Sex is a natural, healthy part of relationships, but it is also a major cause of relapse among the newly sober. For some, unhealthy sexual behaviors and relationship patterns are cross-addictions that fully emerge once drugs and alcohol are out of the picture. For others, one soured relationship can trigger a surge of dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors, eventually leading to relapse.
Is your recovery solid enough to withstand a relationship? The following are five signs that sex could be undermining your recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.
1. Engaging in Sex or Relationships During Drug Rehab
Most drug rehab centers have strict rules against fraternizing with staff or clients. While it may seem juvenile to forbid grown adults from having sex or engaging in a relationship, these rules are in place to protect the recovery of every client in drug rehab.
When an individual can’t refrain from having sex or beginning a romantic relationship for the 30-plus days required in drug rehab, it can be a sign of an underlying love or sex addiction. Cross addictions are common among the newly sober. While drugs may be the most obvious object of addiction, when they are taken away the individual may quickly find another “high” in sex or relationships.
Clients who pursue romantic relationships during drug rehab often find themselves missing out on the healing work of treatment. They may also find themselves being discharged early for having sex with other clients or being spoken to about dressing provocatively or flirting with the staff.
In some cases, receiving treatment in a men-only or women-only drug rehab helps clients focus on their recovery. Free from the distraction of sex and relationships, people can delve into the issues underlying their addiction, including the way relationships help them cope with difficult emotions or escape from problems.
2. Dating in Early Recovery
After completing drug rehab, many people find that they have more free time now that their primary focus is off getting and using drugs. Some take a class or volunteer in the local community; some find a job or go back to school; and others get involved in a romantic relationship. Although relationships can be a fun way to pass the time, research shows that they rarely enhance recovery.
Why do relationships in early recovery so often lead to relapse? First, there’s the break-up. At a time when emotions are already unstable, a break-up can trigger the kind of anger and despair that used to be assuaged with drugs or alcohol. Until your new coping mechanisms are solidly in place, relapse may follow every time a relationship doesn’t end well.
Equally problematic is the fact that it’s just as easy to become addicted to the “high” of a new relationship or sexual partner as it is to drugs or alcohol. Science shows that both sex and drugs boost dopamine activity in the brain, so it is not surprising that the same person who struggles with drug addiction is at greater risk of sex and love addiction, as well as other compulsions and addictions. In the first few months following drug rehab, when your recovery is at its most vulnerable, a relationship will likely become your primary focus and your recovery (and yourself) will take second or third.
At a time when your thinking isn’t completely clear, you don’t really know who you are and your self-esteem isn’t fully restored, you’re at greater risk of becoming attracted to the wrong type of person. Often, someone who is struggling with addiction or who is unavailable or even abusive will be particularly appealing in the early stages of recovery.
During this stage, low self-esteem and diseased thinking make infatuation much more common than genuine caring and intimacy. Any time a particular person or relationship becomes attractive, it is important to ask, “Could this attraction be rooted in my addictive behaviors or underlying issues?” “Am I healthy enough to know what love is?”
Early recovery is a time for rigorous honesty and introspection. Take the first year in recovery to focus on nonsexual relationships with yourself, your therapist, and supportive friends and family and save romantic relationships for a time when you’re fully grounded in your recovery.
3. Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places
Bars, clubs and parties are a favorite place to meet potential partners. For those in early recovery, these are not the best places for finding love for obvious reasons. Alcohol and drug use are an accepted (and sometimes expected) part of the dating scene, which can trigger a relapse for even the most resolute. In addition, the relationships formed in these places are likely “hook-ups” (casual, and perhaps risky, sexual encounters) rather than genuine connections, which can become addictive in and of themselves.
If you manage to escape the party scene drug-free, there’s a good chance you’ve selected a partner who uses drugs in some form. Even if you’re determined to protect your sobriety, it is often only a matter of time before you end up joining them.
Bars and clubs are an obvious threat, but dangers also lurk in unexpected places such as 12-Step meetings. These groups provide a safe, supportive forum for sharing and receiving feedback from peers, but this openness also makes them an appealing place to meet a romantic partner. In many cases, these relationships are not only distracting and dysfunctional, but they also put both partners at increased risk of relapse.
4. Promiscuity, Affairs or Risky Sexual Behavior
If your therapist recommends sexual abstinence for at least the first 90 days of sobriety and you feel like all air has escaped the room, you may be struggling with an underlying love or sex addiction. An inability to be alone, feeling worthless or unloved when not in a relationship, or a sudden drop in self-esteem brought on by having fewer sexual partners can all point to a deeper issue.
Addiction and promiscuity often go hand in hand, and each can be a trigger for the other. Having anonymous sex, sex in high-risk situations or multiple affairs can undermine your recovery from addiction. All of these behaviors may be indicative of underlying issues, including low self-esteem, unresolved trauma (such as childhood sexual abuse), and sex and love addiction.
Many people relate to some of the symptoms of sex or love addiction, but do not recognize it as a problem in their lives. It is often not until they seek treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction that they realize how significantly they have been impacted by sex and relationship problems.
5. Revisiting a Relationship with an Old Flame
If you can’t wait to get out of drug rehab to call your ex, there’s a good chance sex and/or relationships are undermining your recovery. Going back to old hangouts, friends or romantic partners can trigger relapse, and feeling compelled to be a relationship at all times – even one with a history of failure – can be a sign of an underlying sex or love addiction.
Protecting Your Recovery
Sex and drugs have a lot in common. Drugs, alcohol, sex and relationships can all be misused as a way to avoid dealing with painful emotions. While the behaviors may look quite different on the outside, they often mask the same underlying emotional need.
If you’re in recovery, be aware that unhealthy sexual behaviors and relationship patterns can be a sign that the underlying issues have not been fully resolved, and that relapse is imminent. When you know the signs, you can get help before you jeopardize your relationships, your health and your hard-won recovery.
By Meghan Vivo