Romantic Relationships

romantic relationships in recovery1

From Living Clean

The Basic Text offers a suggestion about romantic relationships: that we begin by writing about what we want, what we are asking for, and what we are getting. When we explore these simple questions, we begin to see how we can use the tools of recovery to change our behavior and our experience of intimacy. We learn to check our motives and to be honest about what we want; we begin to get free of our old baggage and experience relationships in the present tense. Practicing principles like honesty, courage, and faith opens us to the possibility of love, acceptance, and trust in our lives.

What We Want

We often hear that if we made a list for ourselves in early recovery of what we wanted, we would be selling ourselves short. It’s not just in the beginning that this is true—over and over, our dreams for ourselves are glimpses of God’s will, not a road map. Many of us have found this in our romances, as well. We take on the project of finding a partner in much the same way we might shop for a new car: We make a list of the features we want or don’t want, and begin evaluating available models based on our list. We may be surprised, on finding the one who seems to meet our criteria, when things still don’t work out as we had planned.

Our sponsor might suggest turning that list back on ourselves, asking what it would take for us to become the person we imagine as a partner. Others might suggest stepping away from such a list altogether, thinking instead about what would constitute a relationship we would like to be in. Some of us are masters of projection: By the time we go on a first date with someone, we have already imagined the whole relationship, from steamy beginning to bitter divorce.

Some of us are masters of projection: By the time we go on a first date with someone, we have already imagined the whole relationship, from steamy beginning to bitter divorce.

Allowing ourselves to be present means that we can have a relationship with a person, rather than a fantasy. Learning to live in the moment frees us to enjoy ourselves. Applying skills like communication and active listening, practicing principles like unity, compassion, and sharing, we can learn to use the tools we need to be in a solid relationship long before we are actually there. These behaviors don’t just make us more likely to get what we want; they also make us happier and more fulfilled where we are.

There is so much in the way of our ability to have the kind of relationships we want: fear, selfishness, reservations, the belief that it will just end badly. The more we take inventory, the more clearly we see the obstacles inside ourselves that stand between us and what we want. We may mistake our impulsiveness for intuition, and imagine that we have fallen in love as soon as we get excited. Or we might resist feeling at all. Not wanting to risk our hearts means that they never really get full. As we learn to open up, we also learn to survive being hurt. Strangely, as it gets easier to withstand that kind of hurt, it seems to happen less often. We choose better, come into relationships a little more cautiously, and learn to recognize and address signs of difficulty much sooner. Healthy relationships begin to replace the chaos that had consumed our lives. Sometimes we miss the chaos. Living without the drama and clutter of active addiction is strange. We may be compelled to create drama in recovery just so it feels familiar.

“Don’t get into romantic relationships in your first year” might be the most repeated, least listened-to piece of advice in the fellowship. We need time to get our feet on the ground, to build support, to work some steps and figure out who we are, but many of us don’t take that time in the beginning. This is like building a house without laying a foundation: Sooner or later that work needs to get done, and it’s a lot easier to do it in the beginning than to try to build a foundation under a standing structure. Many of us who don’t take that time in the beginning find that we need it later. If we survive that first breakup clean, we have a pretty good idea of what that time is for.

Not all of us take a full year, and some of us take much more time before we start dating. We may even find that we are happier and more serene when we are single, and choose to stay that way. Once we figure out that there is nothing to be afraid of and no one right answer, we can answer the big questions for ourselves and know we can always change our mind later, if we choose.

We want a magic formula that will make relationships okay: a year, three years, a Fifth Step, a round of steps. The truth is much simpler, but harder to define. Some of us are never “ready” and struggle all our lives. We know members who are scholars of our principles but have many failed marriages behind them; we also see newcomers stumble into a relationship and somehow make it work. When it works, we are happy to take the credit. When it doesn’t work, we try to understand why. There are always lessons. Experience is what we get when we don’t get what we want.

Experience is what we get when we don’t get what we want.

But some lessons are so clear that we don’t have to act out to learn them. With practice we develop personal responsibility, accountability, and discernment. Mostly we know when we are doing something wrong, taking advantage of someone who is vulnerable, being controlling, deceptive, or abusive—and we have a responsibility to ourselves as well as to the other person to stop it.

