Healthy Love After Addiction
In addiction we cling. We cling to our addictive substances. We cling to our addiction-driven habits. We cling to our coping mechanisms. We cling to the people that support us and we cling to those who enable us.
Clinging is a dangerous coping mechanism; it gives our power to someone or something else and leaves us more vulnerable and unsafe. This is especially true in romantic relationships – clinging opens us to abuse, betrayal, misdirection and misguidance.
Josie B. knows this first-hand. In her last destructive relationship she went wherever her boyfriend went, regardless of whether or not it was a healthy environment for her. Brandon was a musician. After every gig he, his band members and their entourage hit a bar, club or party where drugs were easily available and the booze flowed.
Josie – trying to get clean and keep her boyfriend at the same time – followed Brandon everywhere, despite the distress the post-gig parties caused her.
“I wanted to be Brandon’s girl. To do that meant hanging out with all these high people and not acting out myself. When I did try not to go Brandon got mad, so I went and sometimes I was strong enough to stay sober and other times I wasn’t. To be with him I gave up what was important to me,” Josie remembers.
Wrapped up in the circumstances of addiction, the love we fall into frequently lacks a large degree of healthiness.
The people we’re attracted to, the behaviors and situations we accept and the romantic routines in which we engage when we’re under the influence of addiction are all driven by the need(s) of addiction, plus lack of self-worth and self-esteem and are affected by the shame, guilt, embarrassment that addiction brings forth.
When we “fall in love” as addicts we see things through the haze of addiction, and we accept all kinds of injustices and unfairness while we cling to our addiction—and, in many cases, the person with whom we become involved.
At one end of the addiction romance spectrum there may be some happily-ever-after stories of partners who stood by each other, challenged each other to become a better version of him or herself, and cleaned up together. More usually, however, addiction romances become another source that contributes to lack of self-respect, a feeling of “less than” and a disruptive connection that can actually fuel addiction rather than diffuse the need for it. All of these aspects become habitual — reactions and processes that happen without our even thinking about it.
Creating a Healthy Romance in Addiction Recovery
When we enter recovery (and then move into life afterward) we have an opportunity to break habitual relationship traps. Starting over with the desire to create meaningful and healthy romantic connections requires intention, self-awareness and conscious decision-making focused on what you want in a partner conjoined with what you want in your life. This is when it becomes useful to understand the difference between being bonded versus enmeshed:
When we “bond” with someone we retain our individuality even while we create a deep and meaningful connection with a partner.
When we “enmesh” we give up our individual self and blend as one into the other person.-Michele Rosenthal
In that raw and uncertain space of recovery enmeshment can feel really, really good as it offers a (false) sense of protection, commitment and love. The more we lose ourselves in someone else the more we lose ourselves, period. This loss means a reduced connection to personal strengths, desires, opportunities, experiences, values and priorities. The feeling of this continued loss can lead to sensations of fear, danger and other emotions that addictions frequently assuage. In the new space of recovery maintaining a strong and uncompromised inner connection is critical to maintaining and sustaining recovery advances. Entering into a (more healthy) bonded relationship can actually help foster future recovery gains as it allows for opportunities of continued personal evolution.
Deliberately creating a bonded relationship happens by including these types of actions in the realm of any romance:
- Continuing frequent contact and connection with family and friends.
- Scheduling alone time to develop self-connection.
- Engaging with experiences (outside of the romance) that create a sensation of happiness and self-esteem.
- Resisting absorbing or mirroring a partner’s emotions; staying true to how you feel.
- Identifying sources outside the relationship that help to reduce feelings of loneliness.
Caught in the frenzy of addiction we are not our true selves, which means we do not attract the kind of true partners we deserve. Later, when we fall in love (in recovery or clean and sober), the experience of romance will feel different and awkward; even frightening for a while.
Being aware of the difference between being bonded and enmeshed offers a chance to be intentional about who we choose as partners and why and in what way we interact and become involved with them, all of which lessons feelings of fear and promotes sensations of safety. Approaching a new relationship through this sort of slow and conscious process leads to better decisions, healthier romance and deeper (long-lasting) personal growth.
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