New Relationships Can Threaten Sobriety


So, new relationship can threaten your sobriety, ironic, isn’t it?

I had a friend named TJ.  This was back in Albuquerque in the 90’s when I was drinking a lot.  I met TJ just before he started getting clean.  He was the manager of a convenience store I frequented, and we got to talking that way, also finding out we had a friend in common.

TJ—as happened with me—had a hard time with his girlfriend while he was still drinking.  Or it might be more accurate to say that she had problems with TJ.  The point is, he lost her, and he realized it was his fault because of his drinking.  He beat himself up about it—or at least was right to shoulder a lot of the blame—and he began to feel lonely.

Not long into his sobriety he clicked with a woman I’ll call Darla, and they got to the fourth and fifth date stage and became a couple.  I remember being with a group of friends, including TJ.  We were at a restaurant-bar (I was drinking, the norm for me at the time) and Darla was going to meet us there.  She became about fifteen minutes late, then twenty-five, and TJ was getting agitated.  At about the half-hour point, he started muttering that it was this kind of stuff that would drive him to drink, and that he wished he could drink.  These were the days before cell phones, but he finally found a pay phone.  To make a long story short, even though he got a story about her lateness on the phone, Darla never showed.  TJ kept fuming and going on and on about needing just one shot, just a quick shot.

It wasn’t long after that I arrived at his apartment to see him knocking back a cocktail (then chasing it with a shot), and being pretty casual about it.  He explained that he’d just gotten off the phone with Darla, having a big fight.  He was tense and tight and stressed, and he was now feeling a lot better.

Without giving the history of TJ, suffice it to say that he ended up going back into drink full time, developing the same problem he’d had before, even if not quite as bad.

That brings up the question of how a new relationship affects someone who is going through recovery from alcohol.  The conventional wisdom would say that forging such a thing would be one of the best things for a recoverer.  It would allow for a lot of support and would provide the kind of things that would raise the old oxytocin levels, not to mention serotonin.  It’s important to feel wanted, to have sources of affection, to not be alone on date nights and all that.

The person with whom you’re in a relationship will be a regular companion, providing regular, much-needed support.  And yet, as you can see from the case of TJ, the new relationship can also cause problems.  In the lingo of recovery, replacement therapy simply means replacing a harmful behavior with something else, bringing in a substantial new component of your life to fill in the spaces that the addiction had previously filled.

The reason that a new relationship may not always be the best replacement is that it is filled with complications.  Playing a sport or a musical instrument or something analogous  does a pretty good job of giving without asking anything in return.  However, a new relationship can make you question a lot of things, can reveal an inadequacy or two, can cause a lot of insecurities.  Obviously, when Darla was late, TJ had to wonder about the whole relationship: was that the last he’d ever see of her?  Was she with some other guy?  Insecurity is part of a new relationship.  And fights can be part of it too.

Things that knock a person off balance and call his identity into question are an inherent threat to sobriety.  First off, the alcoholic had some identity issues to begin with.  What I mean is, a lot of people turn to alcohol when they’re not sure who they are, which sides of themselves to try to amplify and improve, which things they’d like to change, etc.  The confusing nature of all of this, they often cover up with drinking.  When they get into sobriety, they have other issues.  They now have to figure out who the sober them is.  Then, it’s a matter of eliminating some of the drinkers in their lives, having a new group of people, etc.  A lot of things are going on.

During a new relationship, of course, we all start seeing ourselves differently.  A big junk food eater may  feel self-conscious after beginning to date a health nut; someone who isn’t very assertive will do some soul searching while dating an assertive person, etc.  Also, any arguments and disagreements we have may reveal certain things about us, such as stubbornness, a tendency to anger, a tendency to blame or judge, etc.

