How Does a Romantic Connection Look Different in Recovery?

By Eric Dorsa

Romantic connection in recovery can be both exhilarating and terrifying. It requires vulnerability, patience, trust in self, boundaries, and work.

“I think it’s time you start dating.”

I remember my sponsor saying these words to me during our weekly meet-up. I was both excited and terrified. The romantic vulnerability was something that I had long desired and equally avoided in the 5 years I had been sober. Along with the excitement of dating, romance, connection, and intimacy came the real fear of rejection, heartbreak, and losing a sense of myself in another person. Was I ready? Could I trust myself and my recovery and weather the storms of dating?

My sponsor then reminded me that I got sober to live a full life of connection and that, unlike when I was in my addiction, I had a community of people, friendships, and a relationship with myself that would help guide me in trying to form new relationships.

Healing my relationship with myself

Much of my addiction and eating disorder was fueled by shame -- the thought and feeling that I was either not enough or too much for people. I felt like I was just inadequate at life. This judgment greatly impacted and lowered my self-esteem and further fueled the eating disorder and substance use cycles. My substance use and eating disorder made all my relationships dysfunctional. I began to lose sight of who I was, my goals, my emotions, boundaries, and my identity. I felt like I was my addiction and my eating disorder. I had no idea that what I was struggling with was a sense of shame and worthlessness. When I began my recovery journey, I needed to work on healing my relationship with myself.

This self-centered fear that I was not enough made it incredibly difficult to show up to new experiences and develop real intimacy in my relationships. I needed to learn how to take care of myself. I began working on my relationship with myself, how I talked to myself and about myself. I began to share my shame with others in the rooms of recovery. I learned that I was not alone. I learned that I could heal. I learned how to build self-esteem by doing estimable acts like taking care of myself.

Showing up in relationships was allowing people to see the real me and not abandoning my needs or boundaries because of a fear of abandonment or people-pleasing to feel good enough or deserving of having needs. I put my recovery first because without my recovery everything else in my life would not be possible. By learning to take care of myself I was able to show up and be present with others that I loved and cared about. I was able to set boundaries and practice shame resilience when needing to walk away from people and situations that pressured me to compromise my values and my recovery.

Intimacy or into-me-see

Before recovery I thought intimacy and vulnerability meant telling everybody everything, leaving me open to judgment, confusion, and shame. Today I know that intimacy is built with trust and over time. I have the right to withhold parts of my story and experiences until I feel safe enough to share. I don’t owe everyone all of me. This has become a boundary especially when dating. It is not easy or black and white.

Today I practice letting go of outcomes and checking my expectations when dating, trying to make new friends, or engaging in new experiences with new people. My sponsor reminded me that intimacy is letting people see me as I am and letting go of who I think I need to be in order to be “enough.” Shame tells me that I need to be perfect while vulnerability and intimacy tell me that I am already enough, I am worthy of connection with boundaries, and my needs in relationships are worthy of being met. The work of recovery to learn who I am, to let go of the shame of where I come from, and to meet my needs and take care of myself has shown me that I don’t have to force connection or let other people determine my worthiness or my value.

Taking my time

This is my mantra when starting any new relationship whether it’s friendship or romance. Being in recovery I have learned that life has a paradox, meaning two things that seem opposites of each other can be true at the same time.

One example is that a key tool of my recovery is being honest with others about my recovery while also protecting my recovery. For me, this means that there is a time to be forthcoming. I don’t hide the fact that I don’t drink. I do, however, wait until there is enough of a relationship or interest to reveal that I am in recovery. Again, intimacy is built with trust and over time.

Being in recovery I must take my time and learn about someone. I get to know them and show up with honesty about my intentions. This vulnerability is hard, and it keeps me true to my values and my identity. There are fewer expectations and feelings of abandonment or rejection if things don’t work out. Sure, I experience those feelings. Today I get to use my recovery and my tools to navigate them and not place my worth in whether a particular person likes me.

Far from perfect

When I was in my addiction and my eating disorder I was plagued by feelings of shame and perfectionism. I would often lose myself in meeting the needs of others to feel worthy of their connection. When I began dating, I was scared that I would relapse or lose myself in someone. This was something I had witnessed in others. The feelings of rejection would be too much if I was vulnerable and allowed myself to need or want someone.

It was hard enough letting go of old relationships that were centered around my addiction and low self-esteem. Putting my recovery first has allowed me the room to grow and understand that I do not have to be perfect to be loved or valued. Developing intimacy with friendships has shown me that I can trust myself and others with the vulnerable parts of my story. Today I am proud of who I am and what I have gone through in my life and journey.

Today I know that the vulnerable parts of my story are worthy of being known and seen. When I catch myself feeling like I must be perfect I know that it is just shame. I get curious and I share it with those that I love and trust, and I find my way back to myself. I know today that I don’t have to be perfect to be lovable. I am lovable and can love.

lived experiences

*Note: This content is reflective of our advocates’ lived experiences. It is intended for informational purposes only. These pieces do not provide medical advice, nor are they substitutes for professional medical diagnosis or treatment.

Written by

Eric Dorsa

Eric Dorsa is an LGBTQ advocate, actor, comedian, and drag queen currently living in Chicago, Illinois. As an advocate for the LGBTQ community, Eric travels around the country sharing their…