It can be hard to admit, but the times when we most desire to be in a relationship are often the moments when we are least equipped to handle one. So many of us struggle with the fear that we will never have a partner, and that not having a life partner means we will always be “alone.” This kind of fear leads to panic—and to pain. When we are lonely, sad, or trying to distract ourselves, we may be willing to settle for things that are not actually what we want in the long term. When our priority is simply not being alone, we are likely to compromise our values or our priorities, to commit too quickly to a person we are just getting to know. There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you pray for—you might get it.”

We mistake intensity or sex for intimacy, and are likely to think something is serious when we’ve really just been seeking distraction and a fix. Or we settle for sex when what we really want is love. Afraid of being alone, we patch the emptiness we feel with a relationship. “He became my higher power and my drug of choice,” said one member of the guy she dated when she was a newcomer. “I was calling all the time, when I was bored or lonely or happy, asking, ‘What are you dooooing?’ I was clean, with no tools and a new obsession. Nothing had changed.” (That same member also reported that someone suggested to her, “If it’s after ten at night and it sounds like a good idea—don’t do it.”) Sometimes it seems as if our latest drug of choice is another person. It can be surprising to discover that having a crush on someone turns so easily into self-obsession—but when we examine our thinking, we can see how concerned we are with whether we are being noticed and how we are being perceived.

Too often, we let our recovery take a backseat to a new relationship. We find ourselves missing meetings, calling other people less often, and not working as hard on ourselves. There is no reason to be surprised if the relationship suffers when we are not caring for ourselves, but it can feel like we are taking needed energy out of the relationship when we take the time and space we need to work our program. We do the work to become the kind of person who is ready for the relationship we want—but we have to keep doing the work to be that person inside the relationship, as well. “It’s like pouring ‘Miracle Grow’ on your recovery,” one member said. “If you want to get to know yourself, get into a relationship.” “No,” said another: “If you want to get to know your sponsor—get into a relationship!”

We do the work to become the kind of person who is ready for the relationship we want—but we have to keep doing the work to be that person inside the relationship, as well.

Some of us get clean and begin a pattern of apparently serious relationships that all end in calamity. The drama of falling in and out of love can be its own reward, and we seem to have the same relationship over and over with different people. The intensity of early love may be so compelling that we seek it again and again. Sometimes it’s our behavior in the relationship that gets in the way, but we can also see trouble even before the relationships begin—we notice that we’re choosing people who just aren’t appropriate for us. We joke sometimes about having a “broken picker,” but the reality can be pretty painful.

It’s not surprising that some of us get strung out on sex. We want something to make us feel good, fast. Sometimes just the flirting is its own little high—we like playing the game. Making the connection is its own rush, even before anything “happens.” That is not to say that it’s a problem for all of us, or even for all of us whose relationship with sex is casual. Like so many things in recovery, it’s not a problem until it’s a problem for us. We may want to ask ourselves if sex is making our lives unmanageable, if it is contributing to our happiness or unhappiness, if obsession and compulsion are playing a part in our behavior, or if we’re lying, keeping secrets, or sneaking around. We take an honest look at whether our behavior is hurting our loved ones—or if it would hurt them, if they knew about it.

We need to be honest about what we are doing. We may be looking for a meaningful relationship, or for a good time, or we may be looking for trouble. Understanding our motivation makes it a lot easier to understand our consequences. It’s not that we always get what we ask for, but when we want one thing and ask for another, the consequences are usually disappointing. We can hardly hope to be honest and open with a partner if we are still practicing self-deception.

What matters is that we are comfortable with our behavior and our decisions. Other people have opinions, but we learn to identify what we want, what we believe, and how we choose to live. That can look very different from one member to another, or from one point in our lives to another. Behavior that was comfortable in early recovery may be unthinkable later on; or we may find after years clean that we feel a freedom to experiment that we never had in the beginning. It is entirely reasonable for our behavior to change as our needs, wants, and desires change; the issue is that we are clear about that with ourselves.

