In working with the spouses and significant others of addicts, I’ve often heard it said, “I’d rather be an addict than love one.” While few people would ever walk eyes-wide-open into a chronic disease like addiction, the statement speaks to the confusion, loneliness and despair common not only among addicts but also the men and women who love them.
A history of addiction doesn’t necessarily turn Mr./Mrs. Right into Mr./Mrs. Wrong. In fact, addicts who are solid in their recovery can make excellent partners. They’ve waged a courageous battle, spending a great deal of time working to take care of and improve themselves. But before you put yourself in a position to fall for an addict, there are a few things you need to know:
For anyone considering dating an active addict, it is important to realize that love cannot conquer addiction. Addiction takes priority over everything – you, children, career, financial security, even one’s own freedom. Before diving into a relationship, find out if your prospective partner is actively using drugs or alcohol, or if they display addictive or compulsive patterns in other areas (e.g., gambling, work, sex, food or spending).
If you care about someone in active addiction, help them into treatment and hold off on turning a friendship into more until they’re grounded in their recovery. If they are in recovery, how long have they stayed sober? Are they actively working a program of recovery (e.g., participating in self-help support meetings, counseling or an aftercare program)?
Someone with less than a year sober should stay focused on their recovery program, not dating. This guideline is designed to protect the addict as well as the people they might date. In the earliest stages, most recovering addicts are trying to figure out who they are, what they want and how to be in a healthy relationship. Beyond the first year, the longer someone has maintained their sobriety the more secure you can feel that you’re choosing a partner who is healthy and whole.
An estimated 40 to 60 percent of addicts relapse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Since relapse is always a possibility, addicts and their partners need to stay alert to their triggers and be prepared to get help when warranted. If you’ve struggled with addiction yourself, be extra cautious – your use can trigger their relapse, and their relapse could spell ruin for both of you. Left unaddressed, relapse can set in motion a roller coaster of chaotic break-ups and reunification that in the long run only exacerbates the problem.
The threat of relapse need not deter you from dating someone firmly grounded in their recovery. It is simply a reality you should be aware of. By educating yourself about disease of addiction, you’ll know what to expect and when to ask for help.
Being a loving partner to a recovering addict requires sensitivity and discretion. For example, you’ll likely need to avoid drinking or using drugs around your partner. If you go to parties or events where alcohol is being served, you may need to leave early or offer additional support.
Even if it’s inconvenient for you, you’ll need to make allowances for your partner to go to meetings or counseling sessions, particularly in stressful times, so that they can continue to prioritize their recovery. Short of a relapse, there still may be times when they fall into old habits, such as withdrawing from friends and family or telling lies. You’ll need to recognize these signs and get involved.
Many recovering addicts have done things in the past that result in a criminal record, making it harder to get a job. They may have accrued significant debt, declared bankruptcy or had other financial problems. They may still be working out legal issues and trying to earn their way back into the lives of family and friends. Although these are not necessarily deal-breakers, you need to know that their problems can become your problems. If you can’t accept what was, you may not be the right person to accompany them through what is and what will be.
You can’t change your partner or their past, but you can control yourself. In any relationship, setting and enforcing personal boundaries is an essential skill. When your own boundaries are firmly in place, you protect yourself from being taken down by your loved one’s illness.
There may come a point in the relationship when you need to ask some difficult questions: Why are you attracted to this person? Is it because of who they are and how they treat you, or do you have a history of being attracted to people you can rescue or fix? To avoid codependency, enabling and other problematic patterns, you may need to seek counseling of your own.
If a partner relapses, it can be difficult to know what lines to draw. You don’t want to give up on a person you love – after all, they must be in there somewhere – but if the relationship is making one or both of you sick despite your best efforts, it may be time to leave. No one can tell you when it’s time to call it quits except you.
Dating a recovering addict can be complicated, but most relationships are. So long as you know what to watch out for, work to ensure you’re both getting your needs met in healthy ways and reach out for help if you get in over your head – in other words, take the precautions you’d take in any romantic relationship – a recovering addict can be an excellent friend and partner.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that includes Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch drug rehab outside Nashville, The Recovery Place in Florida, and Right Step in Texas.
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Last reviewed: 11 Feb 2013