Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“Am I Crazy for Starting a Long Distance Relationship with a Recovering Alcoholic?”

I have been involved with a guy for about a year and a half now and we’ve always had a pretty complicated relationship. We met a couple summers ago when I came home from college and had a casual fling until I went back to school. We continued to hook up over the next year whenever I came home for holidays, etc. but we didn’t really keep in touch otherwise and were by no means committed. Then when I graduated, I moved back home and we became official for about three months. During that time, I realized that he was a pretty serious alcoholic and ended the relationship as a result. Then two months after that, he called me to tell me he was going to rehab in Colorado. He has been sober for four months now and continues to live in Colorado. We’ve been reconnecting over the phone and I feel closer to him now than ever. He came and visited a couple weeks ago and it was absolutely perfect and only made me wish that he still lived here. I feel like we are, for all intents and purposes, in a long distance relationship, but have not really discussed it. We have both expressed our desire that the other not sleep with anyone else, or at least be honest about the possibility of it before it actually happens. But we haven’t stated that we are exclusive. I guess my question is: is it unhealthy to be in a relationship with him? He lives halfway across the country and is a recovering alcoholic. But I care about him more than I’ve ever cared about any guy and I don’t want to lose him. Is it unrealistic to try to build a friendship with him at his point?  — Drunk Punch Love


Well, what is it you’re trying to do: build a friendship or build a relationship? It’s not unrealistic to build a friendship with the guy. After all, he’s in a place where he could probably use as many close friends as he can get while he continues his first year of sobriety. But building a relationship with the guy — a relationship you have yet to even openly discuss? Being sexually exclusive without calling yourself “exclusive”? Putting all your eggs in a basket that is far from stable? Well, that just has “disaster” written all over it, if you ask me.

I’m by no means an expert on addiction recovery, but from what I do know it’s not an easy path — especially the first year. It takes an extreme amount of focus and dedication, and while that’s not to say a recovering alcoholic/addict can’t be a good partner eventually, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to invest the kind of dedication and commitment it takes to maintain a healthy, monogamous long-distance relationship — something I do know a little about — while battling the demons one battles in the first year of sobriety. If you really care about this person and want him to get healthy, don’t put that kind of pressure on him. Be his friend for now. Talk on the phone with him, visit with him if you feel like it, but leave expectations of romance and exclusivity off the table. If, in eight months to a year, you’re still feeling like he could be the one, revisit the idea then. But in the meantime, let him focus his energy where it’s most needed: his health. Because if he doesn’t get a handle on it, he won’t be a good partner for you or anyone else.

*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

18 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Amy March 3, 2011, 3:34 pm

    Great advice Wendy! I happen to know a bit about alcoholism recovery (well – maybe my experience didn’t actually involve recovery – but I stayed with my ex-husband for 5 months after a rehab stint that resulted in about 1 month of sobriety). I believe they do need at least a year to focus on themselves and their recovery before they muddy the waters with a relationship. This is the specific advice that is given by AA. Further, a LDR has additional/different pressures than a local relationship and it just sounds like a bad idea for the recovering alcoholic to put himself in that situation. Further – ever hear the saying “How do you know when an alcoholic is lying?…. When his lips are moving”. That was certainly my experience. I wouldn’t want to sign up for that mess again – and think it would be very difficult for me to trust someone in that situation.

    It sounds like you have not fallen victim to codependent behavior as you broke up with him when it became clear he had an alcohol problem, but I’d still recommend really examining your motives to establishing a relationship with someone at this point in their life. Do you feel like you can save him, help him get through this, take care of him, etc.? That’s a typical attitude for a woman that is involved with an alcoholic. Co dependent behaviors are not healthy for the alcoholic or the codependent.

    Another recommendation – regardless of whatever relationship you wish to develop with this guy – consider going to a few Al anon meetings. It’ll give you some food for thought if nothing else. Good luck to you and I wish your friend success in his efforts to achieve and maintain sobriety.

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    • avatar

      demoiselle March 4, 2011, 9:47 am

      Yes! I thought that in AA you were strongly advised not to begin a relationship for a year after getting sober. Perhaps the program the LW’s friend is in does not have that stipulation… but it is also possible that he’s already ignoring a basic contract in his treatment. Not a good sign. I’d try to find out more . . .