What We Ask For

Over time, we find increased acceptance of ourselves and our circumstances. We learn to enjoy our own company, and to handle our own desires and responsibilities appropriately. It can be surprising when we notice that we no longer seem to “need” a partner as we once did. What is more surprising is how much easier it is to be comfortable with a partner once we know we want a relationship—but we don’t need one. Having support in place means that we have some of the resources we need for a successful one-on-one relationship, but also that we have the help we need if things don’t go as we had hoped.

Relationships are one area where practice alone doesn’t make perfect. Some of the most important work we do to improve our relationships isn’t done in those relationships at all, but with our sponsors and trusted friends. Even with many years clean, separating and reconciling what’s in our heart and what’s in our head doesn’t come automatically. We need another set of eyes; we need a caring, attentive listener to help us sort things out. A good sponsor is a key to opening the possibility for change in the way we relate to others. That relationship can form the basis for all the rest of the relationships we have in recovery. Some of us are clean for a long time before we find a sponsor with whom we connect. We may find that listener in another trusted friend. Wherever we find the safety to begin, opening up about our experience is critical to change.

When we love a fantasy, we get angry with reality.

It is no secret that addicts have trouble accepting reality. This is no less true for us in our intimate relationships: We get tangled up in a fantasy of what our relationship is supposed to be, and lose track of what it actually is. When we love a fantasy, we get angry with reality. Anger with reality is the opposite of acceptance. We can get so involved with the fantasy of our partner that we are furious with them for not living up to that image. Sometimes the best we can do is to walk away, but often walking away is the easy way out. The journey is learning to accept the person we love in spite of all the ways they don’t match our fantasy of who they should be or could be. It is possible that perfect unconditional love is something only a Higher Power is capable of, but as we get closer to achieving this ideal in our own lives, our spirits blossom. The more deeply we love, the more we are capable of loving. The more we open ourselves to grow through our relationships, the more intimacy we experience.

With many years clean, we may find that we appear mature, that in many ways our lives have begun to look the way we want them to—but we still struggle in our intimate relationships. Distinguishing mature from immature love can take as long as it takes to mature: It’s a lifetime process. When we admit how much of the damage in our lives has revolved around sex and love, we can see how much can be gained by a restoration to sanity in this area. We work the steps to clear away the wreckage of our past; we use a sponsor to help us address the wreckage of our present; we use the traditions to learn new ways to get along with others. We are more generous and less selfish and fearful. We learn to have standards and limits, but also to be open: We can become so rigid in our demands that finding a partner becomes impossible. We let go of our expectations of others and we begin to ask a little bit more of ourselves.

Gradually we come to see where we need to change and where we need to stand firm in our beliefs, even if it means waiting. We start to see when our beliefs keep us safe, and when they drive us into the same patterns over and over. “I don’t have a fear of abandonment,” said one member. “I expect it.” When we expect the worst, we usually get it. Learning from our experience is important, but being willing to believe we can move beyond it is also crucial. Giving ourselves and others permission to change also means surrendering to the possibility that we may find ourselves in strange territory: When we are not repeating the same relationship, we may feel like we don’t know what to do at all. “It has taken many years,” one member said, “but in my last Fourth Step it was suddenly clear that I didn’t get involved with the same person over and over—I was the same person. It didn’t matter who the other person was, I still reacted the same way.” Doing something different is a risk—but making the same mistakes is a guarantee of failure. An oldtimer said it best: “We used to think we had trust issues, but now we know we have courage issues.”

“We used to think we had trust issues, but now we know we have courage issues.”

The more we experience freedom from active addiction, the more we can see how our addiction drives us into corners even when we are not using drugs. The ways in which we create damage in our lives or put ourselves in harm’s way have a tendency to repeat. A little clarity may be all it takes to change an old and painful pattern. Sometimes we can see it all too clearly, and do it again anyway. We examine our motives and our willingness, we share about it, we fill notebooks with inventory—but there we still are, experiencing the same conflict in service that we did in our last job, or in the same relationship with a different partner.

