Waiting a year sounds good in theory, but love and attraction are not things anyone can plan for.
Dating for recovering addicts presents a different set of challenges that people without a substance abuse problem don’t necessarily experience. Addict or not, anyone who is single can attest to the fact that dating can be a complete nightmare. The awkward lulls in conversation and the unease you feel presenting yourself as a likable person are all enough to make person with a healthy dose of anxiety want to run for the nearest exit. After the date, your emotional stability is tried even further. You constantly check your phone waiting for him or her to call, followed by crushing disappointment if he or she doesn’t. These experiences can threaten the hard-earned sobriety of any newly sober addict.
This is why it is often advised that newly sober addicts wait one year before they actively try to seek a romantic partner. While this sounds reasonable in theory, it is hardly ever adhered to in practice. All four of the recovering addicts I spoke with never stuck to the one-year rule.
Justin Kunzelman is nine years sober and the director of Rebel Recovery in West Palm Beach, Florida. He’s been married for five years and has a young son, but says he doesn’t believe in a dating waiting period. Adriana Kupresak, sober 17 months, is a style blogger and addiction advocate from Zagreb, Croatia. She’s currently in a new three-month-old relationship with her “soulmate,” but dated throughout early recovery. David Stoecker is nine years sober and the founder of Better Life in Recovery, in Springfield, Missouri. He’s a father and has been married for seven years. When asked if he stuck to the one-year suggestion, he said, “Absolutely not, and I probably should have.” Jennifer Nyhus, eight years sober and an aspiring addiction advocate from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is a happily married mother of two. “I’ve never met anyone who’s waited that long, and I don’t honestly know as addicts we could,” Nyhus said.
This lack of adherence isn’t something that is specific to the sources but something that rings true across the board. “I have spoken to and have provided therapy to many recovering addicts and alcoholics. Probably eight out of 10 have had difficulties sustaining this rule of thumb for one year for various reasons,” said Dr. Sal Raichbach of the Ambrosia Treatment Center.
The one-year rule exists so that addicts can have a year to focus solely on themselves. “The ‘wait one year before dating’ rule in recovery is based on the idea of minimizing emotional turmoil in the first year of sobriety,” says Dr. Raichbach. But it’s important to note that this rule is not part of any official recovery framework. “It doesn’t come from any documented source; there are no studies behind it. There’s a bunch of clichés that fall into that same category, like rules, like 90/90 [attending 90 meetings in 90 days],” Kunzelman said. “But it’s not actually a part of their foundations of recovery. I never followed it.” Dr. Raichbach backed this up, saying it’s more of a “philosophical idea.”
This philosophical idea, however, is just too impractical for many recovering addicts, since love and attraction are not things people can plan for. It’s human nature to want romantic companionship, and a newly sober person may desire it even more than a non-addict. “I know that when you’re newly in recovery the need to feel normal is overbearing, because all you want is to be treated like a regular person again, and the easiest way to do that is to date, because, god, we’ve been doing that since we were 15 years old. So, you feel like that’s your doorway to normalcy,” Jennifer Nyhus said.
But while it may not take a year to be able to date again, recovering addicts should be resilient enough to withstand the stress of dating and be sure about what they want in a partner. For that reason, many people in recovery tend to be pickier about who they decide to date, and eliminate the options that might pose a threat to their sobriety. Adriana Kupresak said that when she started dating, if there were any red flags she picked up on during a date, she would write the person off completely. “Red flags would definitely be people who don’t respect your path,” she said. “People who remind you of people who you were always dating in the past. You can’t be changing as a person and continually be dating the old people that you were before. That’s like madness.”
When Kunzelman got newly sober, he said he didn’t have time for encounters he felt didn’t have the potential to lead to anything meaningful. “Like, I’m not going to date you just to break up with you in six f**king months just to have someone next to me in bed,” he said. “F**k that, I have my dog.” Instead, he said he outlined what he was looking for in a partner and axed anyone who didn’t fit the bill.
Many recovering addicts seek someone who has never struggled with a substance abuse problem. “Being in a relationship with someone else in recovery is probably one of the most dangerous things you can do at all,” Nyhus said. This is a consistent belief among all the people I interviewed. “I think the best piece of advice is if you are an addict yourself, don’t date an addict. If you’re not an addict, do your best to understand the addict,” Kupresak said.
Kunzelman echoed this statement. When he first became sober, he dated a couple of women in recovery, and things didn’t work out mainly because he didn’t want every aspect of his life to be centered around recovery. “I wanted my wife to be my confidant and to be my friend, and I felt like dating women in recovery felt more like dating a sponsor than it did having somebody completely removed from all that.”
