Dating People Who Drink
As a sober person, your love life doesn't have to be limited to people from the rooms. But romance with "normies" presents a special set of problems.
When I first decided to get sober, I told my fiancé, “I think I am going to go to AA and quit the booze for good.” His reply: “Awww, I’m gonna lose my drinking buddy? That sucks!”
As you may expect, that relationship imploded shortly thereafter.
So, at the age of 38, single for the first time since I was 25, I was newly sober, heartbroken, and absolutely befuddled.
The rules of dating had shifted completely since I was a young lass and, without the social lubricant of martinis or wine, my old-school M.O. of getting wasted and ending up in bed with a cute guy from the party clearly wasn’t an option.
In the three years since I left Mr. Insensitive, I have gone on hundreds of dates—a handful with guys from the rooms but mostly online finds, generally social drinkers. Two of the guys were great: yes, two. So I decided to look into what’s worked for other sober folks, and to see what experts had to say about the matter of dating in recovery.
Relationships can draw people in recovery away from the very things that can help them withstand the blow of a romantic split.
Mary Faulkner, who has 27 years of sobriety and is the author of Easy Does It Dating Guide: For People in Recovery cautions that relationships are “the number one relapse trigger” so it’s first important to take the time to “heal yourself first.”
Faulkner’s healthy-dating-in-sobriety checklist is key: “You should have a solid base of recovery—two years; no relapses; you should have worked the steps; you should be meeting often with your sponsor to discuss dating; and you should regularly be attending your home-group meetings.” She adds, “Both people should attend Al-Anon meetings, too. If the relationship becomes serious, it would be helpful for the partner to work a 12-step program to gain insight into the disease of addiction and codependency that often accompanies it.”
Because relapse is most common in the first years of recovery—leveling off at about five years—Faulkner cautions that those who are sober be cautious about dating people who imbibe. “If you’re talking about someone with good sobriety dating someone who is a casual or responsible drinker, there isn’t necessarily a problem,” she says. “If the sober person is in early recovery or if the drinker is a problem drinker, the chances for a good dating experience are dim. Though most people won’t wait two years into sobriety to start dating, keep in mind that the smell of alcohol, the taste of a kiss [with someone who’s been drinking], the clinking of ice in the glass, as well as the bar and the bar scene could be triggers.”
Irene Carroll, a North Carolina–based addiction therapist, says, “Dating is just so risky for people in early in recovery, especially so if you’re considering going out with someone who isn’t sober. Ask yourself: Does this advance my sobriety?”
Naturally, when going out with someone who drinks, sober people often wonder when and how to reveal the fact that they don’t drink. Carroll offers, “Most alcoholics know places that don’t serve liquor—coffeehouses, museums. If you’re going out to dinner, it’s okay to wait till you arrive, and when the wine list arrives just say, ‘Nah, I don’t do that anymore.’ Do it casually; whether to go into greater detail or not really depends upon the relationship.”
Amy, a 32-year-old stylist who lives in Manhattan and has been sober for 10 years, tells of romancing a particular “normie,” who turned out to be anything but. “I started dating a guy who told me he didn’t drink,” she recalls. “We had very civilized, nice dates but, after a while, I started to catch onto the fact that he really did drink—he was just trying to control his drinking and never indulged around me. When we started going to more parties together, I saw him staring somewhat lasciviously at the alcohol. So I said to him, ‘Hey, don't not drink on my account.’ That opened up the floodgates: Suddenly, he’s getting smashed all the time and we’re going on group dates where everyone but me is getting wasted.”
Amy found herself deeply in like after six months of dating, though her gut told her the relationship was dangerous. “I hung in there for a few more months but the truth is that I really wanted to drink during that time: He and his friends made it look so appealing. If he had just drank the way he wanted to from the get-go, I surely never would have ended up getting in a semi-serious relationship with him.”
Hindsight is, of course, 20-20. “ He had a reputation as a serious partier and he wasn't in a program,” Amy reveals. “I wanted to believe that his problem had just ‘gone away,’ but I knew better, of course.” Her takeaway? “Not everyone who says they don’t drink or who doesn’t drink around you is necessarily a safe person to date; I look back at that time as the most precarious part of my sobriety.”
Of course, there are issues to deal with if even the best-case scenario happens: You and that normie fall in love. You’re going to have to address serious quandaries. For example: Your partner invites you to a work or family event where alcohol is being served. Should you be open about your recovery or just fake it with water on the rocks? Should you follow Faulkner’s advice and ask your beloved attend meetings? Do you invite him or her along to socialize with your sober posse?
There are no concrete answers. Bring your questions to everyone you know with more sober experience: Ask your sponsor, your sober fellowship, and, if you’re the praying type, pray for guidance. As with everything in recovery, you must be open and willing—even if all the advice you get goes against your gut. If you’re stuck in a situation where there is no time to gather wisdom—say your partner’s mom hands you a glass of wine during a visit—don’t stress. Either accept the glass graciously and then put it down, or simply say, “No, thank you, I don’t drink.” Honestly, most people aren’t as concerned with your drinking as you think—and if they are, they may have a problem themselves. As therapist Carroll says, “People need to learn to have fun and deal with real-life situations in sobriety. It’s all about being totally happy, honest and clean. When in doubt about anything, ask yourself: How does this advance my sobriety? What would my sponsor say?”
Lucia, a 30-year-old who works in TV industry in Los Angeles and has been sober for five years, says, “Most everyone—sober or not—has problems and issues and baggage. In my dating experience, just because a guy doesn’t drink like an alcoholic, it doesn’t mean he’s perfectly sane and has his shit together. Don’t assume that ‘normies’ are superior to you because they don’t have an addiction.”
Relationships often go bad, and people in recovery must often be more prepared than most for the possibility of breakup. As Irene Carroll says, “Recovering addicts can be much less resilient in the face of heartbreak, and they tend to catastrophize situations and think that things will never improve.” Relationships, Carroll says, can draw people in recovery away from the very things—meetings, discussions with sponsors, fellowship, prayer, meditation—that can help them withstand the blow of a romantic split. In other words, though it’s hard when Hurricane Love sweeps through your life, it’s crucial to keep up the work.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that, as Lucia says, “If a relationship ends, it’s God’s will; trust that something better will come along. You can be sad when your metaphorical house burns down but know that’s God’s way of clearing out the wreckage for a far better person to come into your life.”
Ultimately, says Mary Faulkner, “There isn’t a black-and-white answer to the question of whether a sober person should date a drinker.” But, she adds, “If the sober person is in early recovery or if the drinker is a problem drinker, the outlook is dim. If that person has good recovery and the normie is a casual drinker, however, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be a good romantic situation.”
For me, dating is still fraught with drama—but way less than it was three years ago. It may sound like a cliché, but the tools I’ve gained in AA help me remain more serene and rational in every aspect of my life—even in the crazy, wild, irresistible realm of love. The road, thankfully, is narrowing.
Laura Vogel is a Los Angeles–based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, Real Simple, Travel+Leisure and The New York Post, among other publications and websites. She has written about the best sober apps and recovery radio shows, among other topics, for The Fix.