Cutting Ties with Addicts When in Recovery

People in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction need to take steps to protect their sobriety every day. This often involves severing ties with people who drink or use drugs — even if they're longtime friends. Staying friends with active substance abusers could put you in difficult situations that trigger cravings and lead to relapse.
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People in recovery must re-examine almost every aspect of their life, including the people they surround themselves with. It is crucial for those who are new to recovery to spend time with friends and acquaintances who reinforce their sobriety. Sometimes the best choice is to end friendships with those who put your recovery at risk.

Dr. Steven Melemis, an addiction specialist from the University of Toronto, says getting rid of friends who are using is important for relapse prevention and recovery. But for many people who are new to recovery, ending relationships can be difficult. Sometimes a person’s closest friends have substance use disorders.

It’s usually best to reach a strong point in your recovery before engaging with friends who use drugs or alcohol. Being around these individuals can trigger thoughts or emotions that lead to relapse.

If you decide to stay friends with people who use substances, avoid places and situations where drug or alcohol use may occur. Friends who have active substance use disorders may encourage you to abandon your sobriety and return to unhealthy habits.

While being in recovery does not necessarily mean you have to end past friendships, it’s important to recognize that certain people and situations can increase the risk of relapse. Your recovery is your responsibility, and it’s ultimately up to you to decide how you want to approach it.

Leaving Harmful Friendships Behind

It’s never easy to end friendships. It can be especially difficult when the person is a lifelong friend. In some cases, people need to end relationships with a family member, girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse.

Although it is difficult, ending relationships with people who are detrimental to your recovery is vital to your sobriety. Studies show that friendships play an important role in your success during recovery.

According to a 2002 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, your supportive network’s attitude toward substance use and recovery can have a great impact on the likelihood of future substance use. Multiple studies have found that your friends’ acceptance of substance use is linked to negative sobriety outcomes, and their support for your abstinence is linked to positive sobriety outcomes.

How to End a Friendship

When you realize you need to end a friendship for your own well-being, it can be difficult, awkward and even sad. You may not want to have the conversation even if you know you have to.

The people you’re cutting ties with may not understand why it is happening. They may think they have wronged you in some way.

To make the split easier on both parties, try these approaches:
Allow the friendship to run its course
Gradually reducing your interactions with a person over time is the most peaceful and nonconfrontational way to end a relationship. Eventually, the relationship is phased out of both individuals’ lives.
Avoid hostility
The situation is already hard enough, and adding hostility will only complicate it. Be kind and understanding of your friend’s feelings.
Be honest and direct
If slowly phasing out the relationship is not an option, talk to the person directly. Be honest about the situation and explain why ending the friendship is for your own good. It may be hard to hear, but a good friend will understand your choice and support it.

Sometimes a person’s negative response to your decision will prove that he or she wasn’t as close of a friend as you initially thought. It may be challenging to end relationships, but maintaining your recovery should be your No. 1 priority in life after substance abuse treatment.

Spend Time with Friends Who Support Your Sobriety

People who are new to recovery may find that some friends are more supportive of their sobriety than others. It’s important to strengthen your friendships with those who build up your recovery and to avoid those who do not.

Friends who have active substance use disorders may have difficulty understanding the importance of your sobriety. The very foundation of your friendship may be based on using drugs or drinking together. Re-engaging with these individuals can trigger urges to revert to behaviors that center around substance use.

For most people in early recovery, it is best to avoid friends who drink or use drugs. You may be able to reconnect with these people when you are certain you will turn down any opportunities to use drugs or drink.

Surrounding yourself with people who support you has been linked to positive outcomes for sobriety. A 2002 study by researchers at Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies found that individuals with large social networks made up of friends who are sober or in recovery have a better prognosis after receiving treatment for alcoholism.

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Control the Setting

While the best course of action is to avoid friends with active substance use disorders, it is not always possible. Sometimes you won’t have the option to steer clear of friends or family members who put your sobriety at risk.

One proactive way to avoid relapse is to control the setting in which you interact with these people. For example, you can meet in public rather than at someone’s home or another location where substance use is more likely to occur. You could also plan a sober activity that allows you to have fun without drugs or alcohol.

Another way to control the setting is to bring along a friend who supports your recovery. This reinforces accountability to your recovery and helps you remember that you must remain sober despite the choices and actions of others.

Environmental Triggers Lead to Relapse

Triggers are environmental stimuli that produce cravings to use drugs or alcohol. These cravings can create significant challenges for a person’s recovery that may lead to a slip or relapse.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, friends, family members and other acquaintances can serve as cues for drug cravings. In a 2015 article published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, Melemis stated that individuals often fail to recognize that their behaviors and emotions can set them up for relapse.

People and places associated with past drug or alcohol use can trigger an unconscious response in the brain that produces drug cravings and leads to relapse.

Be Honest About Your Recovery

Being open and honest about your recovery can help make difficult situations easier to manage. If you run into friends who are actively using, tell them about your commitment to sobriety.

The conversation may help them understand your mindset and give them an opportunity to change the way they behave around you. It will let them know that you want to leave substance abuse in your past and be a new and better person in the future.

You should also try to gauge your friends’ responses when you tell them about your recovery. Are they supportive, dismissive or confused? Their responses not only tell you their feelings about your sobriety, but they can also help you judge whether you can continue the friendship in the future.

It may be possible to remain friends with people who are not sober if they support your recovery. Friends who are supportive of your sobriety can help you by not using drugs or alcohol in front of you and by keeping you away from environments that might trigger drug cravings.

If it’s obvious that someone is not supportive of your recovery, it may be time for you to re-evaluate your relationship with that person. While it is tough to leave friends in the past, it is sometimes necessary if you’re committed to maintaining your sobriety and long-term goals for a healthier life.

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Trey Dyer
Content Writer,
Trey Dyer is a writer for and an advocate for substance abuse treatment. Trey is passionate about sharing his knowledge and tales about his own family’s struggle with drug addiction to help others overcome the challenges that face substance dependent individuals and their families. Trey has a degree in journalism from American University and has been writing professionally since 2011.

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