One of the most common questions we hear from people in early recovery is, “How long before I can have a relationship.” Answers in the rooms of recovery tend to vary, but the most common suggestion is to wait a year.
Put simply, I disagree. There is, in my opinion, no set length of time, but a year is likely way too short.
By definition, we addicts are people who don’t even know how to have healthy relationships with ourselves. We have used alcohol, other drugs, sex, gambling, or whatever other behaviors while attempting to prevent ourselves from experiencing even the tiniest vestiges of unhappiness and discomfort. When we had doubts about ourselves, we acted out. When life was going badly, we acted out. When life was going well, we rewarded ourselves. When things were going so well that our feelings got uncomfortable, we acted out because we weren’t used to feeling much at all, and that was scary.
We addicts hate feelings, unless the kind and levels are carefully controlled. Because we really have no idea what they’re about, we are not only unable to appreciate them, we can’t identify and appreciate them in other people either. Avoiding the scariness of our feelings drives our addiction. Yes, there is a physical aspect, and it’s really important in early recovery. However, our inability to deal with our feelings preceded our addictions in most cases, and is by far the biggest issue when it comes to becoming truly sober.
Recovery is uncomfortable, and there is simply no faster or more thorough way to forget our discomfort and lose track of ourselves and who we are than in a new relationship. We also lose track of our recovery. We may not use, but relapse comes before use, and hiding ourselves in feelings of “love” is hiding from our real selves.
So, what do I tell people in answer to that question? I say that they will be ready to have a relationship with another person only when they have one with themselves.
And how will they know when that happens? They’ll no longer feel compelled to be emotionally involved with someone. If a relationship develops, it will be the natural outcome of a healthy friendship with another human being, based on a firm foundation of self-esteem and emotional independence. That foundation will allow them to be a true partner, for whom the romance is a part of life, not the reason.
Relationships aren’t two halves making a whole. They’re two wholes making a partnership. They need two complete people, not people who are still missing part of themselves.