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  • avatar

    WatersEdge March 3, 2011, 3:34 pm

    Well, I agree and disagree. I think your relationship is just about right for where he is now. I don’t think you should plan a future with a guy who is in recovery, but you’re in a sticky situation because you obviously care about each other and you were dating before he went to rehab. So if we tell you to back off and let him heal, the nature of human relationships is… you (both) probably won’t do that.

    My honest opinion is that you’d both be better off if you stopped most contact and got back together in a year, after he’s had time to get himself together. Dating someone who’s in recovery can be difficult. Dating anyone who is emotionally unstable is really stressful, because a lot falls on the stable partner to deal with. For example, if he upsets you, you may feel too scared to express that to him because of the possibility that an argument could lead to him drinking again.

    That said, you’re already entangled in this situation. So I agree with Wendy that staying in touch is fine, but don’t get serious.

    Actually overall I think I do agree with Wendy! When I wrote it all out, I think I’m saying the same thing as her.

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  • fast eddie

    fast eddie March 3, 2011, 3:46 pm

    His staying in Colorado after rehab and saying he wants fidelity sounds a bit fishy. LDRs are difficult enough without a recovery going on at the same time. To protect your psychic leave enough of a barrier between you to protect yourself if it doesn’t work out. At the same time he is to be credited with taking responsibility for his addiction and getting treatment. Your relationship with him is part of that treatment and if your affection for him peters out it could cause a relapse. As in any relationship you both have responsibilities to yourselves and each other.

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    • avatar

      Amy March 3, 2011, 3:51 pm

      It’s SO stressful to worry that something you might or might not do could cause a relapse (it wouldn’t be your fault but it’s sure hard to not feel that way). As fast eddie said – what if your affection peters out – would you be OK ending the relationship even though you’d be scared that he could relapse? What about if you want to go see a friend for a long weekend rather than him? What about a million other things? It’s a hard row to hoe – and if you aren’t already committed to someone dealing with alcoholism and trying to maintain sobriety – I just can’t imagine wanting to become involved in such a mess. It’s usually worse on the inside than looking in from the outside – whatever you can imagine life with an alcoholic could be like – it’s probably worse.

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      • avatar

        demoiselle March 4, 2011, 9:46 am

        Or what if he realizes he can make you feel guilty by threatening to start drinking again if you don’t do what he wants?

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      • avatar

        plasticepoxy March 4, 2011, 10:47 am

        I didn’t read that FE was assigning responsibility to the LW for this guy’s happiness/sobriety. Just stating a fact. If he likes the LW and is hoping for more from a relationship with her, and she pulls away, he could have a relapse. Just like if he finds out the family dog died. He also could not. That potential relapse does NOT mean that she should plunge forward in this “relationship” and/or continue with it if she is no longer interested. That’s unhealthy behavior, but acknowledging that she is potentially important to this guy, and their relationship could become a cornerstone for him, is just acknowledgment of fact. He could relapse while they’re in a relationship too.
        I had an alcoholic bf, and fell into enabling and abuse cycles. That doesn’t mean that every alcoholic is going to create a relationship like that, or that the LW is ultimately going to be hurt if she pursues this. It is something to be aware of, as it seems to be a common trend with addicts.
        I would guess that he could still be in treatment, maybe not rehab, but counseling and group meetings of some sort (to explain why he’s still in CO), and he isn’t in a place to be partner in a relationship. I think he needs time to sort himself out.

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      • avatar

        Amy March 4, 2011, 10:56 am

        I don’t think FE is assigning responsibility to the LW – rather that it’s often difficult to be in a relationship with an addict/alcoholic and not fall into those enabling behaviors and put yourself second. You are right – it is NOT anyone else’s responsibility for a relapse but the alcoholic himself – but it doesn’t mean it’s easy to not worry that if you screw up they might go off the deep end again. It’s very unhealthy behavior and it’s a common thread in many alcoholic relationships. She might not experience this – but that odds are not in her favor for a healthy mutually beneficial relationship either.

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      • fast eddie

        fast eddie March 4, 2011, 3:08 pm

        Actually anyone in a relationship with an addict must assume the role of supporting his or her recovery. Al-Anon is an support organization for people who are associated with alcoholics even those in recovery. If the LW does get attached to this guy she’ll have to shoulder some responsibility to help him stay sober, but he has to want that goal for himself.

