A Guide to Intimacy and Relationships While in Recovery | All Points North

Start the Admissions Process Online

Fill out your information to receive a free, confidential call from the team at All Points North.


A Guide to Intimacy and Relationships While in Recovery

Relationships in recovery are a frequent topic of contention and disagreement. Some people believe that people shouldn’t start relationships in early recovery, while others count intimacy as a basic human need that can support people on their path to sobriety.

Let’s talk about relationships in recovery and how they can impact your ability to stay sober — for better or for worse.

Why Having Relationships While in Recovery is a Contentious Topic

Relationships while in recovery are often frowned upon, at least for people who are newly sober. It’s a common refrain in 12-step support groups that people shouldn’t start a relationship in their first year of sobriety, even though the 12-step literature takes no specific stance on relationships.

The basic thinking against new relationships while in recovery is simple: starting a new relationship can often distract you from doing the important work that’s necessary for you to maintain your sobriety.

Rather than going to therapy, you might want to go out to dinner with your new romantic interest. You may skip a support group meeting because your beau invited you to an event. Instead of completing the journal entry that your therapist asked you to write before your next session, you might spend the night texting a new partner.

It’s often argued that your main focus should be on building up the tools, skills, and support network that can sustain your recovery for years to come. Getting into a new relationship can quickly steal that spotlight and leave you unprepared for when substance cravings or life challenges rear their heads.

With these objections in mind, many people encourage those new to recovery to avoid new romantic relationships altogether.

Still, many people take the opposite position: that relationships are an important part of life and that getting into a relationship can be a net gain for your recovery.

Relationships provide an outlet for people who need to find a way to fill the empty time that used to be spent using drugs and alcohol. They provide validation, pleasure, and social support. Finally, relationships are natural — they’re even considered to be a basic human need.

Let’s explore each of these perspectives a little closer and see what they can show us about intimacy and relationships while in recovery.

The Case Against Relationships

People build the case against relationships on two main points. The first is that you need to focus on the activities of recovery in early sobriety, and the second is that romantic relationships can distract you from those activities.

These are undoubtedly important considerations when contemplating starting a new relationship.

First, countless studies have shown that people who engage in more recovery activities — whether that be therapy, treatment interventions, or support groups — are more likely to achieve and maintain their sobriety long-term.

People are at the highest risk of relapse in early recovery, and anything you can do to mitigate this risk is essential in the first years of your sobriety.

And it is also true that a new relationship can quickly become a higher priority, taking up much of your free time and mental energy. Such is the nature of love and infatuation, that it can subsume several other important aspects of your life.

This is a common frustration for therapists in all mental health fields. In his book, “Love’s Executioner,” the American psychiatrist and therapist Irvin Yalom describes how providing therapy to clients who are newly in love is often painful for him as a therapist.

Talk therapy requires looking at rational, objective facts about situations, and those newly in love are not guided by rationality but by the intense emotional forces that drive us all.

The Case for Relationships

The counter-argument is often that relationships are a fundamental human need. This has scientific support; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that love and belongingness are more critical to a person’s mental health than a feeling of self-esteem or even finding your purpose or achieving self-actualization.

People feel this need. It’s why so many people seek out meaningful romantic relationships in the first place. It is completely natural to want to feel loved, appreciated, validated, and stimulated by others, and this can lead to substantial improvements in mood and mental health symptoms.

This is often particularly true for people who have just achieved sobriety. Many people new to recovery feel woefully unloved or even that they are unlovable. A healthy relationship can heal that hurt and help someone continue the path to recovery.

What Does Science Say?

Unsurprisingly, addiction researchers have investigated the role of intimacy and relationships while in recovery. While this might provide hope that the final answer to the question of whether to get into a relationship during early recovery is solved, unfortunately, the research paints a more mixed picture.

There are several components to consider in intimacy and relationships while in recovery:

Social Impairment

The first critical component to consider is that social impairment is a key diagnostic criterion of substance use disorders. People living with a substance use disorder may experience:

  • Difficulty fulfilling obligations at home, work, or school
  • Damaged relationships because of substance misuse
  • Giving up on important activities or hobbies due to substance use
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Essentially, substance use disorders can inhibit people’s ability to communicate well with others, maintain healthy relationships, or respond in appropriate ways to social cues.

Of course, these domains of social impairment do get better with sustained recovery. But particularly in early recovery, people may still struggle with the communication skills needed to maintain a healthy relationship.

Matching Theory of Attraction

The matching theory of attraction suggests that people often seek out romantic relationships with people who share similar dispositions and skills with themselves. But in early recovery, people are still finding new ways of approaching life, building healthier communication habits, and learning what recovery means.

In the addiction treatment field, it is a commonly observed phenomenon that people who achieve a year of recovery are in a remarkably different state than when they first arrived at treatment. Recovery often constitutes wholesale personality and dispositional changes, all leading to people becoming more happy, resilient, and healthy individuals.

But if you seek out a relationship while still in this growing process, the matching theory of attraction suggests that you will find a partner who is closest in characteristics to who you were when you met. That is, you may start a relationship with a person with poor communication skills or trouble regulating their emotions.

In this way, many people sell themselves short in their partner selection in early recovery.

Replacement Reward

On a more positive note, one consistent finding in the science of intimate relationships in early recovery is that these relationships can serve as a “replacement reward.” Starting a new relationship can be exciting, fun, and passionate in a way that few other activities can be.

For people new to sobriety, this feeling of reward and excitement is critical to alleviating many of the challenges of early recovery. People who have just broken free from substance use often struggle with experiencing joy in activities that don’t involve drugs or alcohol due to the way substances alter the brain’s reward network.

But an intimate relationship is often rewarding enough to break through this plateau and help people enjoy life again.

Social Connection

An intimate relationship, at its core, is a strong social connection to another person. There have been countless scientific studies showing the benefits of social connection for people new to recovery, and high levels of social support have been linked to reduced risk of relapse.

A healthy, rewarding relationship with a new partner can be a stable source of this support.

Synthesizing the Science

Ultimately, the scientific literature on intimacy and relationships while in recovery comes to the conclusion that starting a relationship is a bit of a gamble.

On the one hand, a healthy and supportive relationship can be incredibly beneficial for your recovery. It provides both social support and a replacement reward and can keep you on the right track to recovery.

An unhealthy relationship, however, can increase your risk of relapse and make your mental health symptoms worse. Starting a relationship with a partner who still drinks or uses drugs, for example, is associated with a substantially higher risk of relapse after leaving treatment.

The possibility of a break-up needs to be considered here, as well. Breaking up with or being broken up with by a new partner can be an incredibly difficult emotional situation, which could lead to cravings or relapse.

How to Have Healthier Intimate Relationships in Recovery

Whether you’re on the side of relationships being a net negative or net positive in recovery, the fact is that relationships happen regardless. Sometimes, you simply can’t rationalize your way out of love. You can, however, learn to have healthier relationships that don’t interfere with your recovery goals by focusing on a few key steps:

Be Open and Honest About Your Recovery

Sometimes, people new to recovery are embarrassed or ashamed of sharing their struggles with a new partner. But being open and honest allows your partner to recognize when a situation may be triggering for you and better support you with your recovery goals.

Foster Healthy Communication Skills

Communication is the heart of any successful relationship. Practice communication skills such as:

  • Active listening
  • Using “I” statements
  • Having empathy
  • Providing and accepting feedback

These communication skills are critical for people in early recovery who may still be dealing with the challenges of substance use for some time.

Don’t Neglect Recovery Work

If you find yourself in a new relationship, don’t let it supersede the activities that help you stay sober. Whether that’s meeting with a therapist, attending support groups, or even engaging in fun and healthy hobbies, make these priorities.

Have Social Supports Outside of Your Relationship

Social connection is a key protective factor against relapse. While your new relationship may be a great source of that social support, having a wide network of people who support you on your journey to recovery can help you in a diverse array of difficult situations.

Get Professional Support at APN

Intimacy and relationships while in recovery can be a challenging topic and often a point of distress or discouragement. If you find yourself struggling with your relationship while in recovery or feel like you need a little extra support in maintaining your abstinence, reach out to the professionals at APN for help.

Our team of addiction treatment providers is here to help people with every possible facet of addiction and mental health recovery. Call one of our team members today at 855.934.1178 or fill out our confidential contact form for more information.


  • Ellis, Bruce, et al. “Effect of Social Support on Substance Abuse Relapse in a Residential Treatment Setting for Women.” Evaluation and Program Planning, vol. 27, no. 2, 2004, pp. 213-221, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2004.01.011. Accessed 25 May 2024.
  • Fisher, Helen E., et al. “Intense, Passionate, Romantic Love: A Natural Addiction? How the Fields That Investigate Romance and Substance Abuse Can Inform Each Other.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 25 Apr. 2016, www.frontiersin.org/journals/psychology/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00687/full.
  • “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Research History, 17 May 2023, www.researchhistory.org/2012/06/16/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs/?print=1.