Dating can be therapy (or how I figured out I have a yen for men with addictive personalities)

Standard-issue advice on post-divorce dating is to date around before you settle down again. All the usual reasons: Don’t make any life-altering decisions in the midst of chaos. Don’t throw your children into another relationship too soon. Etcetera.

My own dating taught me another important reason: If you date a whole bunch, and you pay attention, you can see trends emerge. Dating helps you figure out your issues while you’re searching for a meaningful relationship. You have to figure out your issues if you’re not going to repeat your marriage. So dating around can be great therapy. And since you’re not supposed to have sex with your therapist, dating is better than therapy.

I just got bitch-slap of a therapy session last week. Over the past month I dated the loveliest guy. A successful artist 10 years older than me with a school-aged son and a knack for understated chivalry, I found him to be both fascinating and easy to be with. He seemed happy, in a uniquely authentic way, casually mentioning how grateful he is for various work projects, or how much he enjoys his clients, quoting funny things his kid says. I liked how he was direct but not weird. “I had a great time and I can’t wait to see you again,” he’d message on the way home from a date (dudes: pay attention. That is the prefect post-date text!). I found him very sexy.

Perhaps even more than his company, I liked his life. I liked the way he described conversations with his elderly grandfather, and learning Justin Timberlake songs to play on his guitar for bedtime. I admired the way he found a way to make a lot of money on his own time so he could devote the majority of his hours to his family and helping friends with their projects. When I saw his charming, stylish home I couldn’t help but have girl thoughts and imagine a fabulous pad we might share with our collective brood. I will relinquish total control and allow him to take over the décor, I thought – girl-style.

But from the first date I had a visceral repulsion to his drinking. It was a funny thing. I don’t normally pay attention to how much someone drinks. I like to have a drink or two – I’ve been mostly a lightweight since my binge-drinking college days – and I’m mostly libertarian about these things. But there was something about a second Bloody Mary over a first-date brunch that hit me in the gut. And a subsequent dinner, when the meal and its couple of cocktails was coming to its organic end, the natural thing would be to request the check and exchange a knowing glace. Instead he abruptly snagged the server’s attention and ordered another, not inviting me to join him. Later, I found myself counting exactly how many he’d consumed. Likewise when, last minute, he suggested we change plans and meet for lunch before the museum, I thought: WTF? Does he need to get buzzed at the beginning of the date? I’d never thought like that before.

Yet I was having such a good time. I stopped seeing other guys and rarely checked my online dating profile. Even when, while driving me home after a private seven-course dinner at his friend’s yet-to-open restaurant, to which he brought two bottles BYO and did a shot as we had beers beforehand, he blew through a red light.

And then a month into our relationship while lounging in his bed and he told me he’d been a heroin addict. Heroin. I fancy myself an open mind. I can play it cool. But heroin is very much outside of my paradigm. “It was remarkable,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Those were my most profitable years.”

“Were you drinking before I came over?” I asked. “I can smell it on your breath.”

“I started on the wine,” he said.

I thought back to the men I’ve been involved with since my divorce. One, admittedly compulsive, decades before had had a cocaine habit. He kicked it overnight when his then-girlfriend gave an ultimatum. There were at least three guys who had been in AA for many years, and one fling, who, in hindsight, was likely a sex addict. My ex did not have any overt addictions, but he – like me – comes from a long line of  addictive personalities. Different men, different times, yes. But there is a common denominator: me. I attract and am attracted to men with addiction issues. I had not realized that before.

The artist and I got dressed. He went downstairs and grilled lamb chops. Finished the lemon aioli and asparagus. He’d scrubbed the house, set the table. Poured the Cabernet into small, vintage tumblers. We sat kitty-cornered from each other. He chatted about the art crowding the walls – some by famous folk artists. Some by friends or his young son, others of his own.

“I taste anchovies in the salad dressing,” I said.

“I remembered you said you like anchovies.”

“This is so nice,” I said. I put down the bone I’d been gnawing on. The wine was gone. I put my bare foot on his lap and faced him. He touched my toes. “The food is delicious. I feel very cared for.”

He reached for the liquor cabinet. Poured himself something straight and clear. He did not offer me one.

“I appreciate you telling me about your past,” I said. “I am cool with that. But it has seemed to me you drink a lot. That has been bothering me.”

“I haven’t taken any drugs for 13 years,” he said. His tone was neutral. “I do drink most days. And what you’ve seen is the most I usually drink. It’s up to you if you want to go out again.”

“I like you so much,” I said finally. “I was hopeful, but I can’t get involved if you have a problem now. I’m sorry.”

I looked at the table. The plates and glasses were empty. It was time to go.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Peter on November 20, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Strong call. Good for you.

    • Emma on November 20, 2013 at 10:07 am

      Thank you

  2. Louise on November 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    Yikes. Tough call. And gave me goose bumps!

  3. Yasmin on November 20, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Good Gosh they sound like my experiences! So far I have been in relationships with an alcoholic/ coke addict (got him to NA & rehab), sex addict (have a child with him), gambling (well he was using the gambling to help his drug habit when funds were low) & alcoholic & crack & heroin addict. He unfortunately died after me being with him for 6 years & in and out of rehab. Ive always thought I was straight – no addictions then realised I was addicted to “addicts”. I thought I could change them – Ive broken the habit right now. Looking back utter madness & pain. After spending 5 years on my own my first relationship ended up with an addict type – its the sick twisted attraction, but I walked away as I knew what was good for me. Well done you without sounding patronising!

  4. Pamlet on November 20, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Great post, Emma. Good for you for taking the reigns and doing what was right for you, not trying to “fix him” as so many of us (*points to self*) have tried to do with the addicts in our life.

  5. Anna @authenticparenting on November 20, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Great post!
    Good for you for not falling into his net.

  6. Emma on November 21, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Thanks everyone. I still think about him.

  7. Pauline Gaines on November 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    Not only am I a believer in dating A LOT before settling down, I’m also a believer in dating for several months before calling someone a boyfriend and posting photos on Facebook. I see so many divorcees get serious with someone FAST — and then the whole thing blows up in a few months because the guy was crazy. It takes time to know whether someone is trustworthy. Sounds like u did the right thing.

    • Emma on November 27, 2013 at 11:05 pm

      Thanks Pauline – that is certainly a common scenario. Another scenario – Divorcees get serious with someone crazy right away — then stay with them!

  8. lisa on September 9, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    Wow, I didn’t realize I too am attracted to addicts until I read this. Thank you. I know you were torn but walked away anyway.

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