Having a Relationship With Someone in Recovery

By Karen Nagy

The disease of addiction affects not just the addict, but also their friends, family members and partners, who may eventually exhibit their own, reactive behaviors as they cope with their loved one’s disease.  If the addict goes into a recovery program, they begin to learn how to manage their addictive behaviors in their sobriety.  It is also important for those in relationship with people in recovery to be aware of addictive behaviors that still may occur with their partner, as certain of these behaviors can be hard on a relationship.

Not having had prior knowledge of the above, I (a non-addict) dated two different men who were in recovery programs, and wondered why it sometimes felt like I’d entered an alternate universe. My second boyfriend in recovery threw me for a loop—some of his behavior was maddening and confusing to me.  For instance, he seemed to have no concept of time, and would arrive late, early, or not at all for a date.  I eventually came to realize that this behavior was related to addiction, but I didn’t know how or why.  I am a native of western PA (Hempfield Township) and was quite sheltered from the world of addiction in my youth and young adulthood.  After many years living in south Florida, I still didn’t know much about addiction, or recovery.

I wanted more information on what I could do to help him—was this normal behavior for someone at this stage of recovery?  How long would it last?  Interestingly, I found no books on this subject for those of us outside the world of recovery looking in, especially for us singles dating someone in recovery.  So…I figured it was up to me to write this book, and after four years of research, Girlfriend of Bill: 12 Things You Need to Know About Dating Someone in Recovery (Hazelden) is being released April 22nd.  It is a primer of sorts, to help anyone in relationship with a recovering addict, and even those in recovery themselves, understand what recovery entails and which behaviors may still be “left over” from the addiction.

In the process of researching, I learned a lot about what I could have, and shouldn’t have, done in my relationships.  For example, people in recovery (and those involved with them) have to be very careful about stress, which can activate addict behavior.  I could have avoided a lot of stress in my life, and placed less stress on my partner, if I had known what I know now.  Some important things I learned are:

1.  Sobriety is just the beginning.  The fact that someone is not drinking or using drugs anymore does not mean that they are “recovered.”  People in recovery must work on all aspects of their lives, including the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual sides—so that addictive behavior does not continue to pop up.

2.  Honesty and communication are super-important.  People in recovery are being taught how to acknowledge their feelings rather than blunt them with substances—you too must be honest with your partner and learn how to communicate easily and openly.

3.  People in recovery are still growing emotionally.  There is a school of thought that the addict’s emotional growth stopped at whatever age they began to drink or use.  You therefore may be dating someone who is emotionally still a teenager!  Your awareness of this will be of great help to you and your partner.  Take things slow, take time-outs, and remember the HALT rule:  Never get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.

4.  Everyone is different.  People recover at different speeds.  Patience is a virtue.

5.  Dating someone who’s sober can be a lot of fun!   It can be very freeing to know that your partner’s actions and words are not filtered through the haze of alcohol or drugs.  They do not need a drink or a joint to figure out that they like you!  Also benefiting your relationship is the variety of healthy activities you can enjoy if your partner is sober, especially sports, exercising and going to cultural and spiritual venues.

I learned so much during the period in which I dated my boyfriends in recovery.  I learned even more after the relationships ended, during the process of my research.  Some people have asked me if I’d do it over again—would I become involved with someone in recovery knowing what I know now?  Yes, indeed!  But this time I’d do it with much more awareness of what recovery is about and a newfound respect for those in recovery programs.

Karen Nagy is a college professor who teaches voice, music theatre and the history of popular music. Originally from western PA, she now lives in the Fort Lauderdale area and is a professional singer, actor and keyboard player for musicals throughout south Florida. Her passions are therapy dog work, sea turtle rescue, golf and the Steelers. Girlfriend of Bill, a guide on dating someone in recovery, is her first book. 

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