Many of us navigate the dating world — or beginning of new relationships — in situations marked by fun substance use: speed dating at a bar, getting cocktails with a new date, or taking a first vacation together and sharing a joint by the AirBnB pool. While some of us may take these experiences for granted and find them purely pleasant, some of us know how different it is to navigate the dating world with addiction as an element, and these activities take on a different meaning. If you’re newer to that idea and want to learn more about how to successfully date a new cutie who disclosed to you that they have an addiction history (or want to educate yourself for future possibilities), here are some of my key insights for what to keep in mind for a healthy relationship when your partner has an addiction history.
Open Up Communication About Their Relationship to Substances – and Yours
Many of us may have preconceived notions about what addiction (always) looks like — either because we haven’t seen it much in our personal experience thus far in life and have instead formed our perceptions based on media and movies, or because we have had personal experiences with addiction and addicts and bring that to the table when we encounter it again. As much as possible, it’s important to keep an open mind and really listen to what addiction is like specifically for your partner, making a non-judgemental and emotionally safe space for them to share. Remember that addiction isn’t a moral failing; it’s an illness, and it can’t be healed by shame or judgment.
What are/were their substance/s of choice? Do they identify as being in recovery? How do they define recovery? What was life like when they were using? What, if any, triggers do they have around substances or relapse? Do they have thoughts on or experiences with twelve-step programs? What kind of support would be helpful for them? What are their fears or anxieties around substances or their addictions?
It’s also useful to take this time to examine and share your own experiences and attitudes towards substances, especially any substances of preference for your partner. If your partner shares that it’s hard for them to be around a partner who’s drunk and you immediately volunteer to stop drinking too, is that a commitment you’re going to resent later? If their substance of choice was something more socially stigmatized like an injectable drug, do you have preconceived attitudes around intravenous drug users that you want to examine and sit with, or talk through and work on?
Develop and Make a Plan to Maintain Your Own Boundaries
Boundaries are so important in any healthy relationship, but even more crucially so in relationships where addiction is a factor. While many of us now use ‘codependent’ to describe relationship dynamics that are very enmeshed or emotionally dependent on one another, its original clinical usage was actually to describe partners of addicts, who often develop their own sets of unhealthy maladaptive behaviors as a response to their partner’s addiction.
Codependent behaviors in the partner of an addict might look like monitoring and policing them to try to keep them from binging and making themselves “responsible for” their sobriety; starting to drink and/or use substances more themselves to normalize their partner’s use; or taking on an almost parental role in managing, excusing and mitigating impacts of the addict partner’s behavior with friends, family, employers or others. All of these behaviors are characterized by taking on personal responsibility for the addicted partner, instead of recognizing them as their own person who’s accountable for their own actions and consequences, even becoming controlling — and can have toxic impacts just like addict behaviors can.
To limit this instinct, it’s important for everyone in the relationship to decide on their own boundaries — boundaries being what you will do to maintain your own wellness and self-respect in different situations, not what you will try to get your partner to do. What will you do if your partner relapses? What will express your love and care for them and support their sobriety while also reinforcing that you aren’t taking responsibility for their choices? At what point would you want to leave the relationship? After deciding on boundaries, it’s crucial to actually follow through on them if you want to maintain them, even knowing that in the moment it can be very hard to do with someone you love. If you’ve set a boundary that if your partner starts to drink at a party, you’re going to leave and go home immediately and they have to find their own ride, it’s crucial to actually do that, every single time. If you’ve set a boundary that you’ll end the relationship if your partner uses in secret and you find out, you need to be sure that you actually will, no matter what their rationalization is or how upsetting the emotional trigger for them was.
Ensure You Both Have Your Own Support Networks
Twelve-step programs like AA or NA have some die-hard devotees and some serious critics; regardless of your take on their outcomes or clinical merits, one objectively true premise that they work from is that it’s much easier to live with something as challenging as addiction day in and day out with a deep, caring network of support. Managing addiction is a lifelong process, and one that partners of addicts share in; having a support system that understands what it’s like and is also in it for the long haul is key.
If your partner and/or you aren’t into twelve-step spaces like AA or Al-Anon, that’s okay (although if you’re avoiding them only because you think they’re only for a specific type of person or you won’t fit in, keep in mind that there are many different types of meetings; you may well be able to find one specifically geared toward younger people, LGBTQ people, people of color, etc). But make sure you and your partner do both have people who truly understand your experience to talk to, other addicts and partners of addicts — the biggest trigger for both relapses and dangerous codependency is shame, and having spaces where you can share and receive support openly without shame will help keep you both healthy (as well as your relationship). It’s key to also have your own separate spaces for support — if you and your partner are in the same support space and need to talk about, say, something that the other person is not handling well, it’s going to be harder to access the support you need with them right in front of you.
It’s also helpful to consider therapy, both individual therapy and/or couples therapy — seeking out a clinician, especially with specific experience and competency in addiction issues can make a world of difference. Although living with addiction and recovery is unfortunately still a deeply stigmatized experience for many people, building healthy relationships and finding supportive social or mental health communities is always an option.