The Pros and Cons of Relationships in the Early Stages of Recovery

Image: @brookecagle

I am a woman living with anorexia. Although I am (by the grace of my higher power!) over 12 years recovered, I will never have a normal relationship with food. I’ve been to the very depths of hell with this disease, and put my life and my body back together piece by piece, pound by pound. I have maintained my weight by working a solid, if sometimes imperfect recovery based on the 12 steps, a plan of eating every day and asking for help when I need it.

One of the many unique aspects of my story is that I went through a painful breakup during my very earliest stages of recovery. A year later I began a long committed relationship. I have seen how disease and addiction can either strengthen a relationship or tear it apart. One of the questions I am often asked by newcomers to recovery is, when to disclose one’s history in the early stages of dating. Like most things, this is something that should be determined on a case by case basis and it is up to every individual to decide when the time is right. However, if we plan on having a future with someone we must tell them sooner rather than later in order to protect our recovery. Secrecy only feeds addiction. Hiding our relationship with food and recovery from someone close to us is far too reminiscent of the shame we felt while acting out in our disease. Our abstinence is a gift no one is worth sacrificing for.

Hiding our relationship with food and recovery from someone close to us is far too reminiscent of the shame we felt while acting out in our disease.

Here is what I learned about relationships and recovery from my own personal experience:

What didn’t work for me:

A little over 12 years ago I was in a relatively new relationship and still very much engaging in anorexic behaviors. My girlfriend at the time and I never talked about it and I hid as much as I could from her. Eventually my health became so compromised that I was checked into an inpatient hospital program. I quickly realized how much time and energy it was going to take for me to maintain my recovery once I was discharged. I gave her two options: she could either support me in my recovery or I would do it without her. Ultimately, she left me for someone else. Although the experience was gut wrenchingly painful, I know now that if she had not left me, I may have ended up relapsing. Having a partner who wasn’t willing to be a strong support to me would have been a distraction and a poor use of my precious energy during that crucial time. That early on in recovery, I don’t know that I would have been capable of putting my program before someone who I so badly wanted to be with. I am eternally grateful to her for making that choice for me. It takes a strong, selfless, brave person to stand by their partner in recovery and she wasn’t it.

The kind of relationship that did work for me:

In my early days of recovery, I took time off from dating to focus on getting a year of abstinence under my belt. Most twelve step programs recommend that. As addicts, we tend to be people pleasers. It is easy for us to get distracted by the high that comes along with being in a new relationship. A year after that painful breakup I had a strong sponsor, had worked all 12 steps and was coming up on my one year anniversary of recovery when I met her.

Sharing such a personal piece of my history is ALWAYS a hard thing to do, no matter the person or their reaction. I told my new girlfriend the night before my first recovery birthday when we had only been dating a few weeks. The sense of accomplishment I felt about having reached that milestone gave me the courage I needed to have this difficult conversation. As I lay facing the wall that night, I apprehensively told her of my struggles and victories with anorexia. She listened closely and then told me it didn’t change the way she felt about me and that she was proud of me!

During our time together, she shared in the very worst of times but also some of my proudest moments. From the night I told her and throughout our entire relationship, she never stopped asking me questions about it. She knew my snack time, how much I needed to eat at every meal, and how many meetings I attended each week. She held me in her arms as I have cried hysterically at times, and sat next to me as I shared my story in meetings open to family and friends of the people in my 12-step recovery program.

One of the reasons we lasted so long is that my program had a strong presence in our relationship and I had everything in place before she entered my life. The answer was not that I had found the perfect partner, but that I had learned to take care of myself before she came along. She was simply an additional support to me. She accepted that my recovery came even before her. I find that people usually respect and admire me more for taking care of myself by any means necessary.

I took the necessary time to build a strong foundation before jumping into the confusing and often scary world of romance.

I took the necessary time to build a strong foundation before jumping into the confusing and often scary world of romance. By the time I told her my story, there was no doubt in my mind where my priorities lay. By being open and honest, I found a companion who loved me despite my struggles. In recovery, we can only have success in relationships when we know that our health is not only important, but crucial.

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