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Relationships in Early Recovery
Author: Phil Kosanovich
Published: June 24, 2021

Recovery from addiction is a very personal journey. There are many challenges that can arise during this, and it can be difficult to stay motivated when we are faced with feelings of dread or hopelessness, or when we feel overwhelmed by urges and cravings.

We are often encouraged to seek social support to make our recovery journey more manageable.[1] However, the type of support we receive matters. AA and NA support groups offer a social setting for recovering individuals in which they can share and discuss their experiences, and feel heard and understood. Recovery coaches and counselors can help us process our feelings and guide us when we feel completely lost.

Having other people around us when we are in recovery can be life-saving. However, some people enter relationships during the early stages of the recovery journey, and this can be problematic. Intimacy and deep personal connection may seem like a great distraction against the cravings and difficult emotions characteristic of early recovery, and connecting with another person and sharing your story to a compassionate and caring ear is a natural human desire.

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However, a romantic relationship can actually increase one’s risk of relapse. Of course, recovery is also a time when feelings of isolation may be intense, and the power and value of belonging are deeply felt.[2] While relationships during the early stages of recovery are usually not recommended, they should be carefully managed and move at a slow pace if they do happen.

New Relationships in Early Recovery

Substances usually serve to fill in an inner void. When a person must abstain from substance use, the brain’s reward system seeks another source of fulfillment. This can sometimes take the form of an intimate relationship with another person on the recovery journey. It can seem that others in our lives who are not facing the same issues do not understand what we are going through, so connecting with someone who really does understand the journey may seem like a good idea. Stories and feelings can be shared and a person may feel deeply heard and understood.

There are some apparent benefits of sharing an intimate connection with an understanding ear during the recovery process. Patients may feel that relationships will offer a sense of stability, connection, and a sense of self-preservation.[3] However, while the importance of personal connection and shared experience are emphasized as important by many recovery programs, so too is the fact that romantic relationships can be detrimental to successful recovery[4].

The Importance of Focus in Recovery

One of the most important aspects of early recovery is maintaining focus and motivation. Beginning new relationships often leads to novelty and excitement, leading to significant dopamine release in just the same way as intake of the problem substance. During early recovery, the brain’s reward system needs time to rebuild healthier neural pathways. As the novelty of the new relationship begins to wear off, as is characteristic of all romantic relationships, there will have been less time spent focusing on oneself and developing and improving on coping skills and self-management techniques. This leaves the individual in recovery at a greater risk of returning to old habits.

Vulnerability in Early Recovery

The recovery period is a time of personal challenge and limit-testing. During this time, any distraction is often welcomed. However, focus is key for a successful recovery, and focus can waiver when the person in recovery is enamored.

Dysfunctionality as a result of substance abuse leads to erratic decision-making and uncharacteristic behavior. Studies have even shown that the withdrawal period can drive physical and sexual aggression[5]. This can lead to problems for both parties, problems that are not only unnecessary but detrimental to both partners’ physical and mental health.

According to SAMHSA, the best way to support recovery is with professional therapy, any necessary medical assistance, and strong social support systems.[6] An intimate relationship with someone on the same journey may seem like a good idea at the time, but such a relationship can have long-term negative consequences.

Co-dependency and Recovery

Other than relapse, co-dependency is one of the main problem points of new relationships in early recovery. Co-dependency is defined as a condition that can ‘affect a person’s ability to have a healthy and mutually-satisfying relationship’.[7]

Recovery involves rebuilding one’s self-esteem and a sense of identity.[8] These things can often be found in relationships with others, but need to come from within if they are going to last. Esteem and identity developed in a relationship can diminish quickly if the relationship ends.

Starting a New Relationship In Early Recovery – What to Consider

Though not recommended, relationships do begin during early recovery. If this does happen, there are certain things to consider to reduce the risk of emotional distress and relapse.

Understand the Potential Consequences

Those entering relationships at this vulnerable time should understand the potential dangers of doing so. Attention, care, and time are required for any relationship to work. This is attention, care, and time that could be otherwise be spent on building personal strengths and coping skills. Without spending adequate time on these areas of personal development, one’s risk of relapse is significantly increased.

Consider the other person’s use of substances. Are they sober? If not, do they know that you are? Being in a relationship with someone who still uses substances increases the chance of being triggered to use.

Stay Focused on Continuing Care

Recovery must always come first. Relationships sometimes require compromise and shifting of schedules to make them work, but do not miss recovery meetings and relevant appointments for a romantic relationship – even if you have been sober for a long time.

Take it Slow

Dealing with substance abuse is a deeply personal and challenging experience. Maintaining recovery indicates strength and courage, as it is by no means an easy task. When we face difficulties, it can feel as though a new, exciting relationship is well-earned. However, when we rush into relationships, the likelihood that it will fail is higher. New relationships in early recovery should always be taken slowly, supported by patience and mindful self-awareness.

Watch Out for Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Consider your history of relationships and remember times when they may not have been entirely healthy. Seek guidance from your therapist or counselor about signs of an unhealthy relationship, so that you can avoid increasing your risk of relapse as a result of a toxic relationship with a partner who is not fully supportive.

Personal Strength and Courage in Recovery

Each relationship is different, so it is difficult to say with conviction that relationships in early recovery are entirely good or bad. However, from a rational point of view, it would seem that recovery is more likely to be successful when a healing individual is supported by a social network and community groups, family, friends, and professional therapists.

[1] Kelly, Sharon M et al. “The relationship of social support to treatment entry and engagement: the Community Assessment Inventory.” Substance abuse vol. 31,1 (2010): 43-52. doi:10.1080/08897070903442640

[2] Baumeister, R. & Leary M., 1995. The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation, Literature Review, [online], available at: The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation

[3] Young, B. Lance, & Timko, C., 2015. Benefits and Costs of Alcoholic Relationships and Recovery Through Al-Anon, Substance Use & Misuse, 50:1, 62-71, DOI: 10.3109/10826084.2014.957773

[4]  Young, B. Lance, & Timko, C., 2015. Benefits and Costs of Alcoholic Relationships and Recovery Through Al-Anon, Substance Use & Misuse, 50:1, 62-71, DOI: 10.3109/10826084.2014.957773

[5] Knudson, T.M., Terrell, H.K. 2012. Co-dependency, Perceived Interparental Conflict, and Substance Abuse in the Family of Origin. American Journal of Family Therapy, 40(3), 245-257. doi:10.1080/01926187.2011.610725

[6] Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2010). Protracted Withdrawal. Substance Abuse Treatment Advisory, Volume 9, Issue 1.

[7] Joaquín Selva, Bc.S., Psychologist, 2020. Codependency: What Are The Signs & How To Overcome It, [online], available at: Codependency: What Are The Signs & How To Overcome It

[8] Heshmat, Shahram. “Identity And Addiction”. Psychology Today, 2019, Identity And Addiction.