of a relationship, and it is usually energizing and exciting.
Intimacy combined with Commitment results in Companionate Love. This is what many relationships become after time. The partners are comfortable with one another, have an extensive history together, know each other well, and are committed to the relationship. There may likely be an absence of passion.
Having all three Passion or Infatuation combined with Commitment results in Fatuous Love. This is the result of getting swept up in passion and committing to a long-term commitment without really knowing the person.
Consummate Love is when all three components, intimacy, passion, and commitment are combined together. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect that the overwhelming passion present at the beginning of many relationships will continue forever. This type of passion lasts varying lengths of time, depending on the individual. Most consummate relationships have passion that comes and goes and varies in intensity.
Unfortunately, many people confuse infatuation or passion with love. After a period of time together, and as the passion naturally cools, they find themselves falling out of love. This is where the saying “I love you, but I’m not in love with you any more” comes from. Many people in addiction recovery (and out of it) then end up going from one Romantic Love relationship to another, and wondering why they cannot find True Love.
A great deal of addicts in early recovery, when told it is ill advised that they enter a relationship, ask the question, Well what about sex? Usually they are referring to what is commonly called buddy sex or sport sex. These both refer to the act of sex for nothing more than the enjoyment of the act. No emotional involvement, no commitment, no strings. Although this seems cut and dry and mostly harmless if two consenting adults are involved, there are a few complications that at least should be considered.
The first is that many people, let alone addicts in early recovery, have difficulty separating sex and intimacy. Often feelings develop despite the belief that they never would.
Along these lines is the tendency of those that have been sexually abused to sexualize intimacy. This occurs when a friendship develops, secrets are shared, and a sexual attraction becomes apparent even though none had existed prior to the friendship getting closer. Because of the high prevalence of sexual abuse among addicts, and the nature of sharing on a personal level in the 12 step programs and groups, this is a very real and serious risk. To begin buddy sex may just be a symptom of diseased thinking, and could prove very detrimental.
Another consideration is casual sex’s effect on self-esteem. Although most of us would like to believe we could have casual sex with no guilt or remorse, this is often not the case. Casual sex often goes against the morals and values that one was taught and may continue to carry. Any time that we behave in a manner that goes against our values / mores we experience guilt. Guilt can have a detrimental effect on immediate recovery and on self-esteem.
Even if it does not go against any morals or values that one may possess, it may likely be a behavior that was engaged in during active addiction. Since addiction and promiscuity often go hand in hand, having casual sex would tap into this addictive behavior and could be a trigger. And even if an individual was not promiscuous in their addiction, behaving with an “I want what I want when I want it attitude” remains an addictive behavior. One way that self-esteem can be raised is by delaying gratification, and making decisions that will make you feel better in the long run. Not engaging in sport or buddy sex may be an example of this.
Most people believe in a spiritual or magical aspect that causes them to fall in love, and enter into a relationship. Many believe in a soul mate that is waiting for them, and that fate can step in at any moment anywhere and deliver their soul mate to them. The words that follow are not attempts to de-mystify love and relationships, but are simply to keep individuals from falling victim to other aspects that can appear to be mystical.
Many people project qualities of their ideal mate onto the person that they are getting to know, and then confuse this with having found their soul mate. A projection is an internal ideal, thought process, or state that is attributed to another person. In other words, I know what I want and need my ideal mate to be, and I place these attributes and qualities into another individual. I observe this other person’s behavior and relate it to my ideal. If I do not recognize that there is a projection (and rarely is a projection identified) I then believe I have found my soul mate. Later, when I know the person better, they begin to fall short of my expectations and ideals. Falling short of my expectations they cannot be the ideal, and often the search for my real soul mate begins again. This pattern of disappointment will continue until an individual realizes the reality of projection, and does not give in to the fantasy that they have found their soul mate.
Another aspect of relationships is the bargaining process. This is not an external event, but an internal one. Each person entering a relationship is aware of the attributes that they bring to the table. These can include attractiveness, financial security, a quality of sweetness, intelligence, being a giving person, being attentive, considerate, good in bed, etc. Knowing what attributes’ one brings to the table, the individual wants a comparable partner. This does not mean that individuals necessarily want someone exactly as attractive, nice financially secure, etc., as we are. What it means is that we want an equal or better bargain in line with what we value. For example, how many very attractive women have you seen with men who are financially secure. The man knows he brings financial well being and security and values an attractive trophy for a partner. The woman in this example knows she is very attractive and values financial security.
This example is simplified although it exists. The actual bargaining process is more complicated due to the amount of aspects to consider, but the example exemplifies the issue.
