toxic relationship or
In addiction recovery individuals are asked to not engage in a new romantic relationship for the first year of sobriety. WHY? Because new relationships historically result in relapse. The emotional high of getting to know someone, the rush of oxytocin to the brain, falling in deep lust maybe even love, discovering a new body, the laughter, playfulness, sex and passion, and… potentially (I hate to write it because I am an eternal romantic optimist but...) the breakup.
Breakups are hard. With breaking up being a real possibility, it makes sense to warn those in addiction recovery who are learning to connect with themself to not engage in romantic connections. But why are those in the first year of eating disorder recovery not extended the same warning? The first year of sobriety and first year of eating disorder recovery are shockingly similar... and yet no one talks about dating and eating disorder recovery.
The first year of eating disorder recovery is an emotionally volatile period where you are relearning and reconnecting with yourself, working towards changing relationships, creating new friendships and establishing new interests. It’s a tough time, add in the additional ups and downs of a romantic relationship and you’ve got a recipe for relapse. So should we be telling those new to recovery that,
warning: Engaging in New romantic Relationships during Recovery may lead to relapse.
Maybe? But maybe it’s not the new relationship that is the potential threat to recovery but what the relationship is being used to substitute for. The early stages of recovery are a time when you are more vulnerable and this means that there is an increased risk of cross-addictions. This cross addiction is one where the “high” of romance, sex, and relationship take place of the “high” of restriction, binging, purging, exercising and criticizing the body. Many individuals recover from an eating disorder only to find that they compulsively pursue romance, sex, or relationships to feel validated and worthy. These relationships are not healthy for either partner because they are high in emotional turbulence, acting as a substitute and a way to prolong doing the deep spiritual work that real recovery requires.
WARNING: Cross Addiction in Recovery is real & will probably happen to you.
In my early recovery I did all of the things I am writing about. I got into a serious, longterm relationship, that was high in passion, pleasure and emotional fuckery. I was physically looking recovered and genuinely didn’t think about food, body, symptoms OR anything else because all of my thoughts were pin-pointed and laser focused on my relationship. Yup, every single thought in my mind. The relationship was everything to me. And for years he was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. I loved him passionately and fully but I also loved SPINNING on a Friday night over him - alone. Instead of obsessing about my diet and exercise, I obsessed over him, over us, about the relationship and therefore never looked inward.
The relationship began when I was still quite actively engaged in utilizing recovery resources. Just like those recovering from addiction, those in recovery from an eating disorder, like my past self, was experiencing a depletion of receptors in the reward center of the brain therefore making it very difficult for myself or anyone else in recovery to gain pleasure from the simple rewards of life, like a bouquet of flowers, an Italian love song, or watching the sun go to sleep. Depressionor dysthymia can linger for the first few years of recovery and for myself, I found this to be completely true.
During the initial phase of recovery our brain is healing. We are learning to regulate our emotional experience and that is why it is advised to be mindful of any habits that stimulates the dopamine system and gives us that rush of a dopamine high similar to our old eating disorder behaviours.
As a result of these changes in the brain due to engaging in recovery and giving up my primary coping skills (ie. restriction, binging, purging, exercise, addiction, etc.) I was looking for another way to feel good - and maybe you are too? Just as eating triggers the dopamine reward system in the brain, “limerence,” the feeling of falling in “love,” can be a euphoric experience that drives people to extremes. Unless we remain focused on our recovery program and draw on the skills we have learned in treatment, we may find another addictive outlet to find that "high"; whether through drugs, alcohol, sex, relationships, food, or some other compulsive behaviour. All of these behaviours can become a distraction or escape that prevents those of us in recovery from working through the deeper issues. For me, my 'perfect' partner was also the 'perfect' escape.
I needed this relationship at the time because I was attempting to avoid doing the hard work of recovery. Eventually though, when I was ready, after one-two-three or so heartbreaks, I was frustrated and craving a healthy intimate relationship. I wanted this so badly that I was ready to do the deeper work that my recovery required; not for my one day future partner but for myself. I wanted to be the type of partner, I desired. This self work required utter self-compassion and an understanding that there are various phases in the recovery process and that living the life I desired would always require honesty, bravery, and the boldness to never stop striving for self-growth.