For many people in recovery, aftercare represents an exciting (if cautious) beginning, a fresh chance at life after the ordeal of addiction. One of the most important topics in this second chance is the question of relationships, both intimate and platonic, casual and romantic. Relationships in aftercare require a lot of different kinds of work; some must be repaired, some have to be created, and some should be eliminated.
The Importance of Relationships
When a person goes through addiction recovery, it entails taking a full inventory (and, if necessary, an overhaul) of their life. A counselor will turn over every stone to see what parts of the client’s past played into the substance abuse and/or mental health problems, and how those parts should be addressed to safeguard a long-lasting and robust recovery.
Having healthy interpersonal relationships is a big component of a secure post-addiction life. A psychology professor noted that the “enormous importance” of relationships should come as no surprise, noting that much research confirms “the biological processes that account for the link between relationships and health.” The right number of relationships, in the right proportions, leads to improved mental health, a better immune system, and improved outlook and wellbeing. As Psychology Today puts it, “other people are the key to our happiness.”
Relationships are fundamentally important in life, and they are no less important in recovery and aftercare. They may be even more important for a person recovering from addiction because the mechanics of relating to other people, understanding other people, and conducting behavior appropriately based on that understanding can dictate much of the person’s progress in recovery and the effectiveness of relapse prevention strategies. Developing a reliable and trustworthy network of friends, a smaller circle of close friends, and perhaps a significant other can be a painstaking process for a person in aftercare. It is not as easy as going out to a bar, meeting people at a club, or making connections through dealers and sellers. But cultivating and investing in the right kinds of relationships is a huge step in creating a fulfilling and rewarding life in recovery.
Repairing a Close Relationship
One of the most important processes in recovery is taking a life inventory, where you account for everything that can either assist you or impede you in your recovery. This includes the people you know: friends, acquaintances, social connections, former romantic and/or sexual partners, and even family members. Each person who fits into one or more of these categories was affected by your past substance abuse; they were either emotionally or physically hurt by your addiction, or they contributed to your addiction. Moving forward, everything will be different, and you will have to address these changes in order to put the past behind you.
When it comes to repairing relationships in aftercare, the closer a person is to you, the harder the reconciliation tends to be. Addiction is often the catalyst for many marriages or long-term relationships to come to an end. A study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that 48 percent of people who had past or current alcoholism were divorced at some point in their lives, and couples struggling with addiction issues are four times more likely to separate than couples where no such issues are present.
If you are looking to repair a relationship with a spouse or a serious romantic partner, the issue has to be approached carefully. It is unlikely that you will be able to simply resume the relationship you had before the substance abuse took hold. Your therapist will teach you that the anger, hurt, and betrayal of an addiction cannot be changed or forgotten, and you will not be able to fall back on drinking or getting high when the stress of rebuilding an emotional connection becomes too much.
However, it is possible to create a new relationship from the shadow of the old one; and with what you’ve learned about yourself in recovery, the new relationship can be based on a much stronger foundation of communication, honesty, support, and respect than the old one was. This will not come easily, and it will be very frustrating for both partners. Each will have to work very hard and be very patient, individually and together, with one another. Recovery is a complicated process in and of itself, and a writer at Vice notes that trying to find the compromise between one partner being sober and the other one still a drinker – even a social, moderate drinker – “can threaten to destroy your relationship.”
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Doing It Together
For this reason, it is often a good idea for both parties to attend therapy sessions together. The solidarity goes a long way in repairing the relationship, and it will give your partner a chance to understand the reality of the situation from your perspective. This may even extend to both partners entering couples therapy to resolve any issues regarding problems in the relationship that caused, and are caused by, the substance abuse and subsequent recovery. Many people, for example, are unaware that addiction is a disease that affects the functioning of the brain and the person’s ability to make good decisions. Attending therapy and counseling sessions together will allow your partner to see how your mental health problems influenced not just your substance abuse, but also other behavioral issues that made the relationship difficult.
