Can I Have a Real Relationship After Mental Health or Addiction Treatment?

Young couple hugging while looking out of window

Starting new relationships, after a course of mental health therapy or substance abuse treatment, is a touchy subject, mainly because there’s no empirical data to suggest when the time is right for a new relationship. Some clinicians and published experts in the field use the one-year mark as the baseline for starting a new relationship, but of course, a tremendous number of variables can alter that timeframe. In this article, we will discuss relationships and the signs that you, or a loved one, may be ready to move forward.

What Do We Mean By Relationships?

When it comes to mental health or addiction, a host of relationships can end up tense, frayed, or completely severed. This is the nature of mental illness, which isolates individuals and turns them against those who want to help. Many patients have lost their families and friends for one reason or another. Ultimately, some of these relationships can be healed, while others will likely be lost to the disease. While we often focus on romantic relationships after a course of treatment, they are only one part of a healthy, social life that may include close friends, acquaintances, and family.

The other person in the relationship must also be considered. While you may be different after therapy, the counterpart with whom you wish to rekindle a romance or restart a friendship may have problems and difficulties themselves. Their concerns may be very similar to yours, or completely opposite. And, as we know, few people give themselves the opportunity for genuine introspection. So, while you may see an obvious concern, they may not. It’s important to remember that it truly does take both people to be in a healthy place for a relationship to be successful.

Why Do Relationships Fail Early on in Recovery?

Most patients who complete treatment have come to the realization that they have a problem and need help. This realization often comes after years of suffering; and often after patients have been to several addiction treatment or mental health centers before finally getting their legs under them. Patients will look at their lives with an entirely new perspective during this early stage of recovery and mental wellness. This is a beautiful and exciting thing, but this is also potentially daunting. People in early recovery will have their entire lives to re-calibrate and repair; at this point, they are unlikely to be ready for a romantic relationship, and even their previous friendships may be altered by their new perspective and needs.

During this time, patients that actively seek deep and meaningful relationships often do so to help themselves as they climb out of what could be best described as a hole. However, this often creates codependency, where the recently recovered patient becomes inappropriately attached and dependent upon their friend or partner. This is unhealthy for both people in the relationship and often ends poorly. If allowed to flourish, codependent relationships can lead to major setbacks for both people in the relationship.

Patients in early recovery may also believe they need to find a specific type of person. They may have been touched emotionally by a clinician or friend in treatment and want to find someone of similar compassion or empathy, believing it is their ticket to a happier life. But once again, making these decisions early in recovery is hasty and doesn’t usually result in a healthy relationship.

Mental health and addiction issues also can create problems with trust. The genesis of many of these concerns is trauma, which is often perpetrated by a close family member, whether physical, sexual, or emotional. When the bonds of trust are broken, it becomes much harder to repair. If the trauma is continuous, it can take years for the traumatized individual to trust again. But relationships are based on trust, and if, especially early on, the patient cannot trust their friend or loved one, the relationship is doomed to fail. However, it is important to remember that trust goes both ways. Years of broken trust as a result of mental health or addiction problems also make friends and family members less likely to trust again. While the individual in recovery knows that they have changed, it will take time for those around them to come to that realization as well.

How Do You Know When You’re Ready?

One of the best indicators that you are ready for a romantic relationship, or even friendship, is when you can give your life over to a higher power. This does not need to be ‘God’ in the traditional sense, and no single religion can fill this void for everyone. Instead, it’s a profound spiritual admission that you’re not the center of the universe and can’t control everything coming your way. Humility makes you realize that your way is not always the best and that you must consider other people’s feelings, concerns, and struggles if you want to relate to them on any level beyond the superficial. This realization opens you up to having a trusting relationship based on honesty. This is not to say that every honest relationship will succeed, but virtually every relationship feeds on trust and they cannot succeed when honesty does not exist.

From a romantic side, a good barometer for knowing when you are ready for a romantic relationship is when you are comfortable being “alone.” Being comfortable without a romantic partner is a huge step, especially for patients who have suffered from codependency or have been enabled in the past. Being comfortable in your own skin and with yourself allows you to approach any relationship with an open mind and not fear of whether it will end – after all, that fear only serves to create an environment of suspicion, anxiety, and constant concern.