Stoecker, too, tried dating women in recovery at first, but it turned out to be an absolute “train wreck.” “I dated ‘projects’ and I dated people in recovery…and basically to me that is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “Because if I’m doing really good and they slip, there’s a chance they bring me down with them and vice versa. … Back before I got into the relationship I’m in now, I felt like I had to date somebody else in recovery so that they would understand.” After dating a few women in recovery, Stoecker decided he could only date teetotalers, or people who completely abstain from alcohol.
But dating a non-addict isn’t something that necessarily works for everyone in recovery. Of course, there are successful relationships that were forged between two recovering addicts. “Sometimes it’s easy to date someone who has no clue when it comes to recovery because they can hide from their own addiction. But I don’t find it more or less; I think it’s based on the individual and what they’re comfortable with,” said Dr. Raichbach.
Dating people who have never been in recovery culture comes with its own set of challenges. Non-addicts can have problems understanding the sometimes overwhelming desire of an addict to use. There’s also the issue of a non-addict patronizing their recovering addict partner. “Patience is the number-one attribute that you need to have [when dating an addict] because this relationship is not going to be fair, and it sucks, but it’s just the reality of situation,” Nyhus said. “You’re in a relationship with an addict; the only thing they ever thought about for the last however many years was themselves, and themselves alone.”
Addicts who are trying to establish some sense of normalcy in their lives may feel they don’t need a non-addict partner constantly reminding them of the regrettable choices they made in the past. “The best thing you can probably do, at least from my standpoint, is don’t go from one extreme to other,” Kunzelman said. “[Recovering addicts] don’t need to be coddled, and they also don’t need to be praised for not getting high. When I go home, my wife’s like, ‘Can you take this kid and take out the f**ing trash and let the dog out,’ and not, ‘Did you stay sober today?’ I don’t get credit for sh*t I’m supposed to do.”
Perhaps for this reason, Raichbach says that while patience is great, being non-judgmental is even more important. “Patience is a great word; unfortunately, it’s not exercised all that well at all times,” he says. “Patience is when you love someone, and you see them struggle and you continue to support and not enable. So, I wouldn’t say that patience is the first and foremost; for me it’s labeling, not stigmatizing, and not being judgmental. Love is love, and love comes in all shapes and sizes ….We all have a past, some are more checkered than others.”
If all our relationships were judged simply by our past choices, not one would succeed. Just like with any sort of love, there needs to be full acceptance of your partner. The third time Nyhus slept with her future husband, she broke down after she became overwhelmed with emotion. “That was when [he] realized that these things that happened to me and the choices that I made in life, I was going to carry with me for the rest of my life. And he was going to have to be willing to accept those things and be willing to talk about them, even though they’re not pretty or fun to talk about. Since that day, we’ve been 100 percent honest about all of our feeling at all times,” she said.
In fact, honesty and communication for recovering addicts is of the utmost importance in their relationships. For many addicts, talking things out is how they managed recovery. They end up bringing the communicative approaches they learned into the relationship. Many recovering addicts make open and honest partners. “The first time I sat my wife down and said, ‘Hey, what you said really hurt my feelings, I’d like to talk about it,’ she looked at me like I was a f**king crazy person,” Kunzelman said. But in the end, she came to embrace the open communication.
“Relationships in recovery should look like relationships everywhere else,” Kunzelman says. There is not one person who is more capable of love than another. Because of this, it can be problematic to place time frames on love for recovering addicts.
The one-year waiting period should be considered a suggestion to recovering addicts, because not only is it rarely observed, it can also have potentially damaging effects to a newly sober addict. “When you tell an addict or alcoholic [to wait] a year, if for any reason an addict or alcoholic, or anyone for that matter, is not able to follow what is deemed to them to be a rule, they look upon themselves sometimes as failures that they can’t even do something as important [as] what’s suggested to them,” says Dr. Raichbach. “So that can create even more of a problem because now they feel like they failed; when it comes to early recovery, we don’t want to give any impression of failure, because that just internalizes it and they wind up relapsing.”
Addicts should make that choice on their own, and decide when they feel like they can handle potential heartbreak without relapsing. Jennifer Nyhus says, “It’s all personal choice; wait till you feel in your heart that you are ready to withstand the disappointment that comes from being in a crappy relationship or going on crappy dates.”
Katia Kleyman is an NYC-based journalist. She writes about sex, culture (of the pop and non-pop variety), history, and movies. Follow her on Twitter @kleyman_katia and visit her website.
This originally appeared on Alternet. Republished here with permission.