Having a strong support system is crucial to the recovery process but there are significant challenges to bringing your friends into your journey, particularly if you’re used to socializing with them over drinks. However, friendship, in particular, offers relational opportunities that often can’t be found with family members, professional colleagues, or social acquaintances. Friendship has been linked to positive health outcomes, both physical and mental, such as positive self-esteem, increased levels of happiness, better immune functioning, and a longer life expectancy. 

A study on the impact of relationships to those in a recovery program found friendship to be the most impactful type of social support in maintaining sobriety.

Not only is friendship responsible for health and wellbeing in general, but it also has a particularly profound impact on those in recovery.  A study on the impact of relationships to those in a recovery program found friendship to be the most impactful type of social support in maintaining sobriety. That’s right: The most impactful. The researchers found that support from friends was the greatest predictor of whether those who went through the treatment program had consumed alcohol four months after the program’s conclusion. Although family support was found to be critical for children and adolescents, this type of support lessened in significance as one ages. Those with substance use disorder also tend to have fewer friendships than their counterparts without, which might also speak to the difference social support can make in maintaining sobriety. 

How does friendship benefit recovery?

So we know that friendships can benefit recovery, but in what ways? A study of people who had been diagnosed with SUD and had maintained recovery for at least 5 years found that having positive social influences helped to “protect” them from negative ones. In essence, friendships prevent vulnerability to social influence that would lead one away from sobriety. 

There’s also the role that friendship plays in influencing health behavior. Having strong social bonds can increase one’s psychological well being, which can then influence the health and interpersonal choices you make. Having strong ties causes you to take measures to protect and maintain those ties, which then leads to positive health behaviors. Having relationships, status, and self-esteem on the line influences your likelihood of everything from going for a run to binging Netflix, and yes, to having a drink. This is how friendship can act as a shield from engaging in negative behaviors, as it incetiveces you to maintain your support system.

The difference between generalized and specific social support. 

Sold on the benefits of friendship? Let’s talk about how you can pursue healthy ones. In examining the types of social support that enhance recovery, researchers differentiate between generalized and specific social support structures.

General social support is composed of the quantity of people in one’s network, as well as the significance of the support given. On the other hand, specific social support relates to the quality of the support that is given. Research has found that general support provided by friends has the biggest correlation when it comes to not drinking. Surprisingly, that same study also found that friends who specifically support your recovery from substance abuse are not what helps you stay sober in the long run. Instead, what helps is having a close, tight relationship with a few friends who provide support in general. 

In other words, you need friends to support you as a person — which includes supporting recovery as well as all of the other aspects of your life

How to pursue healthy friendships in recovery.

Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of friendship, the question becomes: How do you determine what friendships you should pursue or what friends you should keep? As you might expect, many recovery programs emphasize surrounding yourself with positive influences on sobriety. Dr. Josh King of the Center of Motivation and Change says that it’s best to include as many people as you can into your support system. “Research has shown time and again that having a robust support network can significantly reduce the odds of relapse,” he wrote. “To best achieve one’s recovery goals, it’s best to involve as many people as possible, even though it can feel like the exact opposite of what you want to do.”

If you’re wondering how to evaluate if you can keep old relationships, rebuild friendships, or if you should go about looking for new ones, let’s talk about how to apply the research we’ve covered. A good first step is to start by asking yourself which friends you have that you bond with over alcohol versus which ones are supportive of your recovery, or are sober themselves. If you don’t know which friends will be supportive, Dr. King suggests reaching out and giving them clear, specific guidance on what you need. This will clearly spell out which of your friends will be good additions to your support system. Then, consider giving them educational resources and toolkits, like this guide to substance abuse or this recovery resource guide from SAMHSA. 

Where to find new friends in recovery. 

As far as looking for new friends, getting involved in your community, volunteering, or even joining a new gym — once all of these things are safe to do — can be great ways to find new connections. Deanna deBara wrote in The Fix about her struggle to meet new people as a sober 32-year-old living in a new city, which forced her to get creative. She suggests trying everything from MeetUp groups, to workout classes, even just striking up goold old-fashioned conversation at the grocery store or in line at a coffee shop. While we’re still living in COVID-19 times, you can also attend Tempest’s virtual Bridge Club or find other fun ways to socialize during quarantine. If you’re more of the introverted type, you can use Instagram to search hashtags like #soberlife and #sobrietyyissexy to find like-minded people to connect with or attend a virtual recovery meeting. Many of these efforts will involve persistence and getting out of your comfort zone, so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to build your network.

All in all, friendships are critical to having both a healthy life and strong recovery. While recovery or sobriety can feel incredibly isolating, it’s important to make every effort to not actually be alone, by bringing people along for the ride with you. No matter who you are or where you’ve been, recovery is not only possible, but so are incredible bonds. 

As we’ve seen, friends are a crucial part of your success in recovery, so putting forth as much effort into creating and maintaining these relationships can pay off as much as going to meetings, having a sponsor, or going through treatment. Recovery, like friendship, is about the journey and not the destination.