By: Marilyn L. Davis
“Love – it’s the only drug that feels like the first time, every time.” ~Marilyn L. Davis
Love, Dopamine, and Early Recovery
If you think about this logically, anyone that “falls in love” with you early in your recovery is getting involved with a person that you are trying to change.
Therefore, you would have to stay the same to sustain the relationship. And isn’t that precisely the opposite of what you want? Aren’t you trying to change in your recovery?
Dopamine is a chemical that makes us feel good. We get this sensation from food, several drugs, sex, and love. Although Dopamine has other functions, for this article, I’m concentrating on how “Love always feels like the first time.”
Every time you talk to a person who you are in a new relationship with, you get a rise in chemical levels. It is easy to turn to this for a dopamine fix, just like hitting the chocolate or sugary treats.
But Love Feels So Good!
As one of my clients said, “When I’m in love, I feel good, I don’t have to think about anything being wrong with me. I don’t have to worry about making changes.”
Part of the problem is that early recovery is a vulnerable time. We’re learning to live without drugs and alcohol, and that is stressful, overwhelming, and confusing. And when we’re stressed, overwhelmed, or confused, having someone “love” us lessen those feelings.
If I’m Loved, I’m Okay – Right?
If people have recently given up drugs and not experiencing as much Dopamine, guess what will make them feel better – you got it – a relationship, love or sex.
It’s a time when we are attempting to change those aspects of ourselves that have caused problems. We’re trying to learn new coping strategies and become the person we want to be.
But if someone loves us now, why do we have to change?
We Attract Those Like Us in Life and 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.
It is also logical that who and what characteristics you find interesting, important, or valuable in your early recovery aren’t necessarily the healthiest attributes in a partner.
In early recovery, people often choose a partner similar to those they had in their use: codependent, abusive, or someone who has not had enough time to work on themselves. These can result in someone who is:
- Only interested in sex.
- Wants someone to “fix” them.
- Finds value in themselves only if someone needs them.
- Carrying childhood and other issues into their new relationships.
Is This a Carry-over from Childhood?
One of the most significant mistakes people in early recovery make is getting into relationships, or even marrying, before exploring past relationships. We often bring our “inner child” into these adult relationships.
Many people get into hasty relationships due to fear of abandonment or fear of being alone, issues that are often carry-over from childhood brought into adult relationships.
Drugs and alcohol masked the fearful feelings of abandonment and past hurts; they were a temporary painkiller.
Getting into a relationship too early in your recovery is sometimes just another painkiller.
Recovery deals with the pain, not covering it up.
Delay Dating to Decide What is Good for You
Use this opportunity of recovery to heal, mature, and become a healthier person. If you use this time to focus on changing your self-defeating behaviors and patterns, you’ll often find that you now attract a more mature, healthier partner. This can give you opportunities that you didn’t have in previous choices of a love interest.
The reality is that many people say things to help their agendas. It does not mean that you are not desirable, attractive, or sought-after. It merely means that there are often other agendas in place, without your awareness of them in early recovery.
People also create the illusion that this time, it will be different without examining the underlying patterns of their earlier relationships.
But This One Is Tall Dark and Handsome
People in early recovery will tend to gravitate to what is comfortable. They will often repeat the established patterns until they test those patterns and decide if they are healthy for them in their recovery.
Just as you are discovering things about yourself that you would like to change, potential partners in early recovery are going through their changes as well.
They are also overwhelmed or saddened by their earlier behaviors or depressed and distant as they struggle to make sense of their addictions and recovery.
Codependency factors for one or both of you. What you perceive as distant may simply be someone struggling to make sense of feelings without the benefit of drugs or alcohol to numb the emotions.
Or, some grew up in a family where emotions were not discussed, and they haven’t been in recovery long enough to know it’s okay to discuss feelings.
Abuse or Abandonment Issues
Loved ones violated many people. Without coming to terms with these abuses, current partners have no idea of the potential reactions that have nothing to do with them. I had a client whose father sexually abused her. He was a mechanic who cleaned his dirty hands with a strong cleaner, followed by rinsing his hands in water that contained bleach.
This woman did not take the time to find any closure for her sexual abuse, become aware of triggers, or know how to discuss what had happened to her. She simply thought that by being in recovery and finding someone who loved her, that she could “just get over it.”
Getting involved and marrying her husband, when they both had six months in recovery, was a considerable risk for both.
Her husband would finish cleaning his hands with a bleach solution, as he was an artist. May sound extreme, but for him, that worked, yet the lingering smell of bleach brought back memories of sexual exploitation for his wife.
Healing from the Past
Without discussion, education, and understanding about this trigger, there would not have been a way to correlate this association and to help this couple.
As we discussed this, we concluded that the immediate remedy was to find another method for cleaning.
However, talking about this issue brought up awareness of other associations and triggers, and she was able to articulate them. Her husband understood them and was receptive to an approach called “permission-based intimacy.”
When this couple initially sought counsel, they were on the verge of divorce. Both acknowledged that they did not take enough time to work on themselves, resolve issues, and grow in their own recovery before marrying.
They decided to live apart, go to couple’s counseling, and have a date night twice a week, but most importantly, they each worked on their individual issues with counseling and sponsors.
Today they have been together for over 25 years, each without a relapse.
Their Cautionary Advice
Each of them cautions people in groups and recovery support meetings to work on themselves before they enter into a relationship.
These people have firsthand knowledge of the pitfalls of getting together too soon.
They began healing by taking a thorough look at past relationships, starting with parents, siblings, and other relatives.
Allow Enough Time to Heal and Learn to Love Yourself
When you look at your relationships, you can see some of your old patterns. Exploring your relationships in high school and college will give you more insight, as well as looking at any adult relationships. When you take the time to test what you’ve had, and then decide what you need, want to have, and would like to have in a relationship, you are beginning to value yourself more.
When you explore the traits that you do not want in a relationship, you are establishing criteria for a more healthy relationship. Unfortunately, if you don’t take this time to heal from painful past experiences, you may find yourself in a similar relationship pattern, hoping that this time, it will be different.
Make Year One About You, Not a Relationship
Use your first year to grow into the person that you want to be, and that’s easier if you aren’t in a relationship. But being single doesn’t mean you can’t give some thought to a relationship. Create three headings and then clarify what you are looking for in a relationship. Think about what is important in a partner, what you have to have, need to have and would like to have in a partner:
These three categories can help you prioritize what is essential in a relationship for you.
Learning to Value You and Looking for those Traits in Others
Just as these as going to be qualities that you want in a relationship, typically, they are the very same qualities that you can aspire to now that you are in recovery.
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.
And that cute guy or gal from last year? Well, they’re still cute, but you want more than looks a year later.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart.