Popular mythology in 12-step recovery circles is that there should be "no relationships for the first year," but this is not a mandate nor is it always the best direction for newly recovering addicts. Here we have excerpted and updated some sections of the Alcoholics Anonymous literature to help provide guidance in navigating relationships during early recovery.
Changing Times for Relationships
Most of the people who were instrumental in writing the seminal publication for Alcoholics Anonymous, referred to as the "Big Book," were married. The "Big Book" was written in the 1930s, during the time that Alcoholics Anonymous was founded. While a small handful of those folks may have divorced, that would have been a radical departure from the norm for that era. So this discussion of relationships in early recovery is a construct of outdated advice that does not always apply to current cultural norms. The advice of the "Big Book" that stipulates no relationships for the first year imposes a restriction on newcomers that may not benefit them in their sober recovery process. While abstaining from relationships is the easiest way to deal with the issue, it is certainly not the most practical.
Married While in Early Recovery?
Some of those who are in early recovery are still married and have strained relationships that may cause uncertainty and discomfort while they begin abstinence from their addiction. This can be a tricky shift in the relationship dynamic, and should be handled delicately by the addict, the spouse and children. No one has complete understanding of what this person's path of recovery is to be. Those who want to help the newly recovering addict should refrain from offering advice. Instead, understand that the addict must learn to navigate these waters with support, not advice.
Starting a New Relationship in Early Recovery
For those who would like to begin relationships with others in their early recovery, it is advised that they take it very, very slowly. Chances are, they will do what they want to anyway, which is the most common thing that happens. If they are well-supported and want to remain sober, they will learn how to clean up any messes they may make in their early attempts at interacting with others. These false starts or "messes" may happen for them in jobs, in families, or in relationships with significant others. Dating in early recovery is challenging, at best, even for those who have long-term abstinence and have worked through many of their related issues. Relationships, however, are the litmus test that opens windows to fears and personality quirks that have been hidden. New relationships with a significant can bring patterns and quirks out of hiding--and this is a natural part of the recovery process.
Positive Relationships Can Support Sober Recovery
While addiction counselors may recommend that addicts abstain from relationships that are triggers for emotional instability, a positive and supportive relationship can be good for the newcomer to recovery. The ups and downs of life will test an recovering addict's ability to abstain, and a relationship certainly provides a powerful challenge to maintaining the balance necessary to continuing to practice recovery tools. Lessons that can be learned in relationships may be the most important ones. The lessons learned are certainly worth the risk. If addicts are dedicated to their recovery, maintaining a committed relationship as well is an added incentive to remain sober.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions' counselor.