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      • avatar

        Amy March 4, 2011, 4:10 pm

        I think we may be thinking the same thing – but perhaps saying it differently…

        A person in the relationship with an addict does have a responsibility to support recovery. This is not the same thing as feeling though her actions could send the addict into relapse at any given time. Al anon does a good job of helping those in relationships with an addict(friendships, romantic relationships, parent/child relationships) with this concept. Many people become co dependent and feel that they are the only thing keeping the addict from disaster… that’s not part of a healthy relationship. And one person can’t keep another from relapse… although some common sense things can be done to be supportive.

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  • Heather

    Heather March 3, 2011, 4:35 pm

    My brother was an alcoholic/drug addict/criminal, anything you can think of. And I can tell you right now, while it’s perfectly honorable to want to support him as a friend, I would advise against getting romantically involved. It is an extremely long and tulutuous road, and will likely be very painful for you. I know first hand watching my brother go through it for years was exceptionally difficult and painful. And that’s just a family member. It will drag you down. You can support him the same way as a friend, but you are not doing him or yourself any favors by getting romantically involved when he has so many things to work on.

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    • fast eddie

      fast eddie March 5, 2011, 7:48 pm

      While everything you said is true Heather, if he remains in recovery as it sounds like he’s committed to being so, and she has some idea about what’s in store for them it’s a manageable situation. I know of couples that had successful relationships and dealt with one them being a RECOVERING (operative word there) addict. I’m not eager to put a wet blanket on this on, but to inform them both what to expect. They need to talk about it…a lot. Pre-planning will help make it easier. al-anon.com would be a good place to start.
      -Live long and prosper.-

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  • avatar

    Betty March 3, 2011, 5:52 pm

    Speaking as a woman who dated an alcoholic in a very similar situation, I highly advise not attempting a romantic relationship until he has at least a year of sobriety under his belt. I can only speak to my situation, but it went really badly when we got back together immediately after he became sober. In his mind, I became the only reason he was able to be sober. Without me around, he was convinced he would backslide and drink. It turned into an incredibly unhealthy codependent relationship and was an absolute disaster when I attempted to leave him. LW, if you have any questions about my experience, ask and I would be happy to go into detail!

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  • avatar

    Kerrycontrary March 3, 2011, 7:39 pm

    Even though not all rehabs follow the model of AA, I would follow the one rule of AA which is not to have a romantic relationship for the first year of sobriety. he needs to focus on himself and getting better rather than worrying about your relationship. Furthermore, there is the possibility of him transferring his addiction of alcohol into an addiction of your relationship. It sounds silly but it is a very real possibility. Addicts are addicts for life, and 4 months of sobriety doesn’t seem like enough to conquer or even reasonable control that addictive behavior. Be a friend to him, but wait for the romance. I would also wait for him to come back home. You shouldn’t start a long distance relationship without an endpoint in mind.

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    • Heather

      Heather March 3, 2011, 10:40 pm

      That’s not silly, it’s a very real possibility. Addiction doesn’t always just rest with one thing-it can be part of a personality.

      I would never assume that the person LW is talking about is this way, I just want to warn her to be aware that it’s possible.

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  • avatar

    demoiselle March 4, 2011, 9:43 am

    I have never been in addiction treatment–but I thought it was common practice in recovery that you don’t initiate a new relationship for an extended amount of time after beginning treatment?

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    • avatar

      demoiselle March 4, 2011, 9:49 am

      🙂 Guess I should have read through all the comments above before posting.

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  • avatar

    Lucy March 8, 2011, 2:08 pm

    First, as a kinda-obvious FYI, the AA advice about relationships in sobriety applies to starting a new relationship. A great many people in existing relationships go throuh rehab and get sober, and they aren’t counseled to terminate existing relationships when they do so. However, Wendy’s advice is absolutely spot-on. The next year of his life, especially if this is his first attempt at sobriety, is going to be extremely difficult for him. He will probably relapse at least once – most do, even if they go on to a long period of sobriety. It’s an extremely painful process both for the addict and the people close to them, and more importantly, it can permanently damage the possibility of having a healthy relationship in the future. Repairing that kind of damage is difficult and if you really believe that you might have a future with this guy, it will be far, far easier if you keep a little distance now and just be his friend.

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