The Scoop: Brook McKenzie, an addiction expert and Chief Operating Officer for Burning Tree Ranch, told us about the reality of dating in early recovery for folks with substance use disorders and addictions. People in recovery can forge fulfilling and healthy long-term romantic relationships, but Brook urges folks to keep sobriety as their main priority. He said it’s essential for those in recovery to understand the ways and dangers of codependent relationships, especially for recovering addicts.

Most people know or love someone who suffers from substance abuse or addiction. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, over 140,000 Americans die in an average year from complications from alcohol abuse, and drug overdose deaths since 2000 are nearing 1 million.  

Like so many folks, I know and love people who have experienced addiction or substance use disorders. While the damage that addiction wreaks is devastating, recovery is possible. And when recovery does happen, so do so many other things – relationships are repaired, strong support systems are established, and life can be experienced to its fullest.

Brook McKenzie is an Addiction Expert and the Chief Operating Officer for Burning Tree Ranch, a long-term treatment center for folks who chronically relapse. He talked to us about addiction, recovery, and what dating looks like for people who are in the early stages of sobriety.

“When we look at becoming sober and dating, we have to understand what’s really at stake,” Brook said. “Addiction is a chronic and fatal disease, and recovery has to be an ongoing priority.”

Understanding Drug & Alcohol Abuse

Substance use disorder is a condition where there is uncontrolled use of a substance despite the harmful consequences. People who suffer from substance use disorder intensely think about the substance they use and continue to use that substance even when it causes serious problems.

The most severe substance use disorders are sometimes called addictions. Addiction is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking.” 

Addiction is a brain disorder, as it involves functional changes in the way the brain works. Think about something as commonplace as nicotine – regular smokers experience painful withdrawal symptoms when they’re unable to get nicotine.

addiction and substance use counseling
Addiction and substance use disorder are diseases that take control of a person’s life.

The likelihood of developing an addiction is different from person to person, just like with any other disease or disorder.

There are some risk factors that increase a person’s chances of developing an addiction after taking drugs. Factors can be both biological and environmental. People can have a genetic predisposition to addiction, and gender and mental health disorders also influence proclivity to addiction.

Environmentally, an unstable or traumatic childhood, having parents who struggled with addiction, and community poverty can increase the risk of developing substance use disorders and addictions.

Addiction is a complicated disease that manifests uniquely in each person who experiences it. Because of this, addiction treatment is a complex process that requires perseverance and dedication. Brook said that all too often, romantic relationships, especially in the early stages of recovery, can be serious threats to an individual’s sobriety.

Fostering Relationships in Sobriety

A majority of recovery programs urge their clients to take time off from dating while entering sobriety. Brook said so many programs take this stance because dating can negatively impact the progress made within the program and distract individuals from the reason they are in the program in the first place.

Brook said the most important thing is that all parties involved understand the magnitude of sobriety. “It is a chronic, life-ending disease,” Brook said. “Once we understand that, it gives context to our priorities. You have to end the cycle of addiction because everything depends on that.”

Dating while in recovery can be a distraction. Brook said people in recovery often intensely think about a romantic partner or the next time they’ll be able to see them, causing them to be distracted from the biggest and most important focus: their sobriety.

Brook said that people in active addiction tend to attract others who are also struggling mentally, emotionally, or with substance abuse themselves.

It’s important for people who have loved ones in recovery to understand different elements of sobriety.

“Typically, what they attract is codependency,” Brook said. “Typically in these relationship dynamics, you’ve got the addict, alcoholic, and the people they’re going to attract are people who grew up in alcoholic or drug-addicted households.”

Brook said individuals whose parents struggled with drug and alcohol use are often attracted to people with the same disease because it is comfortable to them. They understand the dynamics at play in these kinds of relationships and can act them out.

That relationship dynamic is codependency. Codependency is found in imbalanced relationships where one person enables another person’s self-destructive behaviors. These behaviors can include addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, and under-achievement.

For those with addiction, codependent relationships are usually very intense and deeply involved in the intake and habits around drugs and alcohol. Brook said people who suffer from addiction are prone to developing codependent relationships, and often the dysfunction is greatly exacerbated by drugs and alcohol.

Secure Attachments Encourage Continuing Recovery

Codependency is something people in recovery need to keep in mind while making new relationships. Forming a codependent relationship is a risk for recovering individuals, but it’s completely possible to form healthy and secure relationships.

“One of the things I found working in this field is that the best way to avoid codependency is to learn about what it is and how it manifests, and how it affects specifically people who have dealt with addiction,” Brook said.

healthy boundaries infographic
Healthy boundaries encourage healthier relationships and freedom from codependency.

Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries are some of the best things those in relationships can do to avoid codependency. Establishing healthy boundaries leads to better communication, emotional growth, better trust, and increased accountability.

Brook said dating can ultimately be a serious impediment to the person receiving recovery services. He said romantic relationships often end up being a place for those in recovery to put their energy, time, and affection – instead of putting those things into sobriety. Recovery must be an individual’s number one priority if they want to maintain sobriety.

This is not to say those who have struggled with drug and alcohol addiction can’t ever be in romantic relationships. It’s also possible for those who meet in recovery environments to forge healthy and secure relationships.

Recovery is a lifelong process, and sober individuals need romantic partners who understand the critical nature of their partner’s sobriety. Everything depends on it.