One of the most common questions I get asked by both clients and families is, “Gabbie, what are your thoughts on dating in early recovery?” It’s a question I could spend hours talking through and pages writing about, but I’ll be as brief as I can. I always start by owning my biases.
Some Initial Thoughts
I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. This means that at my core I am relationally driven and believe that relationships are “people healing machines”. Humans have an innate need to connect; belonging is a powerful force for us, and we thrive in close proximity to one another. We also have an innate need to have autonomy over our lives and live as whole individuals, though I will speak more about that later.
All that said, dating in early recovery is natural and can be either beneficial or detrimental depending on how a person goes about it. I do not align with the notion that dating in early recovery needs to be avoided for everyone, however, I suggest a person has some tact in their approach to dating should they decide to. Be aware of your relational themes just like you are aware of your triggers. Having strategies for building healthy relationships will be similar to your toolbox of coping skills.
How to Date in Early Recovery
Whether you’re already in a serious relationship or looking to start a romantic relationship, keeping recovery a priority is vital. Maintaining the balance of caring for someone else and your own well-being can be tricky, but here are a few things to help dating in early recovery go smoothly:
1. Identify your dating mindset
First, ask yourself, why are you feeling called to date right now? What is it you’re looking for? There is big a difference between seeking meaningful connection and seeking what some call “fast-food joy” which is a term I am borrowing from Brené Brown (if you know me, you know I can’t help but reference her work). Meaningful connection is belonging, it’s developing relationships in a way that meets our needs for togetherness. Belonging and togetherness are things we all need in early recovery, and that’s why building a sober support network and fellowship are crucial.
On the contrary, fast-food joy is about sensation seeking. This is about chasing that undeniable thrilling feeling we all get while flirting and relying on powerful and potent new relationship energy to regulate internal mood. Sensation seeking is a big part of addiction – addiction simply put is seeking an external means of regulating one’s internal state. A person can use sex and relationships as well as food, caffeine, power, and money the exact same way they use substances in the context of addiction. Be aware of your mindset while you date in early recovery. Set an intention of building meaningful connections instead of seeking sensation.
2. Balance the three components of a relationship
None of us can deny that flirting, sex, connection, and all the elements of building relationships feel good. Ask yourself if you’re approaching dating from a place of obligation or desire. Do you need a partner to validate your worth by finding you attractive and making you feel wanted? Or are you whole, secure in yourself, and seeking a partner to enhance your existence with their presence in your life? Approaching dating through the lens of obligation, or “I need you”, is a highway to codependence.
A healthy relationship between two people is two whole individuals building a third separate thing, their dynamic, which enhances their already whole existence rather than “completing” one another. In my office, I keep a diagram of this up on my whiteboard that shows two overlapping circles, “I” on one side, “you” on the other, and “we” in the overlap. These three components need to be balanced, but it takes patience and effort from both sides. Codependence happens when there is too much “we.” Detachment happens when there is too much I and you.
Balancing the forces of individuality and togetherness is extremely hard and is a learned skill, however, it’s very important in order to have a healthy approach to dating. As mentioned earlier, humans have two opposing needs, to belong in togetherness, and to be whole individuals. Ensure you are able to navigate that balance or are aware of your tendencies to be pulled to one or the other in order to catch yourself and correct in the moment should you decide to date.
3. Be mindful of when you co-regulate or self-regulate your emotions
Lastly, all adults will encounter stress in their lives and a big part of recovery involves learning to embrace your full range of emotions, even the challenging ones. To have a healthy relationship, you need to balance the urge to co-regulate and self-regulate. Meaning, if every time I feel sad, I call my partner and rely on them to make me feel better, that is leaning far into co-regulation. What happens if they aren’t available? Can I handle that sadness on my own?
The other extreme is never reaching out for help or support when struggling. This doesn’t give my partner the opportunity to show up for me and I may feel lonely in the relationship. If I lean too far into self-regulation, I may start to bottle or push down my feelings instead of actually processing them because it’s hard to always do that alone.
When you are struggling, try to use a self-led coping skill such as playing music, going for a walk, journaling, or meditation. If you still feel down, reach out for support. When reaching out, be strategic. What do you need? Do you need a hug? Maybe your partner is the best person for that. Do you need clinical support? Reach out to your recovery coach or therapist. Get yourself to a meeting if you need to feel supported.
While relationships can heal us and hold up a powerful mirror to expand our self-awareness and create healing for relational wounds, they are also a source of stress. Choose to enter the dating pool with intention. Protect your energy and please have support through the process. Be mindful of your partner selection and consider yourself a magnet. Get curious about what you are drawn to in a person and why. There is a ton of rich information and learning that can come from dating. As they say, the opposite of addiction is connection!