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“When am I ready to date in my recovery?” It’s a very common question and a source of much discussion and even debate in recovery circles, from therapy and 12-step groups to blogs, forums, and chat rooms. There can be different answers, too, depending on who you talk to.
We decided to consult one of our in-house experts on the question. Dr. Sachi Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP, is a sex and relationships therapist who also directs our specialized treatment program for first responders (“Shatterproof”). In a recent interview, Dr. Ananda shared some eye-opening signs to look for that can be helpful benchmarks of readiness to date in recovery. The below checklist, based on Dr. Ananda’s expertise, is for anyone in recovery who may be wondering if or when to date and whether they are ready.
Benchmarks to Look for When Assessing Dating Readiness
If you’re thinking about dating but are not sure whether you’re ready, this checklist may be able to help in that discernment process.
Ultimately, there is no universal rule for when to date. That is because everyone is on their own journey and no two sets of individual circumstances are the same. Still, there are some common criteria for assessing readiness to date that are applicable to anyone in recovery.
“There’s not necessarily a day count or number of days that determine readiness,” as Dr. Ananda put it. “It’s more about benchmarks and milestones.” Here are some to consider:
Have I made it through post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS)?
“PAWS can cause you to have irregular moods, agitation, low tolerance for stress, fogginess, and other symptoms, so it is not a good time to make any decisions when it comes to your emotions and your body,” Dr. Ananda said. She cautioned that dating during this phase of recovery might mean ending up in “a relationship that’s not healthy.”
In terms of how long PAWS lasts, that can vary widely between individuals. Symptoms can last “anywhere from one month to two years … it takes a long time for the body to adjust to the new normal of being sober in the aftermath of drugs and alcohol.”
Am I using the rational part of my brain most of the time?
“When you’re using drugs and alcohol, you’re using the primitive part of your brain that just wants to feel good,” Dr. Ananda said. “If you don’t give time for your rational part of the brain to kick in, you won’t be ready to date.” In other words, if the primitive part of your brain is still in high gear and you’re looking for quick fixes (like a new relationship), then it may help to give your recovery more time before jumping into the dating world.
Am I actively working a 12-step program with the help of a sponsor?
Here is how Dr. Ananda explained why this criterion is key to dating readiness:
That’ll help for you to take a moral inventory of yourself and of things you need to work on. That’s a big deal, because it helps you become the type of person who someone would want to date. [Being in a 12-step program] helps to clarify character and remove character defects. The more you build character, the more you’ll attract people with similar character.
A sponsor can help you practice being open and honest with somebody … They are a sounding board to help you see if you’re making rational versus impulsive decisions and trying to become a better person though the 12 Steps.
Have I achieved one year of successful sobriety?
“On average it takes at least one year to go through the PAWS process and work through a 12-step program consistently,” according to Dr. Ananda.
Can I name 10 things that I like about myself?
Ananda was quick to disqualify at least two things that might otherwise end up on people’s lists: “Name 10 things off the top of your head that have nothing to do with looks or money.”
“It amazes me how hard this is for people who are in recovery,” Dr. Ananda observed, adding, “If you can’t say 10 things about yourself, how can you love someone else? If you can’t see the good in you, how will you see the good in the other person?”
One danger of dating when you don’t sufficiently like yourself is “inequality in the relationship … if you don’t see the other person as an equal in abilities and character, you’ll always feel inferior, suffer from lower self-esteem, and let the other person make the decisions in the relationship (which may be things you don’t want and that cause unhappiness).”
Can I name 10 people in my support system who are sober or living a sober life?
They should be “non-sexual relationships” and do not have to be restricted to friends and family. Other people who might be in your support system: a therapist, doctor, sponsor, or pastor or spiritual teacher.
Do I have a spiritual foundation? In other words, are you “engaging in spiritual activities and building a foundation with your Higher Power rather than through external things? … All of that is an internal process. If you’re not doing any of that, you’ll keep looking to external things to make you happy.”
Am I able to spend time alone with myself and enjoy it?
“You’ve got to be your own best friend,’ my spiritual teacher likes to say. If you can’t enjoy your own company, how can anyone else enjoy it?”
Other Related Questions and Concerns About Dating in Recovery
The question of readiness to date can often entail these considerations:
- Is there a timeline for when it is okay to start dating? Typically, the recommendation is to wait until you’ve achieved your first full year of successful sobriety.
- Is it better to date someone who is also in recovery? Ananda acknowledged that this can “give the two of you some common ground” but went on to emphasize that “the recovery process itself takes 100 percent of your focus—so if both of you are focused on recovery, it may leave little room for a relationship.” She also pointed out that dating another person in recovery can “run the risk of a codependent relationship and feeling responsible for the other person’s recovery … and, if they relapse, you have a higher risk of relapsing.”
Rather than look for someone who is also in recovery, it is “more important for the person you date to understand the addiction and recovery process, go to Alanon, and/or read about addiction.” In other words, “are they willing to understand recovery?”
- Won’t dating someone make me happier and motivated? “This is a common belief, but it’s important to make a distinction between pleasure and happiness,” Dr. Ananda said. “Dating can potentially give you pleasure, and the physical and sexual parts of dating may give you lots of pleasure—but not happiness. Happiness is a more conscious and abiding state of contentment. Pleasure can come with pain, whereas if you’re happy and content, those things won’t bother you as much. If you rely on someone else to make you feel motivated for your recovery, then if that relationship isn’t going well, you lose your motivation.”
- What if I’m afraid to miss out on an opportunity to date? “This is where a belief in your Higher Power comes in,” Dr. Ananda said, noting that fear about a missed opportunity only “causes anxiety and can lead to impulsive decisions and irrational thinking.”
Dr. Ananda offered the following encouragement and reassurance to those who may be struggling with this fear: “If you keep your intention on attracting someone who is healthy for you, the opportunity is more likely to come. Investing in friendships and building supports can only help with potential relationships, because then you can find out if you can be friends with someone who is a potential love interest.”
Figuring out when you’re ready to date can be daunting when you’re in recovery. The above checklist from an expert, including answers to common questions and concerns, may make that discernment process a little less intimidating.