A few weeks ago, I ran into a couple of colleagues, Jonathon Taylor and Jackie Pack, at a conference for therapists, and they told me about a series of weekend healthy dating workshops they were planning for recovering addicts and former partners of recovering addicts. I was immediately intrigued, knowing how difficult it is for most of my clients, especially those affected by sex and porn addiction/compulsivity, to enter or re-enter the dating pool.
Taylor and Pack are both LCSW CSATs, in practice at Healing Paths in Bountiful, UT. They are calling their dating workshops One Layer Deeper in recognition of the fact that for many recovering people, once their process of recovery and healing is relatively well-established, healthy dating and relationships are something they want to pursue as a next logical step. Often, however, they have no idea how to go about that. And because they’ve struggled with relationships in the past (both related and unrelated to the addiction), they may even fear the process.
The One Layer Deeper weekend intensives were created to address these issues. Taylor says, “We’re launching a series of three-day retreats for recovering people who feel the pull to get back into a committed relationship, but they’re terrified to start dating again. Mostly because dating has been a disaster for them, both in their addiction and in their early recovery.”
To be eligible, participants must be sober and relatively stable. Taylor says, “We want people with active recovery. If they’re working the steps, if they’ve got a sponsor and they’re working with that sponsor, if they’re in therapy and they’re working with a therapist, then they’re living in recovery rather than just trying it on. Those are the people who are likely to do well in these workshops because they have or they’re developing a strong sense of self-awareness. They understand who they are and where they are in their healing process, and now they want help with the next layer.”
Interestingly, the workshops are for both addicts and betrayed partners of addicts, with the two populations working together to learn and move forward. About having both addicts and betrayed partners in the same dating workshop, Pack says, “In our practice, we’ve done some groups where we mix addicts and partners together, and we find that facilitates a lot of healing. Whether they’re the addict or the partner, there’s a lot of healing that comes from having the support of somebody who has been in the other position. So this is a conscious choice to bring about that kind of healing.”
Taylor and Pack like this diversity in the workshops because it helps to break through the near-phobia that many of their clients have about dating and pursuing romance. Pack says, “They go into a lot of avoidance. They may be thinking that they are never going to find somebody who is safe and sane and wants to be in a relationship with them. They may be thinking there’s nobody out there who’s not really messed up. And who wants that type of experience?” Taylor adds, “They’re in a frame of mind where they’re terrified to move forward with any kind of dating and relationship, but they can’t stop thinking about how much they want that. Their brains and bodies are doing that natural pull toward connection, but their fears are telling them there’s no such thing as a safe relationship.”
Recognizing this, the One Layer Deeper workshops focus on a client’s strengths, rather than his or her weak points. Pack says, “We want them to start saying, ‘I have things to offer,’ rather than getting hung up on their past.” Taylor adds, “We want to help recovering people recognize that being in recovery makes them readier than ever to have strong, close, connected relationships. That’s the nature of the work that they’re already doing in recovery. Our job is to help them harness and utilize, in a dating and romance setting, what they’ve learned about themselves and what they’ve learned about relating to others as part of their recovery. They can bring that to bear on fulfilling, fun, deeply romantic relationships.”
Recognizing one’s strengths as developed in recovery, plus other innate strengths, and taking those strengths into a dating setting is viewed by Taylor and Pack as a way to move clients from “I have to meet somebody” to “I’m living authentically, and I have a lot to offer, and when the time is right that will attract the right person.” Taylor says, “We want them to embrace the idea that attraction will happen based on who they are when they’re living in their strengths, rather than desperation. When we move away from that panic of desperately needing to find someone, we find the people that are good for us.”
To this end, all participants in the One Layer Deeper workshops will develop an individual healthy dating plan. This begins with intentions. Pack says goals are very important. “You’ve got to know where you are, where you want to go, and have a deliberate plan to get there. Sometimes clients think the only goal is to get in a committed monogamous relationship ASAP, and we have to help them understand that marriage is not step one in the process. Healthy people don’t get married on the first date. There’s a process that gets you to that point—if it’s the right person. And if it’s not the right person, the process will weed them out.”
Taylor says, “One of the things that often feels novel to people is when we tell them, ‘You’ll have an intention for dating.’ And sometimes they’re surprised when we tell them that early on their goal might be, ‘I want to go out and have fun with lots of people, and I want to try out different kinds of people and what it’s like to date them.’ It just hasn’t ever occurred to them that this might be a healthy approach that will help them learn what works for them and what doesn’t. Whatever they ultimately want, we help them realize that having goals and intention in dating is a huge part of what brings their strengths to the table in ways that make dating safe and fun.”
Taylor and Pack say that often the biggest barrier to healthy dating is becoming vulnerable and risking the emotional gains of recovery. About this, Taylor says, “We need to coach them through those fears, letting them know that because they’re starting from a place of recovery, with strengths and intention, they can bring themselves into the relationship instead of becoming the relationship. Still, even people with stable recovery have old scripts around romantic relationships, and those scripts can be really powerful.”
Pack adds that most clients need to be coached about healthy boundaries in dating (and sometimes in general). “Sometimes we have to coach them on the boundaries of when to give information and how much. We need to help them see how a relationship grows and develops. And sometimes betrayed partners of addicts will want to set overly rigid boundaries as a way of protecting themselves, and we need to let them know that just because somebody has flaws, we don’t automatically eliminate them. The fact that you know your flaws and they know their flaws and you can both own your flaws is a positive.”
One thing that Taylor and Pack want their clients to understand is that just because you’re in recovery and you’ve done some work on yourself, you’re not damaged goods. In fact, this work actually gives people a leg up in dating. Rather than putting you in the one-down position, it puts you in the one-up position because you’ve got better self-awareness and a better understanding of what you do and don’t want. For most recovering addicts and former partners of addicts, this is a refreshing and exciting new perspective that can make dating and looking for romance seem fun and adventurous again. And that is a very good thing.