Recovery, not romance, should be the focus for newly sober addicts and alcoholics.
Valentine’s Day may be over, but relationships for people in recovery from addiction remain complicated year-round. It’s strongly recommended by addiction experts that one does not enter into a new romantic relationship during detox and treatment. In fact, it's preferred that one stays single for the entire first year of their recovery.
Romas Buivydas, PhD, Spectrum Health Systems’ vice president of clinical development, is an expert in addiction recovery and mental health issues with more than 25 years of experience. Buivydas sat down with Renew to talk about the medical and mental reasons romantic entanglements are discouraged, how individuals can love themselves through this tough time, and when to know they’re ready for a partner,
Renew: Why are relationships discouraged during the entire first year of someone’s recovery?
Romas Buivydas: It’s not just anecdotal. It’s research based. With folks in early recovery — and that can really be up to two years — what happens is in the course of removing substances from the body, the brain has to re-engineer itself. Networks have to be realigned. Skills have to be learned or relearned.
Here, you have a person in the throes of early recovery with a brain not functioning at a normal level. About six months after detox, the person is undergoing all kinds of stress from cognitive issues, emotional abilities, very black-and-white thinking processes. You could have sleep problems or memory problems. All these things will eventually dissipate in the course of going through recovery. But, having said that, you have a human whose brain is changing.
At times, the brain will do something that throws them off. They might overreact to something a “normal” brain wouldn’t think is a big deal. They might have angry outbursts and not know why. They have difficulty thinking in gray areas. If you couple that with another person, now they have to include, to integrate another human being’s behaviors, interactions, etc. That’s just not a good combination.
People who aren’t going through early recovery have difficulty with relationships. People in recovery are healing. Their brain needs time to heal.
Renew: What are the potential consequences of a person entering into a relationship too soon?
RB: A person entering into a relationship who’s not ready because of recovery, they're more likely to relapse. If they get frustrated, angry, hurt, they'll processes it in their early recovery stage. If they don’t have strong coping mechanisms, they’re going to resort to their old habits.
If you enter into a relationship, you become less selfish because you have to share with another human being. But the person in early recovery was selfish without knowing it because of the disease of addiction. Once they leave that influence, the shame, guilt, anger comes out. You need to focus on yourself. Otherwise, you’re going to share those behaviors with that new person. It’ll harm them and then come back and harm you. It’s a cycle.
Someone who is in long-term recovery, who is a bit stronger, stable and resilient, can fend off disappointment and anger better.
Renew: What are some beneficial acts of self-love and self-care those in sobriety can enjoy?
RB: Any kind of self love: Go to counseling, take some hot baths, pamper yourself so you start to relearn who you are. You have to create yourself again. You’re not going to be the same person as before. Take the time to do that. Taking care of yourself should be first. Get some new hobbies. Redevelop yourself. All your other hobbies had to do with using. If you went bowling, you went bowling high. Now you have to relearn how to bowl — and with different friends. Start developing friends who are supportive, then get into a romantic relationship.
Renew: How do people know when they’re ready for a partner?
RB: They'll know when they know. If you have cravings, that's a sign you’re not ready it. If you can meditate and come up with a different option, not think in black and white, it’s an indication you’re getting stronger.
Romas Buivydas, PhD, LMHC, has more than 25 years of experience in the behavioral health field. His expertise spans program development and implementation, training, quality assurance, risk management, compliance and data management. As vice president of clinical development at Spectrum Health Systems, Buivydas provides training and consultation in clinical methods and instructional techniques to program staff throughout the organization. Previously, Buivydas provided consultation to numerous behavioral health organizations and was formerly the director of evaluation at a hospital-based psychiatric/addiction department for six years. He is also a national presenter/trainer at conferences/symposia across the country.