It can be easy to judge one another when we see this kind of repetition, but the truth is, it’s not over ’til it’s over. Sometimes the pain just needs to be great enough; but sometimes, looking back, we can see that other kinds of healing had to happen before we were ready to deal with some of that deeply buried stuff. We may be disappointed to discover that our shortcomings are removed, but not in our order of preference. Each time we go through an emotional storm, we are given an opportunity to let go of more of the burden of the past and find more freedom on the other side. Our future is less and less determined by our history.

The Courage to Trust

There is no right way or wrong way to experience love. What matters is that we allow ourselves the privilege. We love whom we love. It doesn’t always make sense or look good on paper. A happy couple put it like this: “The thing is, whether we love each other or can’t stand each other on any given day, it’s really fun. We can be playful, we can fight, we can come together and just enjoy each other’s company. It might look a little fishy from the outside, but we’re enjoying every minute of it.” Perhaps we really have found our mate—or maybe there’s a lesson it’s time for us to learn. When we let go and allow others to be who they are, we are able to let go of our own insecurities a little more, and be honest about who we are. That’s not a deadly serious proposition: We can be playful and silly, loving and tender, frightened or sad. We can finally be free of that terrible sense we have that who we are isn’t enough, or that if they really knew us, they’d leave.

Our relationship with ourselves determines the quality of our relationships with others.

Our relationship with ourselves determines the quality of our relationships with others. It seems so obvious, but in the moment it can slip away from us. When we’re not feeling so good about ourselves, when we are hurting, when we feel lonely and insecure, of course we want someone else to tell us we’re okay. But the better we know ourselves, the better we know our needs and what we have to give. “It helps if at least one person in the relationship knows at least one of the people in the relationship,” a member explained, “but I’ve been a stranger to myself sometimes even when I wasn’t new. Seeing into myself honestly and accurately is something that comes and goes. I find now I can name a lot of emotions, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m feeling at any given moment, especially when my feelings are strong. I still default to anger, depression, and resistance when what I’m really feeling is loneliness, desperation, or fear. It comes out sideways at the people nearest me. I comfort myself with the idea that I recognize it sooner than I used to—after a bad week, rather than a bad month or a breakup. But it still hasn’t gone away.” We can see the rewards of the Tenth Step when we start being able to recognize our emotions as we are having them. When we can identify our own responses we can choose to respond rather than react.

Practicing principles in our relationship doesn’t mean being someone else, or being phony, but it can feel a little awkward at first. Our sponsor can be a great help to us as we begin to try new ways of responding or reacting. As we try to replace old, defective ways of thinking with new ideas and attitudes, issues arise that we may not have seen before. We are faced with choices and challenges we didn’t see coming.

Being in a relationship is a different experience when we put unity first. When we set aside our own needs and consider the good of the partnership or the family as a whole, it does not mean that we tolerate our needs going unmet or unacknowledged. We start to recognize that each of us will get what we need if both of us come to the relationship with an attitude of willingness and a belief that when we allow our unity to be a priority we can turn the results over to a power greater than ourselves.

Self-support is a spiritual principle, and learning to support our own spirits is a critical part of our development. Of course, we don’t just “go it alone.” We have the group, we have our sponsor and trusted friends, and we have a Higher Power that helps us carry on. We share our triumphs and burdens with our partner, but learn not to make them responsible for our moods or the overall quality of our lives. When we can have a bad day without insisting our partner also be miserable, we know something is really changing. “The first time I came home angry, and my girlfriend started in, and I didn’t say the next wrong thing, I knew a Higher Power was working in my life,” said one member.

Learning the difference between having a partner and taking a hostage—or being taken hostage—is a big step for a lot of us. 

Learning the difference between having a partner and taking a hostage—or being taken hostage—is a big step for a lot of us. “Letting go of expectations” can be a nice name for letting go of control. Allowing our partners and ourselves to experience personal autonomy means we can grow and change at our own pace, and the relationship can benefit from what each of us brings to it. When we are willing to stand still and be present in a relationship even as it changes, or as we change, we come to understand commitment in a new way. Just as it’s normal in recovery to sometimes think about using, sometimes in the closest relationships we may think about running. Standing still in spite of the impulse to run can be a great spiritual exercise. A sane solution is often possible if we are willing to wait for the answers we need. Open-mindedness is critical to getting through difficulties in our relationships.