The crux is that repairing the relationship is not about assigning blame. Instead, it should be about healing and accepting. It is not easy for a person who has suffered at the hands of an addict to do this, and if your partner is committed to making the relationship work, it will take a lot of sacrifice and hard work from them to get to this point.
Sex is a big part of any serious relationship, and physical intimacy will have to be addressed on its own terms during recovery. The use of drugs or alcohol in a relationship can compromise both emotional and physical trust, as the addicted partner will struggle to perform sexually and may take out those frustrations in the form of increased substance abuse, mood swings, and various forms of abuse (verbal, physical, or emotional). In 2011, the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry reported that 106 fathers who were in treatment for methadone addiction tended to be more aggressive toward their partners (either physically, sexually, psychologically, or some combination thereof) compared to men in a control group who had no addiction to opiates.
For this reason, it may take a long time, and a lot of work, until both partners in the relationship are ready to attempt physically intimacy with each other. Talking about sex is never easy even with a partner; to talk about sex with a therapist is no easier, especially if there are issues that complicate sexual communication and trust within the relationship. This can be one of the most difficult things for a person in recovery to work on, which is why recovery counselors advise giving sex time.
Human sexuality is a vastly complicated and nuanced field, and it can be made even more fraught by substance abuse. Repairing the damage has to come slowly and naturally; your therapist might suggest that you not even consider the subject of sex until you are at a better stage of your recovery. This can be frustrating and not what you imagined recovery to be like, but it is the reality of rebuilding your life, including your love life and your sex life, in the aftermath of an addiction.
Repairing Trust among Friends
Romantic relationships aren’t the only ones that need to be addressed in recovery. One of the most difficult things that you will have to accept, is that your friends and loved ones will have no reason to trust you, even though you are in aftercare. Your addiction has meant that you have used every conceivable form of deception on them to continue your habit, and even though you are sober and ready to start life anew, they remember all too well the lies and the duplicity they heard and saw in you. Psych Central notes that there is no deadline or timeline for the trust to be re-established – it takes “as long as it takes.” For some people, this could last years; for others, it may not come fully; and for some, it might not come at all. You will have to accept your friends and loved ones for wherever they fall (and move) on this spectrum.
Creating New Friendships
Recovery allows you to become very intentional about the kind of people you spend your time with. Your friendships are no longer determined and driven by access to (and use of) drugs or alcohol. This may mean that some of the people you know are no longer compatible with your new sober lifestyle. If the dominant dynamic of your connection to such people revolves around getting drunk or high then you will likely have to end those friendships.
As difficult as that is, being sober does not have to mean being alone. In fact, quite the opposite. Your sobriety allows you to engage with other sober people: people who abstain from alcohol/drug use for personal reasons and, with time, moderate drinkers. When you are in aftercare, your recovery sponsor can help you find groups and organizations that bring sober people together, for safe and healthy events like hikes, movies, games, sports, and other activities. The idea behind this is to reintroduce the idea that “fun” does not have to be synonymous with “drunk” or “high.” There are myriad connections to be made with interesting people without the pressure or expectation of having to drink or get high for the time spent together to be worth it.
For example, some bars offer “booze-free nights,” as a way for people to socialize and mingle without the temptation of alcohol. While the nightclub scene has long been considered a hotbed for substance abuse, the rise of sober raves has given people in aftercare (or people looking to have a good time without the pressure of alcohol) a place where they can dance, enjoy music, and other people’s company without jeopardizing their sobriety.
For some people (those who are still in the early stages of their recovery or those who are coming off a particularly chronic substance abuse problem), being in places that bring back memories of the days of drinking and drug use might be too close to a relapse trigger. So, while some people will be ready to re-enter a bar (even on a booze-free night), others might struggle to keep their impulses in check. By keeping your recovery sponsor and coach in the loop about your social life, you will get the necessary feedback and guidance to know where your boundaries are and if you are straying too close to them.
A safer way to build new connections is to seek out some volunteer opportunities. Engaging in community service gives sober individuals a sense of purpose and direction in the early periods of recovery. Volunteering in places like homeless shelters and food banks offers people a chance to give back to their local communities. For those who wrestle with feelings of guilt or shame as a result of their addiction, being selfless is a form of atonement.
