By Taylor Hagin
Why do we encourage abstinence in early recovery and discourage any new romantic endeavors? The simplest answer is that such relationships have an overwhelming track record for derailing recovery and triggering relapse. There are few triggers more potent than romance gone wrong.
Most young adults who hear this guidance dismiss it as older adults just wanting to bring them under control and thwart their desire to be happy. It’s hard for a young person, hormones raging, to resist the “urge to merge” when the pull of powerful positive feelings overshadows the reality of even more powerful fears and obsessive preoccupation. The potential ups and downs of the rollercoaster called love could be described as relationally-induced bi-polar disorder.
It’s no wonder that these relationships are relapse triggers for people who have learned to use a substance in order to feel good. If such relationships could be limited to the happy moments, they would still be an emotionally powerful influence and something to be avoided in early recovery. Why? Because life needs to lived on life’s terms, not on an artificially induced high, whether relationally or chemically.
Even an ongoing relationship, established prior to the beginning of recovery, becomes a continuing reminder of old playgrounds and old playmates. In other words, a trigger for relapse. If it’s a healthy relationship that’s meant to be, it will still be there once recovery is established. If it’s not, then the relationship is part of the problem, inhibiting the recovery process.
For me, the most important reason to abstain from the pursuit of romance during early recovery is because of where the sexual impulse lives in the brain. It resides in the same area of the brain that addiction occupies, and activating that area energizes the parts of the brain that urge an addicted individual to use again. Recovery is most successful when a person concentrates on supportive, non-romantic, recovery-oriented relationships. These relationships activate the “higher” brain and enhance recovery.
One additional consideration for abstinence in the first year of recovery is a potential underlying reason for relationship seeking. I am referring to the compulsive need to be in a romantic relationship exhibited by some individuals in addiction and early recovery. What we see here is less a desire for a deep connection than an unhealthy need for intense pleasure.
Intensity is no substitute for intimacy. In fact, an obsession with intensity will delay the development that makes intimacy possible.
Since human intimacy is perhaps the greatest desire of our hearts, why would anyone deprive themselves of its possibility for the short-term poor substitute of intensity? That’s the paradox of addiction-related behavior: short-term self-destructive behavior in place of long-term self-fulfilling behavior. When the brain’s reward system is hijacked by chemicals, much human behavior becomes self-defeating. When abstinence is practiced for a while, life-long sobriety and satisfaction becomes a greater possibility. Eventually, with long-term sobriety and the personal growth that comes from working the 12 steps, intimacy and the joy that accompanies it are real possibilities.