You’re swiping on Tinder again and it feels tedious and joyless. You’re bored and single and shopping for human mates is disheartening, but this is just how we do things now. But then you see a woman. She’s raging hot, has a creative job, and knows how to use an Oxford comma. Potentially the girl of your dreams. (It me?) But, near the end of her profile, she mentions that she’s in recovery. There had to be a catch. You have visions of sober parties playing charades and checkers.
You can’t date someone in recovery. She’s probably either “crazy” or boring, you tell yourself. Not so fast, bub. Hear me out before you swipe left.
I’ve been a single person in recovery for two-and-a-half years, I’ve been on a lot of dates, and I’ve noticed that some folks are scared of dating people in recovery. I don’t blame them. Recovery, to most people, seems like a distant land populated by unstable people, sadness, and regret. I’m here to a debunk that presumption and to help you navigate this dating terrain, not as a professional but as a citizen.
The first thing you need to know is that “recovery” can mean a lot of different things: a stint in rehab, relapses in a bar bathroom, or a perfectly functioning life with new rules. If you meet a hottie who tells you that they’re in recovery, try leading with curiosity instead of making assumptions that align with Hollywood’s depiction of the quintessential “junkie” trying to return to better days.
Also, there are countless things to recover from. Some people I’ve met in recovery communities have never taken drugs at all. They are recovering from abuse or trauma or sometimes from process addictions like gambling or sex addiction.
Don’t worry about asking stupid questions when you’re trying to get to know someone. A lot of individuals in recovery consider talking openly about their process to be a healing practice. For me, it’s a major relief to share honestly about myself instead of feeling like my struggles are big shameful secrets. A lot of us have done a lot of hiding in the past. Some of us have hid abuse or addiction, so when we don’t feel like we have to keep secrets to make friends, it feels like freedom from the stigma.
The flip side is that your new recovery boo, in the interest of being honest, may tell you things that seem shocking or personal. It’s okay to ask them to put content or time limits on their impulses to share.
Try not to make assumptions about people’s relationship to substances. Some people are totally sober, meaning they abstain from all intoxicants, but others may practice harm reduction, which is a non-abstinent style of recovery in which a person takes efforts to reduce a drug or behavior’s risk to themselves or others. This might mean they limit their intake of certain substances, use substances in controlled conditions, or by imbibe some things instead of others. Harm reduction practices vary widely, so, again, you’re going to have to get vocal and curious.
Even the word “sober” is kind of vague. I call myself sober because I don’t take opioids (which I have a problem with), but most 12-step purists would not consider me sober because I drink and take other drugs. I have some alcoholic friends (who consider themselves sober) that carry bitters with them to put in soda water so they aren’t tempted by high-ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails, even though adding bitters does add some alcohol. If you want to get to know someone in recovery, it’s totally cool to ask them what they do and what they don’t do.
What almost all folks in recovery have in common is that we are all actively doing a lot of intense emotional labor. Some people go to meetings, some go to therapy, and some do both or neither. Ask your new lust/love interest what role recovery plays in their life. A lot of people prioritize their recovery process over all other things, including romance. So if you meet someone who is often busy going to meetings or doing 12-step work, it may not mean that they’re trying to avoid you. When I am dating someone and I think it might get serious, I double down on therapy to make sure that I am showing up to the relationship in good working order.
Some people that I’ve dated have gotten frustrated by my lack of availability. As far as I’m concerned, this is a boundary issue. The first heady days of a new romance can be intoxicating, and folks who have struggled with addiction might have to be careful about how much they engage with intoxicants of all kinds, including emotional highs like love. It doesn’t mean that they don’t like you. It means that they are self-assured enough to set boundaries that make everyone safer.
If someone is kind of fresh to the recovery process, they might just be learning to set and respect boundaries. A lot of us come into recovery with codependency issues, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. I, for example, often feel a lot of guilt about saying no to people I care about, so sometimes I say no to almost everything because I’m practicing. Other times, I say no and then I feel guilty and cry. I’m learning, and it’s messy. Just try to communicate clearly and listen intently.
I know people with substance abuse disorder get a bad rap, but honestly, I prefer to date folks in recovery. It’s not because it’s a super defining identity marker for me and I just can’t date anyone who doesn’t also have it. It’s because I can trust that most people who are in recovery have done some seriously hard personal work. Not only do I respect that labor, I find it sexy. After all, self-awareness is the new six-pack abs — you heard it here first.