Additionally, if you give of your time and energy at a local nonprofit, you will come into contact with people who have similar priorities and who can help you work toward yours. Some of the people who volunteer at local organizations are former substance abusers themselves, on their own journey of redemption. Building a positive network with such people, and others who give back to their communities without asking for anything in return, is a great way to create new friendships in aftercare. Not for nothing does Addiction Professional magazine call volunteering “a cornerstone of recovery.”
Unfortunately, there are some relationships that cannot, and should not, continue into the aftercare stage. People who you primarily associate with your addictions, whether they be drinking buddies, dealers, or people who otherwise encouraged the substance abuse, may not fit into the recovery paradigm you have worked so hard at creating. When you put your self-destructive habits behind you, everything in your new life has to be conducive to maintaining your sobriety and preventing relapse. For this reason, people who cannot support the new and better you will not make the cut.
According to Psych Central, an enabler is defined as a person who “removes the natural consequences to the addict of his or her behavior.” Enabling takes many forms: encouraging a drinker to keep taking shots instead of trying to cut them off, or giving money for drugs (out of pity or misguided concern) instead of trying to steer the addict toward treatment. Enablers often do not understand that addiction is a mental disease, and their own behavior suggests that they do not know how to stop enabling.
This is why being around enablers is very dangerous for people in recovery. Potential relapse triggers are landmines, begging a newly sober person to step on them. If an enabler does not know how to stop enabling, they will blithely pressure you to resume your drinking or drug use, unaware or uncaring of how your mental state needs time to heal. If you are having a bad day, for example, an enabler might give you money to call up your old dealer instead of helping you in more productive ways.
Choosing Your Friends Wisely
Not all enablers are malicious saboteurs, but if they cannot change their behavior to support you, then you will have to leave them behind. This can be one of the most difficult parts of addiction recovery, but it is a necessary sacrifice to make. The alternative is to allow constant reminders and temptations of your addiction to take up residence in your new life.
To this end, your recovery coach will help you prepare to have some tough conversations. It will not be enough to simply ignore invitations to bars, clubs, or parties where you know alcohol or drugs will be present. As a new person, you will have to draw a clear line in the sand and let your former enablers know that you will not cross that line under any circumstances. It will not be easy to plant this flag, so you will have to tell your recovery coach the details about your relationships with these people, and they will help you prepare what to say. But you will have to be the one who makes the phone call or writes the letter to the enablers. If they are truly supportive of your recovery, they will refrain from doing or saying things that undermine your journey. If they are unwilling to grow with you, then you know that they never really cared about you, but instead cared only about using you for their own pleasure and impulses.
Eliminating certain relationships in aftercare is not easy, but going through with it means that you will have created a better sense of security for your recovery. Importantly, the people who remain in your life after this process are people who are there because they really do care about you, and this will bode very well for the rest of your recovery. Indeed, the British Journal of Social Psychology wrote that “breaking ties with social groups may be good recovery from substance misuse,” noting that transitioning from a social identity defined by substance use to an identity defined by recovery, “constitutes an important step in substance abuse treatment.”
The Struggle of Sobriety
The reality of cutting unsupportive people out of your post-addiction life is that you might feel guilty, lonely, or any number of other emotions. You will remember the good and fun times, and the temptation to call them up for one more binge or one last night out will be strong. This is where having a strong aftercare network comes into play. Your sponsors, coaches, and friends will remind you that your past life was not all excitement and thrills. The reason you cut those people out of your life is because when your substance abuse took its toll for you, they were not there to help. Instead, they encouraged you to keep drinking and using drugs, or they abandoned you.
The feelings of guilt and regret over taking such a drastic step will be strong, and your recovery coach will help you prepare for that. You should have some coping mechanisms at the ready for the second-guessing, such as having a sponsor on speed dial or a social activity planned with people who really care about your mental and emotional wellbeing, people who don’t need alcohol or drugs to enjoy your company.
