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October 5, 2011
by Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I
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Clinicians need to be watchful for a switched addiction to romance

If you've traveled the hall of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), you've probably heard a few acronyms, ranging from HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) to GOD (Group of Drunks, or Good Orderly Direction). There are many more, but here's one you might not have heard:

Real Exciting Love Affair Turns Into Outrageous Nightmare-Sobriety Hangs In Peril.

OK, not every romantic relationship ends in disaster, and not every relationship is a switched addiction. Even in early recovery, it is possible to navigate a new relationship without relapse, particularly if there is a strong support system in place.

But there are good reasons for the suggestion (read: directive) that the newcomer to recovery should abstain from new relationships for a year. Here we examine some of the more prominent reasons.


Fact is, any relationship requires time and energy. The person in early recovery has lots to learn about himself and lots to do-such as going to meetings, getting a sponsor, working the steps of recovery, doing service work, getting a job, improving nutrition, exercising, etc. Romance can get in the way of these things.

This is why newcomers are guided to associate with their own gender (or the gender to which they are not sexually attracted). Another good suggestion for them is to sit up front at meetings, limiting the degree to which they will be distracted by who's walking in the door, who's talking to whom, who's looking particularly sexy today, etc.

Emotional immaturity

There are a gazillion reasons to drink, and the highs and the lows of a new romance can seem like a perfect excuse to relapse. If emotional growth is stunted during the “using years,” and I believe it is, then your 30-year-old client could be emotionally closer to the age when he/she began using. And we know what 14-year-olds are like.

Forging healthy relationships takes time and maturity. Yet our clients are often eager to “fill the hole” that used to be filled with alcohol and drugs-and they usually are ill-equipped to distinguish among infatuation, friendship, sexual excitement and love.

“Magical thinking” of the newcomer might include statements such as:

  • “I'm sober now, so I'll make better choices.”

  • “With her by my side, I'll be able to stay sober.”

  • “I'm ready for the gifts of sobriety.”

  • “I'm horny.”

  • “I'll be careful.”

  • “She'll make sure I go to meetings.”

  • “We're soul mates.”

Our clients often run from one “intense” love affair to another, expecting each new relationship to be the “real thing”-the one that will last a lifetime. Just as the addict seeks meaning and pleasure from his drug of choice, he views relationships in the same way, as something external that will “fix what's wrong inside of me.”

But can we love another without first loving ourselves? Ayn Rand wrote, “Love is an expression and assertion of self-esteem.” Her words suggest that we must appreciate ourselves before we can bestow love upon another, and this is asking a lot of the person in early recovery.

We must remember that relationships can provide changes in brain chemistry that mimic what we experienced via drugs. Dopamine, adrenaline and other “feel-good” chemicals are triggered by love, giving the addict the same type of euphoria that drugs provided. Very seductive.

Confusion around relationships is understandable, particularly for people in early recovery. Suddenly sober, our clients are faced with people who sincerely care about them. This is unfamiliar territory. Many addicts will interpret such “unconditional support” as perhaps more than it is. Addiction professionals can help clients distinguish between friendship and romance.

Unsafe environments

Call it the forbidden fruit or the perversity of human nature, but we are often attracted to people or situations that are dangerous. We choose to get on a roller coaster, putting ourselves in harm's way for the fun of it. Some of us actually jump off a bridge while tied to a bungee cord!

We like our adrenaline. We miss the rush of the using lifestyle. We've never enjoyed a cookout, a football game, a fishing trip, a first date, a first kiss, without our drugs. Yet we didn't get sober to not have fun!

So how does the newcomer find a balance between reaping the benefits of sobriety and maintaining a focus on recovery? Admittedly, it's a balancing act, but one that can be achieved with the unbiased and experienced voice of the addiction professional.

Misery loves company.

The partner who is still using will probably resent your client's new friends, interests and clarity of thought.

Building a defense against relapse requires awareness that the client's new romance might not be a safe influence. The partner might say the right words (“I support what you're doing” or “C'mon down to the bar-I'll make sure you drink soda”), but the partner might, for his/her own reason, actually hope for a relapse.

The romantic partner who is also in early recovery might “seduce” the client by merging romance with relapse. Misery loves company. The partner who is still using will probably resent your client's new friends, interests and clarity of thought. That partner might secretly miss the “good old days” when alcohol and drugs were part of the relationship-when the barroom was the centerpiece of their social network. The addiction professional is well positioned to educate clients on safe ways to socialize that don't include alcohol, and to guide clients away from high-risk situations.