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Dealing with Relational Heartbreak in Recovery

Dealing with Relational Heartbreak in Recovery

Heartbreak that comes from the loss of a family or romantic relationship can feel unbearable, and can easily lead to a relapse

As Neil Sedaka sang, “Breakin’ up is hard to do” – and he sure was right. No matter what the circumstances, it is hard when someone you love leaves. After a romantic breakup or loss of a family member through divorce or other major change, a person’s life can be turned upside down, where every day feels impossible to get through. It is normal to have these feelings at first.

If you have battled an addiction and are in recovery, all of life’s ups and downs may already be difficult, but adding in the loss of someone dear to you will be especially challenging. You may feel sad, lost, empty, alone and angry — all emotions that can send you out of control and toward self-destructive behavior.

By addressing and conquering the addiction, you have already faced very difficult days and decisions and are living your life “one day at a time.” The person who ended the relationship with you may have been like a rock to you, helping you get through those dark days and you wonder how you will do it without that person. But you can.

It’s Important to Be Ready for Relapse

To begin your new life without that person, recognize that it is going to be harder for you as a person in recovery than it would be for a person who does not have a history of addiction. Your old habits that provided temporary comfort before you got sober, will pop up in your mind quickly, like old friends ready to help ease your pain. This is why it is important to get out in front of it, know it is coming for you, and prepare to deal with your grief in other ways.

Unless you are aware of the potential dangers, you may fall prey to them without even realizing it. You may begin to withdraw from friends and family, be unable to concentrate on your work, become depressed, and your self-esteem may plummet. Time often helps ease pain, but in the short-term, many damaging effects can take hold.

To help at the outset and to ensure that you will not relapse, try these suggestions[i]:

  • Seek support from loved ones.
  • Seek support from a therapist.
  • Be realistic about bouncing back. It will take time.
  • Appreciate your steps, however small.
  • Get active.
  • Avoid unhealthy behaviors.

Counseling Can Help You Avoid Relapse

A study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles,[ii] looked at why people relapse and whether there were any differences on this point between the genders. The study showed that women in drug abuse treatment relapse less frequently than men do, at least partly because women are more likely to engage in group counseling.

In another study,[iii] Dr. James McKay and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia found that women in treatment for cocaine addiction were more likely than men to report negative emotions and interpersonal problems before they relapsed. The men, on the other hand, were more likely to report positive experiences prior to relapsing and were more likely to engage in self-justification and rationalizing afterward.

“One strategy is to take action quickly as your mood starts to deteriorate rather than waiting until you are in a really bad mood and then trying to do something about it,” Dr. McKay says. “If it’s a small problem, planning an enjoyable activity might be all that is needed. If, however, it’s a serious depression, medication or psychotherapy might be necessary.”

It is important to get support from trusted places as soon as possible after the loss. “Substance abuse, multiple sexual partners, and avoidance of vulnerable emotions can lead to serious health issues, long-term health problems, and potential mental health issues,” Dr. Meredith Hansen said.[iv]

Re-focus

Even someone who has been in recovery a long time can be blindsided by life events so that they think first about the substance that used to be their crutch. Brian Cuban describes on PsychCentral.com[v] that after his beloved dog died, how he considered suicide, alcohol and drugs. Instead, he was able to realize what was happening before it was too late.

“First, I re-focused on my 12-Step program,” he writes, “in which I had, frankly, become too comfortable, and thus, complacent and negating. Then, I focused on being honest with my fiancée, family and therapist — finding the support I was too ashamed and afraid to look for in eating disorders and addiction, but, in sobriety I knew I had. I am no longer ashamed to talk about it.”

These are some of the things you will need to avoid that knee-jerk reaction toward your former substance of choice:

  • Honesty.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Coping skills to deal with the moment in a positive way.
  • Using the tools you were given in recovery.[vi]

Talk to Someone

If you are in recovery you already know how to live one day at a time. Adding the sadness and grief of a breakup will challenge that, but it is not impossible. Use the knowledge that you learned in treatment and talk to someone to increase your chances of maintaining sobriety. Our admissions coordinators are available to you 24 hours a day, seven days and week and would be glad to discuss it with you.


[i] “Help on Healing from Heartbreak,” by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., PsychCentral.com, Nov. 28, 2012, http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/11/28/help-on-healing-from-heartbreak/

[ii] “Men and Women in Drug Abuse Treatment Relapse at Different Rates and for Different Reasons,” by Steven Stocker, NIDA Notes, National Institute on Drug Abuse, http://archives.drugabuse.gov/NIDA_Notes/NNVol13N4/Relapse.html

[iii] Id.

[iv] Supra, note 1.

[v] “When Eating Disorder Thoughts Blindside You,” by Brian Cuban, PsychCentral.com, Sept. 4, 2105, http://blogs.psychcentral.com/cubanity/2015/09/when-eating-disorder-thoughts-blindside-you/

[vi] Id.