Where Science Meets the Steps

The new science of addiction

Dating a Recovering Addict: Match-Maker or Deal-Breaker?

A past problem with drugs or alcohol shouldn't automatically scare you away

After dating one dud after another, you finally find someone who seems to have it all – thoughtful, witty, responsible – and good-looking to boot. Then they drop a bomb: “I used to be a drug addict.” They may as well have said, “I’m married.” But does one partner being in recovery automatically spell doom for a relationship?

Healthy Recovery, Healthy Relationships

Most recovering addicts aren’t strangers to therapy and, as a result, have spent a lot of time working on themselves and their relationships. They have learned critical relationship skills, including how to identify, process and communicate their emotions and to set personal boundaries while respecting the lines drawn by others. Recovering addicts don’t expect perfection in their partners, having learned firsthand that it doesn’t exist. And they have committed – in recovery and in life – to honesty and integrity and making decisions in accordance with their values.

Men and women learn a lot in recovery, not just about staying sober but living a happy, satisfying life. They don’t need to be taken care of; they learned how to do that for themselves. Some are deeply spiritual people whose lives are infused with meaning and purpose, while others volunteer in their communities or have interesting hobbies that keep them grounded. Because recovery is a lifelong process, recovering addicts are in a perpetual state of self-improvement.

Despite having a thorny past, recovering addicts can be some of the healthiest, most put-together individuals you’ll meet – with a few important stipulations. First, the recovering addict should have at least one year of sobriety, and preferably many more. Second, they should be actively working a program of recovery – attending meetings, volunteering, practicing self-care and so on – not just begrudgingly staying away from drugs and alcohol while addictive patterns fester. These provisos are in place to give addicts a fair shot at lasting recovery and to protect the people they might date from falling for someone who is unhealthy, unavailable or worse.

Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough

Just as important as assessing the recovering addict’s status is understanding your own. What are your beliefs about addiction? Does addiction strike a nerve with you, perhaps because there’s an addict in your family? Although research has refuted outdated assumptions about addiction, surveys have shown that people judge addicts (even recovering ones) more harshly than people struggling with obesity, depression and even schizophrenia. If you believe addiction is a sign of weakness or a character flaw, dating a recovering addict probably isn’t for you.

Sometimes if your alarm bells are ringing, there is good reason. When you bring a recovering addict into your inner circle, their choices and lifestyle can have significant bearing not only on their health and well-being but also your own. As a chronic brain disease, the threat of relapse is ever-present – an estimated 40 to 60 percent of addicts relapse – and watching someone you love spiral out of control can be one of the most horrific experiences of your life. Of course, not all addicts relapse and those that do are often able to get back on track before too much damage is done, but the threat is there nevertheless.

If you move forward with the relationship, be aware of a few unique aspects of dating someone in recovery. For instance, depending on the recovering addict’s particular needs, you may need to avoid drinking or using drugs around them or stop going to certain types of social events. They may need to meet with a sponsor or attend support group meetings at inconvenient times and your support in encouraging them to do so is essential. It isn’t your job to safeguard their sobriety, and someone firmly grounded in recovery won’t expect you to, but as a member of their support network you’ll need to encourage them to prioritize their recovery, sometimes even over you.

You also need to assess how much baggage you can handle. Addicts tend to do crazy things. They may have accrued debts, a criminal record or legal problems, or irrevocably damaged key relationships in their lives that make your interactions with their family and friends tenuous. You may hear wild stories of drug-fueled sexscapades or run into slippery characters from their past. All of these can be difficult to understand, so you have to honestly evaluate and communicate your tolerance level.

After evaluating all of the pros and cons, the real question isn’t whether you should date a recovering addict, but whether the person has the qualities you want in a romantic partner. In the end, it’s a very personal decision that you have to make: Is dating a recovering addict a deal-breaker for you?

David Sack, M.D. is board certified in Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine and serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health and Promises Treatment Centers.

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