Romantic Relationships in Recovery
By Rabbi Shais Taub
There's an old piece of sage advice that old-timers in recovery like to say: "No relationships for the first year." If you hang around long enough, and watch enough people come and go, you'll see that the old-timers are right.
But why is getting intimately involved with another person so damaging in early recovery? And if it is a threat in early recovery, why does it somehow become all right later on?
All addiction is essentially addiction to self. Recovery is a spiritual growth process that enables the self-centered person to become available to make connections outside of self.
In other words, in active addiction, every connection is ultimately a connection to one's own ego. Even when it seems like I am connecting to you, I am really only connecting back to myself. It's like the old fable of the salmon who gets caught in the fisherman's net and hears him exclaim, "Oh great! A salmon! I will bring this to the king because the king loves lox." The salmon thinks to himself, "This fisherman is not very nice. He has taken me from my home. But he says that the king loves lox. The king will love me and be kind to me." The fisherman rushes to the palace and shows his catch to the palace guard, who immediately opens the doors, saying, "I will take you immediately to the royal chef, because the king loves lox." The salmon thinks, "I hope they get me to this king who loves lox already." They run to the royal kitchen, and the royal chef shouts with glee, "Bring the fish to me! You know how the king loves lox." Again, the salmon thinks, "Finally, when this lox-loving king arrives, I will be saved." The king enters the kitchen and watches with relish as the chef guts the fish on the table. The salmon suddenly realizes that he is to be the king's lunch and, with his last breath, mutters to himself, "These humans don't know what love is! They say the king loves lox, but he only loves himself."
The inner addict is like the king in this story, and the addict's "beloved" is like the salmon. The addict is incapable of being truly intimate with another person; the closer the addict tries to get to another, the closer he is to himself. This explains a seeming paradox: One of the best things an addict can do to start recovering is to hang out with and befriend other addicts, while one of the worst things an addict can do to start recovering is to become romantically involved with other addicts.
As the addict recovers, however, and learns life skills that enable him to move away from complete self-interest, it becomes increasingly possible for him to actually become close to another person. One of the ultimate objectives of recovery is to be able to form loving relationships with others. The ability to be involved in a romantic relationship is not just an indication of good recovery, but one of the goals of recovery.
Many times people stagnate in what we might call "the middle stages" of recovery. They basically get their lives together, but they never become capable of being involved in an intimate, loving, committed relationship. Many, unfortunately, are jaded by past heartbreaks; they say, "I'll never love again." That is, in my opinion, a great loss. Just as addiction is a destroyer of intimacy, recovery is the greatest catalyst for intimacy. Good recovery means good relationships. Indeed, I would venture to say - although this may be outside the scope of this blog post - that every troubled marriage, even when no addictive behavior can be identified, is lacking recovery.
In the end, it all depends on how you see it. If romantic love is something we see as "icing on the cake of recovery," then we're probably not ready for it. If, on the other hand, we see an intimate relationship as an obligation toward the god of our understanding, then not only are we ready for it, we are actually required to give of ourselves in this manner.