When we face struggle, the general advice is to ‘surround yourself with good people.’ We are encouraged to beat adversity together. This is easier said than done with regards to addiction. The recovery process is personal and it is down to that person to seek the necessary advice and professional support to overcome their issue. Dragging someone into your addiction can have catastrophic effects for both you and that person’s well-being or family. An addiction can damage everything that person holds dear.[1]

Relationships during recovery are complex. Literature around the topic is overlapping, and treatment methods do not always align with rehab clinics’ approach and rules regarding interaction. External interpretations are valid, but they rarely take into account just how traumatic recovery is. It is strongly advised against pursuing relationships while receiving treatment, and suggest any relationships are carefully managed, as rehabilitation can put immense pressure on all persons involved. But we also understand fear of isolation and the powerful and fundamental value of belonging.[2] The urge to connect with someone on common-ground; the opportunity to share your story and your pain is a natural human desire and need. However, forming romantic relationships whilst in rehab and in early recovery can be far more detrimental to your recovery, than positive. This article will explore how both old and new relationships, unless carefully managed and understood, could threaten not only your recovery process, but your partner’s health and well-being too.

New Relationships

When something we enjoy is taken away, we immediately look for alternatives. In recovery, the removal of substances leaves the brain’s ‘reward system’ in search of something to fill the gap. Often for those in early recovery, the most obvious alternative is an intimate relationship with someone on the same recovery path. People find comfort in sharing experiences with people who are going through the same emotions. What starts as conversational friendship, can quickly become romantic and sexual. There are of course a number of potential benefits that patients see in building relationships, while in recovery: stability, security, hope and feeling of self-preservation.[3] The 12-Step program, adopted by many in recovery, also emphasises the importance of shared experience, but emphasises that romantic relationships can be damaging to the recovery process.[4] So, it is fair to say that messaging can sometimes be mixed and confusing for those in early recovery who need clarity.

The fact is, in early recovery an individual needs to be focused on staying sober. The excitement and novel elements of new relationships can release dopamine in the brain, activating the reward system, much like the forbidden substance. Therefore, moving from substance abuse, straight into a relationship in early recovery does not help change the neural pathways for long lasting recovery. It is simply swapping one thing for another. Most relationships, after the initial excitement wears off, will no longer trigger the release of dopamine, therefore without having spent time developing tools for recovery, a recovering addict may well seek out other ways to feel better again.

Recovering addicts are incredibly vulnerable people. It is a period that tests limits and the truth is - any distraction is welcome. People are usually in a dysfunctional state: emotions tangled and decisions made on erratic thought processes learned through drug use. Studies have shown recovering addicts to be more physically and sexually aggressive with partners during their withdrawal period.[5] Recovery from addiction is a personal challenge that should be assisted by professional therapy, medical assistance and community support. A newly-formed relationship with a fellow recovering addict may seem like a quick fix, but it has severe long-term implications for both people involved.

Co-Dependency

Co-dependency is perhaps the most common secondary problem for many addicts and their partners. It is, however, a relatively ‘ambiguous and disputed term.[6]’ It has been defined as ‘an emotional and behavioural condition that affects a persons’ ability to have a healthy and mutually satisfying relationship.[7]’ In cases of those already in relationships with someone addicted to a substance, co-dependency can occur when a person becomes almost defined by their partner’s recovery. You are essentially absorbed by that person’s addiction; their dependence on you, leaves you dependent on them. It can be emotional, social and sometimes physical – all equally as draining and psychologically damaging. As Theresa Knudson and Heather Terrell suggest ‘codependents, busy taking care of others, forget to take care of themselves, resulting in a disturbance of identity development.[8]’ The major issue with co-dependency is its ability to do multiple damage: it propagates psychological issues; keeps both partners locked in a cycle of dependence; and allows addicts to continue on their destructive course.[9]

Whether it is the addict, or the partner of the addict, or in most cases - both, who suffer with co-dependency issues, it is as much an identity problem, as a dependence on the other issue. People suffering from co-dependency devote all of their energy to their partners. This can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, stress and above all else, a complete loss of who they really are.[10] When someone hinges their identity on someone else, it can be extremely unhealthy.[11] But resolving this problem is an immense challenge. For a start, it’s difficult for people outside of that relationship to comprehend the extent to which these people are dependent on each other.[12] As with all relationships, it’s difficult to access and understand emotions between two people. Secondly, there have been a number of studies that have identified co-dependency as a deeply-rooted aspect of ‘wider multi-generational family systems.[13]’ To manage co-dependency, it is important to access treatment that can explore childhood issues, as this is likely, the source of the problem.[14] The ambiguity surrounding co-dependency is what makes it so complex, and sometimes difficult to treat. One consistent theme to dealing with co-dependency is learning to say no.[15] This underlines all other forms of dealing with co-dependency: helping that person distance themselves from an adverse situation, and rediscover who they are. Other ways of addressing the issue, include[16]:

  • Understanding that your needs are just as important as your partners, and that this okay;
  • Appreciating your own emotions, and not what “should” be felt;
  • Setting limits on own behaviour as well as your partner’s behaviour;
  • Recognising and pursuing one’s own needs rather than those of others.

Co-dependency is often overlooked by the more conspicuous issue of addiction itself. How that person copes with their addiction is what overshadows the potential knock-on effect on people around that particular person. It is complex, although there is increasing research and understanding of its origins. Relationships in recovery are ill-advised, but we must not neglect those dedicated to and often overwhelmed by helping their loved one.

Recovering from addiction is personal; if it becomes interpersonal it risks failing. Despite group therapy and an emphasis on reconnecting with others, romantic bonds are rarely the solution. Sharing an experience and emotions with someone in recovery may feel like an effective way to alleviate stress, pain and anxiety, however, when it leads to romance and sexual in nature it can quickly become dysfunctional and makes long-term recovery far less achievable. Of course, resisting the temptation to fall in love in early recovery is incredibly difficult, but if you manage to do so, you have a far better chance of beating your addiction.