For some, discovering that your new love interest is in recovery for alcoholism or drug addiction might be a red flag. That was never the case for Karen Nagy.
When she first started dating a man in recovery, she welcomed the challenge to be by his side on his path to sobriety. But as their relationship evolved, Nagy desperately wanted advice from someone who had walked in her shoes. She was unable to find a resource, so she decided to write her own book, “(Girl) Friend of Bill: 12 Things You Need to Know About Dating Someone in Recovery” (Hazelden).
It’s essentially a manual for people not in recovery who are dating or married to those who are. (The publisher, Hazelden, operates treatment centers across the U.S.) The title references those in Alcoholics Anonymous, who often call themselves “Friends of Bill W.,” in reference to Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA.
Nagy offers her experiences dating men in recovery and shares stories of couples embarking on the 12 steps together. Below is an edited transcript of an interview with her.
What common misconceptions about people in recovery do you dispel?
Several people said to me, when I mentioned I was writing this book, “Oh, what are you going to say? Run!” It’s sometimes said that you can’t have a good relationship with somebody in recovery. I hope the book dispels that myth. You can work it out. You have tools to help you.
Do you believe certain types of people are drawn to those in recovery?
I think people who come from addictive families are used to the patterns they see in people in recovery. They’re familiar with the behavior, and it’s comforting for them. This can be OK as long as those dating addicts have their act together. This can be detrimental if they’ve never stepped outside themselves and noticed their own behaviors. … Codependency and enabling can be bad for relationships.
How do you recognize if you’re being codependent or enabling?
If you have certain boundaries you realize are being crossed, that’s a sign of codependency. Another one is if you start to change yourself in order to be with that person. I would change my likes and dislikes according to my boyfriend’s preferences. I just gave in too soon. Enabling can happen by either ignoring a situation or stepping in too much.
You write about the need to attain emotional sobriety. Can you explain?
Emotional sobriety is freedom from relying on others to make you happy or sad. It means you’re not governed by your emotions and you don’t have unreasonable expectations of others. Many addicts don’t have it because their emotional development stopped at (the) age they became addicted. They have to relearn how to use their emotions in a healthy way.
With any addiction, there is the risk of relapse. How can a partner best prevent that from happening?
Work with your partner to draw up a list of warning signals, places that might make them uncomfortable or things, like a particular song or smell, that might set them off. It would be some sort of a checklist that they should have in their minds already if they’re attending a 12-step program. But be careful not to be too enabling or codependent about it.
What’s the best advice for someone dating a person in recovery?
Have patience. Recovery is a lifelong process. Understand the relationship will always be somewhat about the other person because addiction is a chronic disease. Honestly assess your relationship and ask yourself if it’s going to work for you.