Dana’s Perspective

If you’re familiar with 12-step recovery, you may have heard that it’s best to stay out of new relationships within your first year of getting clean. While this is not a requirement to find or maintain recovery, there are some valid reasons for this advice. 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, and finding forgiveness and peace, but your partner in recovery may be on the same road. Insert: complicated, confusing feelings. After a long period of substance abuse and addiction, 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 are relationships challenging in early recovery? 

In early recovery, we’re still discovering who we are as sober individuals, and we’re still trying to dig out of the hole that addiction has left us in. Sometimes, we grasp at distractions or new motivations, whether they’re healthy and sustainable or not. We call this instant gratification. Relationships based on instant gratification are sometimes detrimental to those in early recovery, and this is why we often hear advice about staying out of relationships in the first year of sobriety.

Building a solid foundation

I can only write about my experience, and in my experience, there are 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, and some step-work under my belt, and I had learned a lot of lessons (sometimes the hard way) from previous relationships. Was I looking for a lifelong partner? No, I wasn’t. 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. I also learned the value of transparent communication–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 a sense of identity. If I had met Ross earlier in my life, I might not have been able to have a healthy relationship with him.

Managing Recovery and a New Relationship

What’s worked for us has been this: we maintain our recovery processes while still using the principles 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 to work on in our recovery. We do 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 journeys and ultimately, as a team. My husband loves his recovery, and I love that about him. I’m not as motivated to actively engage in my own recovery, but it can be motivating to watch someone 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 I built in recovery before our relationship.

Ross’ Perspective

Dana and I both understand why 12-step programs have suggestions about relationships and recovery. Relationships are a sensitive and important topic to discuss with anyone in early recovery because it is a sensitive time in their life, and relationships can bring up complicated emotions that can sidetrack a person’s focus on sobriety.

I do not suggest getting into a relationship if you are just starting your recovery, and I strongly advise against getting married in early recovery.

What Works for Us

To keep it simple, I really believe that our recovery journeys look different. I could easily try and suggest or 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, sponsor other people, are actively working the 12 steps, and even have the same homegroup. But our recovery journeys look very different. I do not seek her advice when I actually need direction from my sponsor. I also do not try to make her recovery look like mine, just like she doesn’t try to make mine look like hers.

I do, however, believe that she helps me in my recovery all the time. For me, living a life in recovery means that I am actively trying to change my attitude, perspective, and actions so that I can be a better person. Living a life in recovery is the way I choose to change. I am constantly trying to practice my own recovery so that I do not act on my old patterns of behavior (destructive habits that were at their worst while I was using).

We both understand that we have to allow each other to be individuals. With that comes the understanding that we’re humans, too. We continue to help each other grow both inside and outside of our marriage. We give each other the space to grow as people. Does this mean we’re perfect and our marriage is perfect? No. But we do feel that what we’ve learned in recovery helps us understand each other better and helps us to practice empathy for each other.

We do our best to live by the principles 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 those impacted by 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, sons and daughters, siblings, employees, friends, sponsors, and parents.