Being with someone who is not in recovery presents particular challenges. One is that we may feel judged or excluded by our friends in the rooms. Too often we think of people coming in two types: in recovery and needing recovery. The very idea of a healthy relationship with someone who isn’t “one of us” can seem unlikely. In fact, it’s no more or less likely than being happy with someone who is in recovery. We may have to work a little harder to balance our priorities between our commitments to our partner and to our recovery. When we are out of balance, it can seem like we’re leading a double life. We may find that the language we use to express ourselves or describe our feelings is not the same. Relationships require compromise and learning. In the rooms we find the tools we need to have the relationships we want in our lives. Outside the fellowship, we find ways to apply the principles without necessarily naming what we’re doing. The flexibility that relationships require comes more easily to us when we are practicing principles in our lives. We learn to resolve challenges as they arise and to have the courage to say what we think and how we feel, even when it’s uncomfortable. Willingness to change means that we can allow relationships to grow, cool off, or develop into something we hadn’t imagined before.

When a relationship that’s important to us isn’t working, it can feel like nothing is working. Conflict with our loved ones can be traumatic, and a breakup with a lover or a friend can set off an overwhelming wave of emotions. Relationship troubles are hard for anyone, but for addicts they hold particular danger: The pain can be so great that using seems like an option again. If our friends in recovery seem to be taking sides, we can feel so alienated that going to meetings feels unsafe. That old triangle of fear, anger, and resentment can feel like an iron cage, and the antidote—connection to others—seems like the last thing we want. Taking care of ourselves in the simplest ways, like eating, sleeping, and going to work, can be very difficult when we are in pain. The newcomers around us can serve as powerful examples, reminding us to show up and reach out when we’re hurting. Any member at any time is liable to save our lives.

We might find, after some consideration, that a relationship really does need to end. But we can do it in a way that we are comfortable with, instead of acting on impulse and leaving a painful mess to clean up later. Ending a relationship doesn’t mean someone has to be wrong or bad; in fact, it can be the best thing for all involved. We can feel pressure to stay in a relationship—for social approval, the kids, complacency, or fear—even though we know it’s time to go. It is an act of courage to do what we think is right without having to create damage to justify our actions. We no longer need to have an affair to end a marriage; we may have the clarity not to enter that marriage to begin with, or to exit with dignity and integrity. We let go of our schoolyard mentality and allow ourselves to be present with each other as adults, willing and ready to share the experience.

Sometimes as we are dealing with the loss of a relationship, we are surprised by the force of our feelings. Our reaction seems all out of proportion to the loss we are experiencing—and it may be. That’s not a reason to judge ourselves or pretend it’s not happening, though we may be tempted. There is no right or wrong about how we feel. Some of the feelings we didn’t experience when we were using are still waiting for us when we get clean, and a loss in recovery can set off a cascade of feelings from all those earlier losses we hadn’t grieved. Our sponsors can be a lifeline when we go through this kind of experience. If we are willing to hang on, trust, and do the work, we can find real healing in the steps. Relapse is a possibility, but so is making our lives unmanageable through gambling, shopping, sex, or eating— anything to push the feelings away. Some of us repeat this pattern for years in recovery before we are willing or able to push through the pain and take an honest look at what has been happening.

Our ideas about relationships are often based in anything but reality; we want to believe that relationships somehow happen on their own, that we can step into a relationship like it is a carnival ride and it will just take us. Just as we imagined the right combinations of drugs would make everything alright, we sometimes imagine that the right combination of attributes will make a soul mate. We place unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others. We fantasize and project about how things “should be.” Partnership isn’t found; it’s built. We need to show up and participate in its construction. But once we start taking care of ourselves, all kinds of intimacy are available to us.

Partnership isn’t found; it’s built. We need to show up and participate in its construction. But once we start taking care of ourselves, all kinds of intimacy are available to us.


One comment

  1. Read it. Had a moment of panic, prideful indignation, fear, utter overwhelming joy and hope…and now i want to turn the page, put down the red pen, marking all the mistakes and tallying them in some sort of broken demerit system…and trust God to manage this rather than my old bullshit. Thanks for this. -John


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