The Importance of Forgiveness
Whatever relationships you look to have in recovery, and however you want to go about establishing and maintaining those relationships, forgiveness will be a big driver in your approach. Behind every healthy relationship is forgiveness, says The Huffington Post. While this is certainly true in relationships that have not been harmed by substance abuse, it assumes even bigger proportions in making amends, and letting go, of relationships that have suffered in that way.
This is especially true in the event that a relationship has to end, whether that relationship is a casual acquaintanceship or a serious romantic/sexual interest. The decision to eliminate someone from your life is never an easy one, and even if the choice is clear – if it is generally understood that this person will not support your recovery – you will have to forgive yourself, and them, for the relationship becoming untenable. Forgiveness is the releasing of resentment, and by absolving yourself and the other party of guilt and blame, you are free to move on with your recovery.
It is important to note that you are never alone in this process. Aftercare groups, like various 12-Step programs, are full of people who have been down this road before and who take the responsibility of mentoring a person in recovery very seriously. Dealing with the emotional burden of an addiction is not something that should be attempted alone. Having a therapist, a recovery coach, a sponsor, and a circle of close friends, who can provide reliable advice, accountability, and simple companionship, is what makes the sacrifice of recovery possible and worthwhile.
Finding Love in Aftercare
Many people ask when it is a good time to consider the idea of dating in recovery. The need to love and be loved is part of us what makes us human; and coming out of addiction treatment, finding a special connection with someone who understands this is can be a goal in and of itself. Much of what is covered in therapy is about helping you find yourself, and when you have a good idea of who you are, you might want to share that with someone.
As natural as that impulse is, the first year of recovery is often a very tumultuous year for people; they must balance the enthusiasm and energy of sobriety with relearning their boundaries and limitations. For this reason, many recovery coaches advise against making significant life changes in that first 12 months of recovery: no fulltime work or school commitments and, crucially, no romantic or sexual relationships. Denying yourself a significant other for an entire year can seem cruel, especially after recovery makes you feel invigorated and alive, but it is in the best interest of your long-term recovery.
An active aftercare support network will tell you when you are ready to start dating, but even this requires a lot of thought and preparation. Your recovery coach might work with you on creating a dating plan where you identify positive and healthy goals for yourself and what you are looking for in a partner. Creating a dating plan might seem like a mundane chore in the face of the excitement and thrill of finding a special someone, but it will also help you identify and clarify the red flags that an unsuitable match might bring to the table.
Some ideas of what could go into the plan include:
- Not dating a person who does not have a steady job
- Not dating a person who currently uses drugs or drinks regularly (for some, even moderate or infrequent drinking of a partner might be too much of a relapse trigger)
- Not dating a person who only wants sex or otherwise has no interest in your emotional wellbeing
- Looking for a partner who is willing to attend therapy sessions together
- Looking for a partner who understands that sobriety and recovery have to come first in the relationship
- Understanding that the partner may have conflicted feelings about coming second after sobriety and recovery, and that this may or may not be a dealbreaker for the partner
Dating is complicated, and in recovery, the baggage becomes a bit heavier. This is not a bad thing; there are many potential partners who appreciate the levelheadedness and maturity that come with having a significant other in recovery. But since dating is complicated by itself, this does not mean that love in recovery is a sure bet. Progress will have to be slow, often painstaking, and the reality of dating in recovery can feel like a burden to either member of the relationship.
But as with any relationship, honesty and open communication will go a long way in getting over the bumps. If both partners are on the same page with the responsibilities and sacrifices of recovery then the union is in good hands.
Any kind of relationship in aftercare needs work. Whether you are looking to repair old friendships, eliminate toxic connections, or create a special bond with another person, the key is to give it time. Recovery changes everything, both for you and for the people in your life. It may take a while for wounds to heal and bridges to be rebuilt; it may take a while until you are ready to open your heart to someone new. But if you spend some time focusing on yourself, and investing in your aftercare support network, then the relationships you cultivate in recovery will help you enjoy your new life to its fullest potential.