It’s been more than 15 years since my last drink or drug. I credit the 12 steps for helping me rebuild my life and have attended tons of meetings (probably around 4000, but who’s counting?). When I found recovery I was single, never married with no kids and strung out on more than drugs and alcohol—I was addicted to attention from men. It took years of bad decisions, heartbreak and, ultimately, hard work on myself before I was relationship material.
I met my husband seven years ago at a 12-step service meeting and we’ve been together ever since. In case you’re bad at math, this means I’ve spent half my recovery single and dating and the other half with the same person. I don’t count the first year (see below). I’m not saying I’m a great partner every day or some kind of expert, but I’ve learned a few things. I’m happier today than I’ve ever been and I’m committed to staying that way—one day at a time.
1) Don’t ignore the old “stay out of relationships for the first year” recommendation
It’s super annoying to be told that you aren’t capable of making good decisions—but it’s true. I didn’t let it stop me, I just found somebody to date that wasn’t in the program and didn’t tell anybody. Obvi, I hadn’t really grasped that honesty thing, yet. When he dumped me I was devastated, but that wasn’t the worst part. I couldn’t talk to my support group about it because I was hiding the relationship. It’s tricky to date when you haven’t had a chance to develop the healthy coping skills you’ll need when it fails (and it usually will). Also, newcomer you is nothing like the person recovery will make you (if you let it).
2) Work your fourth step first
This may seem obvious if you’re going to follow the one year rule. But in the real world, people dive right into newcomer relationships. It’s also common to start feeling better after working the first three steps and then take a relaxing step work vacation. Starting a new relationship before you work your fourth step is like showing up for your first date wearing a hot new outfit but really dirty underwear. Without taking the time to inventory those attitudes and behaviors that have held you back in the past, you’re only clean on the outside.
3) Slow the hell down
Early on, each time I started dating somebody new, I would get caught up in the rush of it. My addict mind would be all, “Oh my gawd, he’s the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.” I had a string of mediocre boyfriends the first three years. One guy even proposed. We started planning a wedding before he stole my car, went on a crack binge and never came back. That forced me to dig a little deeper and work on myself before getting into another relationship.
4) Go to different meetings
There is nothing worse than awkwardly sitting across the meeting from somebody (or several somebodies—let’s be honest) who’ve seen you naked. When you break up, no matter how mature and spiritual your parting, it sucks. You can’t really share honestly and you feel irrational rage if he happens to talk to a hot newcomer. Part of the fun of being with somebody who’s also in recovery is sharing the lifestyle—going to meetings together, having a date for events who gets it, talking shit together about people. But it’s important to have your own support group, your own regular meetings and some recovery activities that are off limits to your partner.
5) Work your own program
Don’t use your partner as your go-to for processing your innermost insecurities and irrational fears. When shit hits the fan in your life, call your sponsor first. Don’t keep track of your partner’s step work and meeting attendance and tell him he isn’t doing recovery right. It is so much better to keep a little mystery. My sponsor knows it all and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
6) Don’t be afraid of a “normie”
Just because you’re in recovery doesn’t mean your partner must be. My best friend in the program has been happily married for a decade to a guy she met in line at Home Depot. The nicest guy I ever dated in recovery (aside from my husband) wasn’t in the program. He was just a smart, funny regular guy. I didn’t even tell him about my recovery until we’d been dating six months. He just knew I didn’t drink and had a certain group of friends I hung out with a couple times a week. He’s one of my only old boyfriends I’m still friendly with.
7) Be honest about what you want
If you’re just into hooking up, don’t lead people on just because it’s fun to get attention and feel validated. If you are looking for something serious, don’t pretend you’re a good-time pal who is cool with whatever. You will be super pissed when you drop by with coffee one Sunday morning and there’s a half-naked girl on the couch, but it will be your own damn fault. I’m not saying you should tell every first date that you are husband shopping or dying for a baby; just stay true to yourself and don’t settle for a situation that isn’t what you want.
8) Don’t recycle
Not a huge surprise but people who spent years making the same mistakes and expecting different results tend to go back to their exes. If the relationship didn’t work the first time, keep it moving. This applies to people inside and outside the rooms. When one of my old using buddies got clean I decided he was my soul mate. It ended very badly (see number three). I also dated the same damn guy three different times in recovery. We would break up, date other people and then get back together. It went on like this for about three years until one of us finally started moving forward in life (not saying who) and we broke the cycle.
9) Don’t talk shit if it doesn’t work out
Agonize with your sponsor and close friends, just don’t trash your ex in meetings. Be accountable for the fact that you once chose this person, but they weren’t right for you. This is tough when you have been wronged. Twelve-step communities thrive on gossip and if you’ve been cheated on or dumped, people will know even before you share about it. The temptation to take your ex’s inventory and then broadcast his shortcomings will be strong. If you do this, you will not only be alone but also a miserable asshole who owes amends to somebody who fucked you over.
10) Don’t think love will “fix” you
Nothing can fix you except time and hard work. I loved a few great guys before recovery and shit all over them. I didn’t feel worthy of their affection; I hated myself, so I didn’t respect them for loving me. I spectacularly fucked those relationships up. After five years in recovery, I spent two years single. I went on a guy “cleanse” and worked on myself. I went back to school, got in shape, learned to ride a motorcycle and worked the steps again. This changed the way I felt about myself and allowed me to attract the right partner.
11) Look for somebody who enhances your life
You can’t avoid all difficult people (ahem—family), but you can choose who you spend your life with. Don’t attach yourself to somebody who makes you feel anxious, inadequate or constantly frustrated. At the point in recovery where I was no longer attracted to drama, I was ready for something serious. It didn’t appeal to me to have people in my life who were a struggle. I’m not saying being in a healthy relationship isn’t hard work. But with the right person, it’s worth it.
12) Agree on an exit strategy
If you are dating another alcoholic or addict, you should be clear from the beginning (when you decide to be exclusive) about what happens if one of you relapses. It’s not very romantic—kinda like a sobriety prenup—but it makes things easier. For me, relapse has always been a deal-breaker. Of course, it was simpler when I had three years and my fiancée and I lived in my parents’ basement. The important thing is to recognize that everybody’s recovery is an individual thing, no matter how cozy the couple.
13) Allow things to be good
Addicts and alcoholics are pros at self-sabotage—it was our lifestyle. Be the best version of yourself and don’t expect the worst. Trusting another comes easier when you trust yourself, but it still takes a lot of hard work and daily maintenance. You also can’t be right all the time. I have learned how to (rarely) admit I’m wrong, say I’m sorry and actually mean it. Or maybe I just lucked out and found a guy who lets me win almost every argument. Either way, we’re happy and in love, so something’s working.