These kind of stresses can melt away after a few drinks.  Without the drink, they can ring in our ears and just remain present, nagging and nagging.  They absolutely call to be swatted away like an insect.  Someone who’s been using booze as a crutch for years up until this time will feel a reflex or a desire to keep doing that very thing.  It’s not easy to avoid the temptation.

relationship hand in hand

Well-meaning Threats

We’ve heard TJ’s story, and some of you may have been thinking that it sounds quite a bit different from my own.  As you know, I have been in a very good relationship, and it has helped me a lot.  It’s a tricky issue.  On the one hand you hear people saying that getting into a relationship is absolutely what you need as you go through recovery, particularly since it helps take you away from your old crowd of drinkers.  On the other hand, there’s this idea of the threat of the relationship and all the turbulence.

It’s really both, and it of course does depend on the relationship.  Obviously, psychologically unhealthy relationships and relationships with people who don’t have their act together and who drag us down are not the ticket.  But while good relationships can be healing and helpful, that is something I cover at length elsewhere, and here we’re looking more at the other sides.

So, yes, new relationships can be great, and no one is suggesting that dating someone simply means getting into fights and being stood up and getting stressed.  However, acknowledging that doesn’t really get us out of the woods.  Even a psychologically great, well-meaning boyfriend or girlfriend can end up spelling trouble for us in sobriety.  It’s not just stress and strain driving us to drink that can be the culprit.

The Enabler

My long-time girlfriend is named H.  OK, you got me, that’s not her name, but that’s what I call her here.  As I’ve stated before, H is amazing, and is one of the most positive aspects of my life.  There’s no question that she’s well-meaning, and when I started dating her, I felt a sense of near-euphoria, not the kind of stress TJ went through.  The reason the relationship with H was a bit of a threat to my sobriety was that she was an enabler.

One of the things with H is that she was always encouraging me to go out and have a good time.  I don’t mean the drinking kind of fun, and often not even in a place that served alcohol.  But she felt it was important for me to join her and her friends for various clean, healthy social activities, partially as a way of taking my mind off of my struggles to remain sober, etc.  The problem with this was only that I keep a recovery journal and go running and make goals and track progress and do other things as a part of the regimen.  The kind of social activities H is interested in are—naturally—very good in a lot of ways, but they do take time.  Like it or not, the time we spend on some of our projects for recovery can be at night when other people are out on the town.

So, the fun aspects of new relationships can be a detriment to the recovered alcoholic.  In a lot of ways, a person who is recovering needs a controlled environment.  We’re fragile creatures who have to build up very safe routines for ourselves.  We putter around.  We make lists.  We have rituals.  There are hundreds of ways that the wild and wonderful environment of a new relationship can be threatening to the kind of safe world we inhabit.  I mean, even therapy gets complicated, since some of the energies and times we spend talking to the therapist about our recovery, drinking urges, etc., become used for discussing the relationship.

Coping with change

To me, the idea isn’t to just refrain from having the relationship.  That’s not the path I took, anyway.  The idea, I think is to be ready for possible complications and to address them.  One of the biggest ways is just no to let things drive you to drink.  No one said remaining sober was going to be easy.  While we have to seal ourselves into our little cocoon right at first, that isn’t really the longterm plan.  At some point, we have to bid the therapist adieu and generally take the training wheels off.  That includes being in relationships.

Having some interesting identity issues or other issues in a relationship simply cannot be an excuse for backsliding.  You’re learning ways of fighting obstacles with willpower.  This is a place to use them.

As for an enabler, this one is quite tricky.  The thing that I found useful and beneficial was to talk to H about this enabling.  You don’t want it to be as simple as “you’re doing things that are screwing me up, stop it.”  The person’s first instinct is to try to back off.  In my case, cutting back on some of these social engagements was good, yet you don’t want the person to kind of feel forced into something like that and to not really understand it.  One doesn’t want resentment to creep in, because that will cause larger issues.  The idea is to have the other person help you with a problem-solving process in which there may be compromises of one sort or another, not just freezing that person out of his or her ideas and plans.

I feel that the issue of new relationships requires some coping and problem-solving, not just avoidance.  Avoiding new relationships too much can in turn be an unhealthy reaction.  Go out there and fall in love, but choose wisely, and be ready to ride out some fun complications!

Photo Credit Daria Bond and Draopsnai on Flickr