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How Relationships Can be Harmful in Early Recovery
Early Recovery Focus: Changing You, Not Your Status
Early recovery is a time of changing those aspects of yourself that have caused your problems. Relationships can mean that you don't focus on what needs changing within you, after all, if they love you now, what's the point in changing?
We Attract Those Like Us In Recovery
People tend to choose partners who are at their same emotional maturity level, often with the same or similar amount of time in recovery, rather like the expression water seeks its level, commonly thought to mean that like attracts like or birds of a feather, flock together.
It is also logical that who and what characteristics you find interesting, important or valuable early in your recovery, may not be the healthiest attributes in a partner.
In early recovery, people often choose a partner similar to those they chose in their use; codependent, abusive, or someone who has not had enough time to work on themselves. When people have not dealt with childhood issues, they bring them into their adult relationships. Unfortunately, this new partner may be interested only in a sexual adventure, someone to “fix them”, or someone who needs to be needed to find worth in themselves.
Carrying Childhood Hurts, Neglect, Abandonment And Other Issues Into Relationships
Second, only to relapse, the biggest mistake people in early recovery make is getting into relationships, or even marrying, before exploring past relationships. Many people get into hasty relationships due to fear of abandonment or fear of being alone, and there are often carryovers from childhood brought into an early recovery relationship.
Too often, drugs and alcohol masked these fearful feelings of abandonment and past hurts; they were a temporary painkiller. Getting into a relationship too early in your recovery can be just another painkiller.
Recovery deals with the pain, not covering it up. Using this opportunity of recovery to heal, change, and become a healthier individual, can in turn, attract a mature, caring, and better partner. But, if you do not take the time to change yourself, you'll probably just attract the same types of partner, or see your codependency sabotage opportunities to change.
What are Your Relationship Patterns?
People in early recovery will tend to gravitate to what is comfortable. They will repeat the established patterns established until they evaluate them and determine if they are healthy for them in their recovery.
When someone hasn't examined their past, they often react in a similar manner in early recovery. Others can misinterpret or assume due to their lack of awareness as well.
A thorough exploration of your past relationships, starting with your parents, any siblings, and other relatives can help you determine your early patterns. Exploring your relationships in high school and college give you more insight, as well as looking at adult relationships.
But, You Don't Understand...He's Different
Simply because this time he is tall, dark and handsome, as opposed to short, pale, and moderately attractive does not mean that the individuals are fundamentally different. People also create the illusion that this time it will be different without examining the underlying patterns of their previous relationships.
Many people, men and women alike, equate someone wanting them, or saying “I love you,” with the illusion that they must be okay. After all, look how many people want them or say nice things to them.
The reality is that many people say things to facilitate their schemes. It doesn’t mean that you are not desirable, attractive, or sought-after. It simply means that there may be other agendas in place that you may be unaware of in early recovery.
A Relationship Established Too Soon Can Be Just As Harmful To The Other Person
Just as you are discovering things about yourself that you would like to change, potential partners in early recovery are going through their changes. They may be just as overwhelmed or saddened by their previous behaviors or depressed and distant as they struggle to make sense of their addictions and their recovery.
It can be a time that codependency factors for one or both of you. What you perceive as distant may simply be someone struggling to make sense of feelings that they are having without the benefit of drugs and alcohol. They were numb in their addiction, and the numerous feelings are difficult to process. Or someone who didn't discuss their feelings in their family or origin may struggle with sharing their feelings. They may not know or understand that sharing feelings are better than relapsing over them.
Psychotherapist and marriage counselor, Mel Schwartz writes, "... problematic feelings that go unexpressed tend to percolate and boil over—they take on energy of their own, and the ensuing conflict hours or days later may have little correlation to the original emotional insult.
Abuse, Neglect, And Abandonment Reappear Without Notice
There are many individuals who were violated by loved ones. Without coming to terms with these abuses, they have no idea of the potential reactions that have nothing to do with their new partner. For example, one of my clients was sexually abused by her father. He was a mechanic who cleaned his grimy hands with a strong cleaner followed by rinsing his hands in water that contained bleach.
This woman did not take the time to become aware of triggers, or know how to discuss what had happened to her. She created the illusion that by being in recovery, finding someone who loved her, she could “just get over it.”
She elected to get involved and marry her husband after six months. Although cautioned to work on herself and wait, they took the risk and got married.
He was an artist. He cleaned his hands with a bleach solution when he was finished painting. May sound extreme, but for him that worked, yet the lingering smell of bleach brought back memories of sexual exploitation by this woman's father.
Without discussion, education and understanding about this trigger, there would not have been a way to correlate this association and to help this couple. Although the remedy for the immediate issue was to find another method for cleaning, talking about this issue brought up awareness of other associations and triggers and she was able to articulate them. He was able to hear them, and was receptive to an approach called "permission-based intimacy". By asking permission before instigating intimate contact, he gave his wife more control, something she did not experience as a child.
This couple knows that they could not celebrate a milestone anniversary without living apart and working on their issues.
Unresolved Past Issues Harm Current Relationships
When this couple initially sought counsel, they were on the verge of a divorce. Both acknowledged that they did not take enough time to work on themselves, resolve issues and grow in their recovery before marrying. Their decision to live apart, each with their respective parents, go to couple’s counseling, as well as individual counseling, and have a date night twice a week was their collective solution.
Today they have been together for over 25 years, each without a relapse.
If in recovery, did the qualities you looked for in a partner change in your first year?
Each cautions people in groups to work on themselves before they enter into a relationship and have first-hand knowledge of the pitfalls of getting together too soon. They further advise people that even if the love is there, the issues need to be resolved, and that is done more efficiently if the couple is not involved or living together.
They also talk about how fortunate they were to have families that supported them while they worked on themselves first and the relationship second. As the wife points out, “we could have done this the easier way; stayed home and worked on ourselves and not put each other through difficulties, but NO, we had to be together. We were fortunate that we could step away, process our issues, and “date” while saving out marriage."
Most people are not this fortunate or in some cases; they will not take the necessary time away from the relationship to make sure that the relationship has a chance of being successful in the long haul.”
Your relationship and love patterns will be carried into any new relationship until you examine it and determine its value to you in your recovery.
Evaluate Your Choices
When you take the time to evaluate what you want in a partner, you are beginning to value yourself more. When you explore the traits that you do not want, you are establishing criteria for a more healthy relationship.
Without taking this time to heal from past painful experiences in relationships, people will sometimes recreate the same types of patterns “hoping it’s different this time.” Unfortunately, the patterns rarely change, but the person can by, not reenacting the same patterns.
What are the most important qualities for you in a partner?
What is Important to You; What you Value, and What Would be Nice to Have in a Relationship
Taking the first year to grow into the person that you want to be is going to be easier and less stressful if you do not try to create a relationship while working towards being the best you that you can be.
Learning about healthy and unhealthy relationships will help in your recovery and help you not recreate some of your past relationship patterns.
Identifying the important relationship qualities can help you categorize your priorities.
Just as these as going to be qualities that you want in a relationship, typically, they are going to be the very same qualities that you can aspire to now that you are in recovery.
Updating your Table as Your Priorities Change
Making a simple table using three columns identifies, categorizes, and prioritizes your values in a partner. This approach helps you clarify what you are looking for in a relationship. Updating this every three months, as you are changing and growing, can show you how your values and needs are maturing, and your priorities are shifting.
As you change and examine your underlying issues, childhood beliefs, and messages, you become stronger in your recovery, and will ultimately make better relationship choices.