After more than a decade of active drug addiction paired with compulsive sexual activity, Marcus, a single 31-year-old delivery driver, entered treatment for both disorders. Initially, he was highly motivated and happy to be sober. Then, after about a year of almost total focus on his recovery, he started to wonder if he would ever be able to date or have sex again. He told his therapist, “I don’t want to live like a monk, which is what I’ve been doing for the last year, but I’m finding out that I have absolutely no idea how to interact with women without the buffer of drugs, hookup apps, and sexting. When I was active in my addiction, everything was completely impersonal. Most of the time I didn’t even give out my real name. Today, I really want to have an intimate connection, except I have no idea how to get there. On top of that, I’m scared that everyone else my age has this figured out, and that if I try dating I’ll look like a jackass, or I’ll relapse, or both.”
In the example above, Marcus presents the three basic romance-related fears expressed by single sex addicts.
- He doesn’t know how to date, and he’s afraid he’ll be rejected because of this. Developmentally, he feels like a middle school student when it comes to romantic interactions. He just has no idea how to start dating in a healthy way.
- He doesn’t know how to have a healthy relationship once he’s met and started dating someone he likes, because he’s never had a meaningful intimate connection with another person.
- He is afraid that trying to have a meaningful relationship might lead to relapse, especially if he meets someone he likes and it doesn’t work out.
Marcus is hardly alone with these fears. In fact, almost all single sex addicts, especially those new to the process of healing, wonder if they will ever be able to date and be sexual in a healthy and enjoyable way. At times, even the mere thought of “healthy intimate connection” is so anathema to what they’ve been doing that it looks nearly impossible. Nevertheless, single recovering sex addicts are not in any way doomed to a life of romantic and sexual isolation. In fact, for most, an important part of the healing process, typically undertaken when they’ve established a modicum of sexual sobriety, is learning how to date and be sexual in healthy, life affirming ways.
Are You Ready to Date?
Unsurprisingly, moving toward healthy romance and sexuality can be a confusing and imperfect process. Ideally, before attempting to date, you will have an empathetic and knowledgeable support network in place – people who can act as mentors and sounding boards. In fact, if you don’t have such a support team, then you are probably not ready to start dating, and you should back away from romance and do further work on the basics of sobriety – first and foremost not trying to do it all without assistance. If you find yourself in this situation but resisting the temporary postponement of dating, it may help if you think about the building of your (much needed) support network as practice for how you’ll eventually build a healthy romantic relationship.
The good news here is that healthy and incredibly enjoyable sexual and romantic opportunities are out there, and you can absolutely partake of this – as long as you are ready. In determining your readiness, you should ask yourself the following three questions:
- Do I feel comfortable enough with my sobriety and my self-esteem to undertake a new challenge that is likely to present numerous emotional trials and tribulations along the way?
- Do I have a solid support network in place that can help me navigate the somewhat foreign (to me) and potentially treacherous waters of romance and sexuality?
- Can I handle rejection without relapsing? In other words, do I have enough healthy coping mechanisms in place to handle a painful breakup (or even the angst of going on a few dates with someone and realizing that it’s not going to work out)?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then you may indeed be ready to move forward with a new and healthy romantic and sexual life.
What Are Your Goals for Dating?
The initial step toward healthy dating, beyond determining your readiness, is to create a list of goals. In short, you need to figure out what sort of romantic relationship(s) you are looking for – both initially and down the line. For instance, you may decide that you want to try dating casually first, followed by a long-term relationship later on.
To begin this goal-setting process, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Why do I want to have a relationship?
- What do I want my relationship(s) to look like?
- Is monogamy important to me?
- Do I want kids?
- What am I willing to sacrifice for the benefit of a relationship?
- What do I bring to the table in a potential relationship?
- What should a potential relationship partner bring to the table?
- In comparison to past relationships, what do I want to be different with my future relationships?
Once these and similar questions are answered, you will have a better idea of what you want, and why. And then you can create a list of realistic goals based on this information.
It is OK to develop this list of goals on your own, but you should not act on these goals or proceed with developing a formalized dating plan (to be discussed in my next posting to this site) until you’ve discussed your list at length with your therapist, your 12-step sponsor, your accountability partner, and others who are knowledgeable about and supportive of your recovery.
The listing of goals for dating developed by Marcus, met in the example that opens this article, reads as follows:
- I don’t want to date anyone who is actively addicted (to anything).
- I don’t want to date anyone I wouldn’t introduce to my friends and family.
- I want to have a serious, lasting, monogamous relationship, and eventually to get married and have children.
- I want to be trustworthy and to date people who are trustworthy.
- I don’t want to date anyone who treats me badly or uses me financially.
- I don’t want to relapse because of a relationship.
When formulating goals for relationships, it is important to understand that traditional versions of relationship health are not for everyone. Many people do not want marriage or lifelong monogamy, and there is nothing wrong with that. As long as you don’t jeopardize your sobriety, you should feel comfortable proceeding with dating and relationships in whatever fashion it is that seems most appealing. In other words, every recovering sex addict has a distinctly individual background and internal makeup, so every recovering sex addict is likely have a unique set of goals for dating and relationships. There is no need for you to conform to societal expectations of what intimate connections should look like.
After your goals for romance are determined and shared with your support network, with feedback incorporated into the goals as needed, you are ready to craft a formalized dating plan. (Again, I will address this topic in-depth in my next posting to this site.) For now, I will simply restate the fact that there is no reason you cannot date and be sexual while in recovery – as long as you are ready to do so. For most sex addicts, this entails a year or so of solid sexual sobriety and highly focused efforts at recovery, the most important element of which is the building of a social support network you can turn to if/when you feel triggered toward relapse. Without that safety net in place, neither you nor any other recovering sex addict is ready for the trials and tribulations of dating. With it, however, you can handle almost anything – including romantic and sexual relationships.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction. For more information please visit website, robertweissmsw.com.