So if you accept this bargaining component of relationships as true, you may wonder why it is a problem. After all, it exists whether in early recovery or not. The problem arises not due to the bargaining aspect alone. It arises because the bargaining aspect occurs while in early recovery.
Addicts do not enter recovery with healthy self-esteem. This affects their perception of what attributes they are bringing to the relationship bargaining table. This presents several problems. The first is that they are not looking for or getting much in the bargain for a partner. If they do not feel very good about themselves, or if their belief that they feel good about themselves is instead a defense mechanism, they will not expect much in return for what they bring.
Another problem that is in line with this is that during the first year of recovery a great deal of growth should occur. This growth raises self-esteem, and if one entered a relationship early in recovery, they will now realize that they can do better. Additionally, even if both grow, and both of the partner’s self-esteem is raised, it is likely they will grow apart.
Family dynamics in early childhood also affect what we look for or are attracted to in a mate. One example of this is evident in the dynamics of the alcoholic home. Without spending an inordinate amount of time on typical family roles in an addicted family, there are generally four besides the addict and the codependent. They are:
The Family Hero- who gives the family something to be proud of by excelling at school or sports.
The Scapegoat- who acts out to detract from the tension in the family.
The Lost Child- who provides no trouble for the family be being largely absent and self contained.
The Mascot or Clown- who provides comic relief to reduce tension in the family.
The family hero and scapegoat role is usually attracted to a dependent personality, such as a Lost Child or Mascot role. This also occurs in homes where there has been abuse. Often the daughter of a father who was abusive to the mother will end up in a relationship with a man who is abusive, even if there was no indication of him being abusive when they meet. Similarly, the daughter of an alcoholic often ends up married to an alcoholic. All of these examples illustrate the power of the unconscious on attraction. The power of early experiences and the formation of memory cannot be underestimated. In an excellent book entitled “A General Theory of Love” Lewis, Amini, and Lannon (2000) discuss the how early experiences and the formation of memory affects attraction. Until these issues or complexes are sufficiently resolved, individuals run the risk of falling victim to them and ending up in bad relationships.
Another consideration regarding relationships is the impact of socialization on what we find attractive. Statistically, most people marry within their own race, religion, socioeconomic status, and culture. This is evidence of the impact socialization has on attraction. In itself this is not an issue. But is also lends credence to the importance of unconscious influence on attraction.
A final consideration in regard to relationships in early recovery is that those in early recovery rarely know who they really are and often battle with this concept. If one is unsure of who they are, how can they know what they will want in a relationship? If they do not know who they are they cannot truly love themselves. If they do not love themselves how can they love a partner?
In light of these considerations on the topic of early recovery and relationships, everyone in early recovery considering entering a relationship has reason for concern. The questions “is it possible this attraction is due to unconscious complexes or addictive behavior?” or “what contributes to my attraction to this person?” needs to be asked and strongly considered. And as a final thought in regard to answering these questions, does someone in early recovery have the capacity to be entirely honest with themselves, when not that long ago they were convincing themselves they needed another fix, drink, hit, etc. to get through the day?
Reasons Relationships in Early Recovery are Ill Advised
1. Relationships take the focus off of recovery.
2. Relationships take the focus off of the individual.
3. Relationships increase the potential for relapse due to emotional intensity.
4. There is too much potential for underlying issues, projections, and complexes to be creating the attraction.
5. Low self-esteem and the bargaining process of relationships make early recovery a tenuous time to enter a relationship.
6. There is a strong likelihood of outgrowing the relationship quickly.
7. In early recovery you do not really know yourself yet.
8. In early recovery you may not have a healthy understanding of what love is yet.
9. There is a strong possibility of the individual in early recovery acting on, “I want what I want when I want it.”
10. In light of advice to the contrary, if you decide to enter a relationship, you are working your own program. This is self-will, and this is an addictive behavior.
Wm. Berry ©2008
William Berry has worked in the field of addiction for over 15 years. He has been a Certified Addiction Professional since 1996. He has worked in nearly every form of addiction treatment available, including detoxification, residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and traditional outpatient. He has worked with all types of clientele, from the inner city in Philadelphia, to the high functioning substance abusers of the South Florida area. Mr. Berry has over 12 years experience conducting group and individual therapy. Mr. Berry is well read in the areas of addiction recovery, psychology, and Eastern philosophy. He obtained a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from FIU. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Florida International University, conducting a social psychology course entitled "The Psychology of Drugs and Drug abuse," and at Nova Southeastern University, conducting courses in Substance Abuse and the Family, and Interpersonal Communication. Recently William has developed seminars for reducing the risk of teenage substance related problems and for anger management. He has also developed a workbook for the outpatient program for which is director. The workbook is being revised for mass publication. William continues to be creative in his career to keep the passion for what he does alive.