Sober Swiping; A Guide to Dating Apps in Early Recovery

In early recovery individuals are faced with a new reality, one that no longer includes a relationship with what they were addicted to.  A relationship which was completely absorbing for various periods of time and intensity, and often abusive and traumatic.  Once free of this addictive relationship emotions resurface, numbness fades, and a sense of self begins to return.  This is an emotional process whether outwardly shown or inwardly hidden.  The quality of this healing process is complicated, and individuals have different trajectories in their journey depending on a number of factors and actions taken.

Now take a brain that is going through all of that and stimulate it with a dating app.  Can you see why this would create complications for some in early recovery?  Yet, this is the reality facing many today as they begin their sobriety.  These individuals remain vulnerable and impulsive to return to old unhealthy behavior cycles that existed when actively using, but now without drugs and alcohol present.  

These applications do not come with an instruction manual on how to navigate them in a healthy way. They are often downloaded by individuals out of curiosity, word of mouth, or seeing others on them.  Some people are able to navigate them without a lot of issue, and others run into trouble and struggle with balance and honesty in how they are impacted by them.

So, the question is how does someone in early recovery navigate dating and work toward healthy intimate and romantic relationships when they are still learning about themselves and is it even possible?

I don’t think there is a one size fits all answer to this question, but the discussion should start somewhere.

Ideally individuals that are vulnerable to old patterns of behavior would learn how to cultivate a healthy relationship with themselves prior to pursuing a romantic one, but this doesn’t often happen.  It is however important to consider what is being prioritized, and to do it with the appropriate professionals.  Individual therapy is a good way to do this and to find someone with expertise in areas that are needed.  Whether that be trauma, sex and love addiction, attachment, co-dependency, low self-worth, anxiety etc.  

For those that are going to use dating apps no matter what it is important to be honest about it. Honesty is foundational in recovery and starting off with dishonesty is not a good set up.  A lot of individuals newly sober are coming out of residential treatment, in outpatient programming, or involved in recovery support groups. Utilize professional settings, be transparent, open, and as honest.  Withholding and keeping secrets does not address relationship dynamics that need to be addressed.  Again, this takes a willingness to change, and that is directly up to each individual.

Look at your motivation for seeking romantic relationships.  Is this something being done to supplement boredom and avoid sitting with yourself, or is it meeting a need for validation?  Honesty will allow those willing to see it, a better understanding of what their true motivation is.  12 step programs have step work that is helpful in finding this truth, but individuals can also seek professional support as mentioned previously.

Listen to suggestions. If a professional suggests that you should work on yourself and remain off dating apps for a period of time than do so. Taking suggestions is a big part on the path to recovery and can be for other areas of your life, if willing to listen and try.  

Accept where you are at. If the truth is that you are not ready for a romantic relationship, but every ounce of your being is telling you that you, “can handle it,” pause and accept that this isn’t something that needs to be figured out immediately.  Acceptance can go a long way in not getting into an analytical philosophy with why and how you are able to be on dating apps and still have balance with your recovery while nourishing a loving relationship with yourself.  

Put some boundaries in place.  Should you be swiping when you need to do daily inventory?  Should you be swiping at 2am?  Should you be swiping and messaging other people immediately after waking up?  Should you be going on a date a day and talking to multiple people at a time? Remember, not too long-ago what life looked like.  Create boundaries.  If going to use a dating app, the when and how is important.  When should you be on the app, and how can you prioritize your personal recovery needs while using it? A suggestion would be to only be on it a few times a day, for a brief amount of time. This can be one of the biggest challenges faced because moderation and balance is not easy to achieve when the apps can provide stimulation, excitement, and distraction.  It would be similar to asking anyone to only use their iPhone for an hour a day.  That being said boundaries are important, and it is a goal to set and work toward.  It will be a good gauge on how healthy you are able to be when on a dating app.

Finally, don’t get lost in the “other people are doing it so why can’t I” state of mind.  Other people may be able to, but just like anything we do not really know what is going on in another person’s world.  People may look like they can do it without a hitch, but the reality may be far from that.  So be true to you.  Demonstrate kindness and compassion for yourself by taking care of yourself. Recovery and the need to treat your addiction is ongoing and trials and tribulations will surface.  It is what you do about them that is key.  

Dating and romantic relationships in early recovery has and will continue to be around.  This is unfortunate in many situations as individuals are usually not able to have a healthy, romantic relationship with another person when they are still working on having a secure relationship with themself. Be safe, don’t underestimate the power of addiction, and the many ways it can show up.  Be honest, open, and willing to take suggestions.  Be vulnerable around areas in your life that are a struggle. Seek professional help for support in these areas and be ok with where you are at.  Remember, being in a healthy place attracts others in a healthy place, and it is ok to wait until you are ready.  You deserve it, and so does the person you will eventually meet.  


Aaron Austin, LPC, LCDC