Sober Dating + Sober Sex = Less Drug and Alcohol Relapse

Are romance and sexual activity triggers for relapse?

Posted Feb 05, 2016

Relationships and Relapse

When addicts (of all types) enter treatment and recovery, one of the first things they are told is to not make any major life changes in the first year of sobriety, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. If they’re married, they’re told to stick it out for at least twelve months no matter how bad their relationship seems in the moment. If they’re single, they’re told to stay that way for the next year, no matter how attracted they are to another person (or people). 

iStock Photo
Source: iStock Photo

The reasoning behind this recommendation centers on the fact that addicts new to the process of healing are typically not thinking all that clearly. Put simply, they’ve been avoiding reality and their true emotions for a very long time – usually several years or even decades – and without the ability to moderate those sensations (via an addictive substance or behavior) they can very easily become overwhelmed and/or addled. One moment they feel awesome, on top of the world, incredibly attractive, and unbelievably horny; the next moment they feel like the world’s biggest pile of dog crap, completely unworthy of love and affection. 

Needless to say, this is not a great headspace for important decisions, especially when those decisions are emotionally charged, as romantic relationships nearly always are. In the early months of recovery, shame, regret, fear, depression, elation, anxiety, longing, and the various other feelings that inevitably surface when romance and sexuality enter the picture are incredibly powerful – at times too powerful for a person who is: 

  • Not used to feeling anything at all, good or bad, thanks to his/her addiction
  • Not fully established in sobriety and therefore incredibly vulnerable to relapse

So yeah, no major decisions in the first year or so of recovery, particularly when it comes to romantic relationships. 

NOTE: There are plenty of intelligent exceptions to this general rule. For instance, if a recovering addict is in an abusive relationship, he or she may need to walk away, either temporarily or permanently, to maintain sobriety. 

Romantic and Sexual Hazards in Sobriety

There are several common romantic and sexual mistakes that individuals new to recovery tend to make, the first and most obvious of which is to ignore the almost universal admonition discussed above – to not make any major life changes in the first year. Sadly, these missteps can and often do lead recovering addicts directly into relapse. The most common blunders include:

  • Seeking romance/sex in the same venues and with the same people as before. For instance, a woman who drinks and meets men at a local bar enters recovery for alcoholism, but still goes to the bar to meet men. Or a guy who uses cocaine and then hires prostitutes enters recovery for stimulant abuse, but still looks for and interacts with prostitutes and other drug users. For these addicts, relapse is almost inevitable, because they are going to be triggered time and time again by their environment. 
  • Taking the “13th Step,” which (part-jokingly, part seriously) means dating another newcomer. As mentioned above, newcomers to recovery have been avoiding reality and their emotions for a very long time, and now, without the ability to moderate those sensations (via their addiction), they can easily become overwhelmed and/or addled. In other words, that new guy/girl across the 12-step meeting room might be hot, but he/she is also a hot mess, which means a romantic relationship is sure to come with huge helpings of drama – drama that can easily trigger relapse.
  • Returning to a relationship that is abusive or that supports active addiction. Sometimes this occurs because recovering addicts are so afraid to be alone that they’ll put up with almost anything from a primary partner, even if that drives them into relapse. In such cases, it is better to temporarily or permanently walk away. (As mentioned above, this is an exception to the “no major changes” rule.)
  • Underestimating the strength of the feelings that arise when one is dating and/or being sexual. For instance, going on a date with someone but not feeling any chemistry can cause a recovering addict to feel ashamed and unlovable – exactly the type of emotions that can trigger the addictive cycle. Essentially, dating forces newly recovering addicts to experience emotional discomfort they may have not dealt with since adolescence. And what newly sober addict is ready to feel that again? 
  • Replacing one’s primary addiction with compulsive romance/sex. For instance, a recovering drug addict might substitute the escapist neurochemical rush of romantic and sexual attraction for the escapist neurochemical rush of drugs. (The brain pumps out the same neurochemicals in response to romantic/sexual stimuli as it does in response to addictive substances.) Essentially, the individual swaps one addition for another, which is a bit like changing seats on the Titanic. Sure, the view is different, but the ship is still sinking. 

Doomed to Isolation?

So far, I’ve probably seemed pretty pessimistic about recovering addicts and romantic relationships. In truth, I’m quite the opposite. I merely wanted to point out that recovering addicts should not seek romance, especially early in the healing process, without knowing the potential pitfalls they may encounter – most notably the emotional turmoil that even psychologically healthy people experience when dating. 

As such, I don’t recommend that men and women new to sobriety end old romantic relationships or seek out new romantic relationships right away. Instead, they should take some much needed time to focus on themselves and their recovery, developing self-understanding and supportive peer bonds. And this generally means several months or maybe even a year concentrating on sobriety, self-knowledge, and bonding with platonic friends both in and out of recovery. 

Once an addict is firmly grounded in sobriety, with a modicum of ego-strength and a good social support network, he or she is probably ready to embark on the next sober adventure – a rewarding romantic and sexual life. If and when an addict feels strong enough and sober enough to move forward with dating, he or she should do so in a directed fashion, knowing his or her goals and boundaries as outlined in this article. Furthermore, his or her sober support network – therapists, sponsors, friends in recovery, supportive family members and non-addicted friends, etc. – should all be in on this decision, with an opportunity to provide ongoing empathetic guidance and support whenever it is needed. 

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician, Rob has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.