Does Treatment Enhance Your Future Relationships?

This is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, one of the critical outcomes of treatment should be an improvement in communication skills. This can improve what was once a skewed response in, or to, issues in one’s relationships. In relationships in the past, you may have been unable to or at least had difficulty with, expressing your feelings and emotions. Therapy can work wonders in creating a healthier foundation from which you can build a healthy relationship. The question then is, does this get you to the baseline of being able to establish healthy relationships like everyone else, or does it actually put you at an advantage? Ultimately, it comes down to how you use and apply the skills and tools you have learned.

Of course, this leads to a fundamental question: Is there such a thing as a normal relationship?

Here, again, the answer is very nuanced. The best insight we can offer is that all relationships are ultimately flawed simply because each of us, as humans, is imperfect. There will always be differences of opinion, good days and bad, and compromises that must be made. This is not to say that one or both participants in the relationship should live with toxicity or significant concerns. However, when both approach the relationship rationally, openly, honestly, and humbly, there’s a good chance that the relationship will flourish, unlike one’s relationships prior to the work they put in through therapy.

This is truly one of the great benefits of therapy and bright spots in what is otherwise a very dark time in our lives. As we come out of these difficult experiences, potentially through joining a support group or working the 12 steps, we learned to be humble and honest. So, it very well may be that someone in therapy has an advantage over someone who hasn’t yet had these realizations, or opportunities.

What can someone do to accelerate the process toward normal and functional relationships early in recovery or soon after their mental health treatment?

First, the patient must develop a relationship with themselves, which requires honesty about their shortcomings, without self-deprecation or beating themselves up for past or future mistakes. We all make mistakes and fail daily, and giving ourselves the same grace as a friend or a loved one is a critically important first step.

This self-care is far more than positive self-affirmations. It also means a rededication to physical health. Physical health plays a significant role in our mental health and our ability to stay away from the substances that may have caused us so much pain and suffering. It all begins with proper sleep, exercise, and diet. Deficiencies in any of these can lead to physical and psychological problems and can also wreak havoc on the hormonal system, making it chemically challenging to keep up the good work.

Medication Management

The importance of medication cannot be overstated. This is why our program prioritizes medication education during and after treatment. Appropriately prescribed medications offer psychological stability that can lay the foundation for an upward current of success upon which the patient can build day after day and month after month.

Accept Help and Support

As mentioned above, humility goes a long way. While you may be feeling like a new person, it’s important to remember that you didn’t get there by yourself, and getting proper support matters for long-term health, especially when faced with future challenges. Support comes in many forms. Psychological help from a therapist can provide you with resources and skills that will benefit you for the rest of your life. Having a primary care physician and medical specialists that can address and treat any physical problems may also be a critical component of keeping your life intact. Spiritual support can come from religious or secular figures that may inspire you to reach higher and try harder. Last, but certainly not least, family and friends must be a part of your foundation of support. These are the people that make up the bulk of your day-to-day interactions and are likely the people that want to see you succeed the most. Don’t discount the importance of having these people around you to edify you and create a solid foundation from which you can leap forward. Also, be mindful that support goes both ways and through recovery, you can finally be there for them when they inevitably go through a difficult time. Your experience and perspective may provide them with comfort that they otherwise would not have received.

The Bottom Line

Relationships are complex; there is no single relationship that you, or even a clinician, could point to that would be considered normal. We must adapt to the people and circumstances around us to navigate the difficult realities of our relationships. This is challenging. That’s why we know that relationships early on after mental health treatment or substance abuse therapy must be approached slowly and carefully. Remember that the process toward new and stronger relationships with family, friends, or romantic partners is slow and steady, not a sprint.

Patients and their families can get the utmost in mental health and dual diagnosis care at The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center. We welcome anyone suffering from a mental health condition that needs professional help and we do so with three levels of care: Outpatient, Intensive Outpatient (IOP), and Partial Hospitalization. Reach out to our admissions team to get more information about what is right for you or your loved one.


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