~ as featured in March 2007 issue of Recovery Today.
Recovering addicts hear this all the time in 12-step programs. However, this sound bit of wisdom is rarely heeded. Many have a hard time accepting that a hiatus from intimate relationships is necessary. In their minds, dating and new relationships seem benign. “As long as I’m not using and we’re not using and are in a program, I’m safe.” Not so fast. Getting into an intimate relationship prematurely is, as my mother would say, “Ill-conceived, ill-advised and ill-consummated.”
Odds are more than fifty percent of marriages will end in divorce for the general population. Want to venture a guess as to the odds for those in early recovery who test this cardinal rule?
Despite one’s best laid plans or intentions to not re-enact the same dysfunction and failures of previous relationships, the odds are overwhelmingly against the relationship -- doomed to be dysfunctional or have a shortened life expectancy.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but assuming that we would not want our emotional and mental well-being to hinge on a miracle, is it worth the risk? But this is not what the recovering addict is thinking about. When it comes to delaying gratification, when it comes to ‘choosing’ between ‘one step at a time’ versus ‘all at once,’ thinking in terms of gradual and taking time to develop and being objective and realistic are not how addicts are wired. There is no point of reference. Most recovering addicts don’t realize that admitting to being out of control and surrendering to their powerlessness, as having done so in Steps I and II, also apply to their emotions when dating and in early stage relationships.
The problem is not the relationship or the intimacy. It’s the sex. Sex tends to increase one’s level of emotional involvement and intensity of feelings, especially for women. Men tend to cope by splitting off from their feelings; that is, are more likely to engage in sexual relationships while remaining emotionally divorced or superficial. Sex is a trigger for emotional over-involvement or under-involvement relative to the stage of relationship. Either way, each one’s inability to manage his/her own emotional needs and provide self-nourishment will eventually jeopardize the developing relationship.
What often happens is that sex, exciting enough as it is, often leads to an infusion of romantic feelings, which can further heighten the excitement, which then awakens the “sleeping giant” -- the backlog of unmet emotional needs from previous relationships. The “giant” awakens (emotionally) ravenous and is not aware of the extent his/her hunger drives the relationship. Our unmet emotional needs reside in our unconscious and are sealed off from our awareness.
It’s during the first year of recovery that the addict is to learn how to break the cycle of addiction. A year of sobriety and ‘relationship abstinence’ are meant to allow a sufficient amount of time to deal with one’s own emotions without having to resort to his/her addiction, to build self-awareness and to become responsible for one’s own emotional care. Rather than relying on an external source for relief or emotional gain, which is what s/he is accustomed to do, s/he begins to look internally, to rely on oneself as a source of emotional nourishment.
“The most important relationship is with oneself” poses a complete paradigm shift to the recovering addict. If the necessary amount of time to grow the relationship with oneself hasn’t lapsed, chances are the recovering addict will do what they’ve been accustomed to do all of their lives; that is to look outside of oneself for relief or to make up for what is missing emotionally.
When unmet emotional needs begin to get played out in the relationship, the relationship can become an addictive or dysfunctional one, which further perpetuates the cycle of addiction. There may be excitement and hope at the beginning, but it’s only be a matter of time before increasing strife, stress and dysfunction lead to the relationship’s demise. An additional factor of concern is that dysfunctional and failed relationships dramatically increase the risk of relapse.
At the 5 month point of a sustained period of ‘relationship abstinence,’ Linda, a recovering alcoholic, proceeded to date a man, Jack, whom she met at a 12-Step meeting. Jack had been sober 10 years.
After approximately 5 dates during 3 weeks of dating him, the “writing was on the wall.” Linda had sex with him on the third date, which felt like quite an accomplishment that she was able to wait “so long.” When I asked her to assess the level of her emotional involvement, she thought about it awhile before saying in a tone of wonderment, “Not too much I hope. Noticed myself checking my phone messages more frequently than usual. That’s all.” She was referring his anticipated return from being out of town for several days. She didn’t want to fret about whether he would call her upon his return, but she did. She didn’t want to end up calling him before he called her, but she just couldn’t wait.
There were other indications of emotional over-involvement. When Linda talked about how she reacted when a couple of overtures she had made to him, i.e. expressing a desire to celebrate his birthday together and a dinner invitation, he suggested they “play it by ear,” she noticed herself getting angry and responding sarcastically to him.
It was apparent that Linda was looking for assurances that he is still interested. When his assurances weren’t forthcoming, she reacted as if he wasn’t being truthful, that he really wasn’t interested in her or the relationship, which wasn’t the case. He might have been taken aback by the edge in her voice. Linda couldn’t see that she was reacting from wounds of past relationships, from a place of insecurity, and the extent her mental and emotional well being hinged on how he responded to her.
The challenge for Linda remains the same as for any other recovering addict; taking the time -- how ever long the process of self-reclamation takes, before entering into a sexually, intimate relationship.
“No intimate relationships during the first year of sobriety” is merely a reminder that it takes a year or so of rigorous participation in a program that is sobriety and self-based before one is emotionally ready to get sexually involved. If entering into such a relationship prematurely, the recovering person, and anyone else for that matter, runs the risk of unresolved dependency issues tainting the newly developing relationship.
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Daniel Linder MFT is a licensed psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, Relationship Trainer, Addiction Specialist; Author: Demystifying Addiction, Relationship Recovery and numerous related articles.