If you’re familiar with 12-step recovery, you may have heard the suggestion from some members to stay out of new relationships within your first year. While this is not a requirement to find or maintain recovery, there are some valid reasons why people often make this suggestion. Relationships are not easy for most of us as humans and may be particularly more challenging for those in early recovery. Not only are you embarking on a journey of learning about yourself, trying to love yourself, find forgiveness and peace, but your partner in recovery may also be trying to do those very same things. Insert: complicated, confusing feelings. After a long time of substance abuse, you may not even be able to identify your feelings let alone understand them or communicate them to your partner. How do relationships work? Effective, honest, transparent communication.
Why is this challenging in early recovery?
Well, we likely don’t even know yet who we are as individuals, what we stand for or what’s important to us, not to mention the hole that addiction sometimes leaves in us. Sometimes filling that hole is our only motivation, whether it’s sustainable or not. We call this instant gratification. Relationships based in instant gratification are sometimes detrimental to those in early recovery, and this is why we often hear this suggestion about staying out of relationships in the first year.
Building a Foundation
Okay so, had to throw the disclaimer out there to start with. I can only write about my experience, and in my experience there’s a lot of mixed feelings about dating or being in a relationship with another person in recovery.
I met Ross when I had about 2 years clean. By that point in my recovery I had a steady job, a network of people in recovery, some step-work under my belt, and had learned a lot of lessons (sometimes the hard way) from previous relationships. Was I looking for a life-long partner? No, not then. I struggled with commitment and wasn’t sure I wanted to give up my independence or ‘freedom’. Through the process of getting to know him as well as getting to know myself in a relationship with him, I learned a lot about the importance of honesty with myself and him, as well as transparent communication with him about how I’m feeling, where I’m at and what I need. You see, I spent many years of my life (before, during and after active addiction) in codependent relationships. I had to learn to live without being codependent before I could be in a healthy, committed relationship where both individuals have their own sense of identity. If I had met Ross at an earlier time, I wouldn’t have been in the same position to have a healthy relationship with him.
Managing Recovery and the Relationship
What’s worked for us has been that we maintain our own recovery processes while still using the principles that we’ve learned in recovery within our relationship. We’ve never attempted to ‘sponsor’ each other, and we don’t make demands or suggestions to each other for things that we may need to work on in our recovery. We do, however, use principles like acceptance, powerlessness, tolerance, patience and love in our relationship. When it gets difficult, or maybe we’re not getting along as well as we’d like to, we have the principles of the fellowship to help guide us in our individual journeys and ultimately, as a team. My husband loves his recovery, and I love that about him. It is not at all a primary motivator for me to engage in my own recovery, but there is something motivating about watching someone that you care about participate in their recovery. At the end of the day, we understand each other’s needs and we give each other space to be individuals. I wouldn’t have learned how to do this if it wasn’t for the foundation that I built in recovery prior to our relationship, and that same foundation that I stay committed to working on with or without him as my husband.
Dana and I are on the same page about the importance of why 12-step programs have suggestions related to relationships and recovery. Relationships are a sensitive and important topic to discuss with anyone in early recovery, because they involve emotions and feelings which can be uncomfortable things for anyone. Basically, I do not suggest getting into a relationship if you are just starting your recovery and I definitely do not suggest getting married if you are just starting your recovery.
What Works for Us
To keep it simple, I really believe that our own individual recovery looks very different for both of us and that’s why it works. I could easily try and suggest or try and control what Dana’s recovery looks like, but I already know that wouldn’t work, so why try?
Now, on paper, our recovery may look pretty similar. We both attend the same 12-step fellowship, sometimes attend the same meetings, have sponsors, we both sponsor other people, we both are actively working the 12-steps, we even both have the same homegroup, but our recovery looks very different. The main reason my recovery looks very different than hers, we are very different people. Like I said earlier, we have our own recovery which really means that I do not seek out her advice when I am looking for direction from my sponsor. It also means that I do not try and make her recovery look like mine and she doesn’t try to make my recovery look like hers.
I do, however, believe that she helps me in my recovery all the time. Living a life in recovery for me means that I am actively trying to change my attitude, perspective and actions so that I can be a better person. It doesn’t have to do with drugs, because once I put down the drugs, now I have to change myself so that I do not go back to using drugs, which means to me that living a life in recovery is the way I choose to change. Was that confusing? All I am saying, is that Dana helps me in my recovery, because I live with her and love her. I am constantly trying to practice my own recovery so that I do not act on my old patterns of behavior (destructive ones that were active while using).
At the end of the day, we both understand that we need to allow each other to be individuals. And with that comes the understanding that we’re going to be human sometimes. We continue to help each other grow both inside and outside of our marriage and allow each other the space to grow as humans too. Does this mean we’re perfect and our marriage is perfect? No, as we said we’re human too. But we do feel as though what we’ve learned in our recovery thus far helps us understand each other a little more and offers us to have more empathy for each other. We both do our very best to live our lives by the principles that we’ve learned in recovery, and we’re on the same page about teaching those same principles to our daughter as she grows up. In any marriage, not just ones in recovery, the principles of love, forgiveness, compassion, patience and honesty are so important. We’re both very grateful to have learned these practices in recovery so that we can use them, not only in our marriage, but in our lives as individuals, children, siblings, employees, friends, sponsors and parents.