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The Perils of Sober Dating

When I first got sober, I thought my romantic problems were over. Then I realized they'd just begun.

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Did I mention mine's a virgin? Photo via

By Laura Barcella

08/02/11

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It's kind of humiliating to recall the ludicrous number of possible love connections I’ve squashed by getting sloshed on a first or second date. The things that have come out of my mouth—both figuratively and literally, on nights out with strangers, often made me want to crawl into my bed and stay there until Justin Bieber came of age.

So it was probably a good thing that I finally decided to stop drinking in the summer of 2006. By then I’d suffered more than my fair share of embarrassing nights out. I’d woken up beside busloads of unattractive strangers, and was more than ready to bid farewell to the drunken rants, crying jags, and ridiculous battles with boyfriends, friends, cab drivers, cashiers, busboys and bouncers. I thrilled at the thought of never having to experience another hangover. But it sucked to discover that alcohol-free dating was still, well, dating: an ever-awkward dance of anticipation, expectations and artifice. 

When I said goodbye to alcohol and all its attendant drama, I never intended to bid farewell to dating, period. I saw my romantic future shimmering atop a cotton-candy cloud of contentment and stability. Without the crutch of alcohol, I was convinced that my once-jumbled love life would fall easily into place. Now that I was sober and ready, Mr. Right would surely be waiting for me (albeit at the local coffee shop instead of the next bar stool.)

It sucked to discover that alcohol-free dating was still, well, dating: an ever-awkward dance of anticipation, expectations and artifice. And for those of us who don’t drink, dating can be even more of a mixed bag. Why? Because, in case you missed the memo, most Americans are all about alcohol, especially when it comes to getting hitched (or laid.) We meet for happy hour at five, dine with wine at seven, meet lovers at a bar later on, and make every excuse to have another round. When love and sex get mixed in, the whole shebang gets even stickier.

To be honest, dry dating hasn’t been as smooth as I’d hoped. Most of the men I dated in early sobriety were drinkers. Not alcoholics, but average Joes: the kind of guys who had no trouble stopping after a couple of glasses of wine; the kind of guys who couldn’t remember the last time they puked up all 12 of the Stella Artois drunk the night before.

Guys like these sound good to most women. “Those men are stable,” you might be thinking. “They’re normal!” And yes, indeed—they are. But, sadly, Normal and I clash like hot cider and summertime. Normal gives me uncomfortable side glances and keeps me at a perpetual distance. Normal makes me feel crazier than I actually am.

I learned this lesson the hard way after dating a man named Craig. Tall and dark with long eyelashes (my weakness), he was sexy in a skater-boy way (I never got over my sixth-grade propensity for Vans and bowl-cuts). He was a friend of a friend, whom I’d casually admired for months, and his warm, easygoing manner won me over right away. He was a considerate guy who held doors open, carried my bike up the stairs and offered to feed my cats when I went away. Sweet, right?

Things progressed nicely until, while we were cuddled on my couch one night, Craig said, “It makes me sad that we can never have a glass of wine together.” Which, to my hypersensitive brain, sounded like the fact that I didn’t drink was a deal-breaker. He claimed he was just being honest, and we tried to talk me out of my funk. But it bothered me deeply that my sobriety—something I was proud of, something I’d worked hard for—could be an issue for him. His uber-casual comment made me feel like there was something wrong with me for being unable to drink like a Normal Person. (Damn those normies!) My therapist urged me to break it off, worried that Craig’s cluelessness might drive me back to the bottle. But I liked him, so I waited it out. We ended things a month or so later.

As it happens, Craig wasn’t the first guy who was unsure how to handle the fact that I no longer drank. More than a few promising Internet dates magically disappeared after they learned that I was sober. They didn’t try to sugarcoat their disdain with any “met someone else”-type excuses, either. Nope; we’d exchange a series of flirty, getting-to-know-you emails, and then the dude would suddenly evaporate when I mentioned that I’d prefer meeting him for coffee instead of Cuervo. Then there are the guys I wouldn’t dream of dating —the party boys (uh, cough, alcoholics) who don’t drink remotely like Normal People, and see nothing wrong with pounding away six shots of tequilsa at the taqueria, one after another. I had a close encounter with a member of this species on a brunch date last year. A carefully constructed hipster with a trail of lively tattoos lining each of his arms, Steve was cute, unkempt, and stylishly unshaven. He ordered a mimosa as soon as we sat down, and mentioned that because he works from home, he goes to a bar every night “just to be around people.” (Apparently he’s never heard of restaurants or book stores or coffee shops or libraries or…) A few drinks in,  he confessed that, a few years back, he was “a dog” who slept around and tried to collect as many women’s phone numbers as possible. He said he had “grown up a lot  since then.” (Cool!)

Guys like Steve make “normal” men—a la Craig —look like dreamboats. But, like I said, I’m not looking to date someone too.... well-adjusted. I'm a fan of flaws and fancy a little edge. I like a guy with quirks—heaven knows I’ve got plenty of them. Guys who are normal usually don't understand me. Though I admit: Thanks to sobriety, I’m much saner than I used to be, and that’s definitely a good thing. But it's not always a good thing for my romantic life.

I decided to stop drinking when I realized that boozy benders were  doing me more harm than good—when it started contributing to the deterioration of both two-hour dates and two-year relationships. Like lots of people, I ride a rickety daily roller coaster of moods and emotions, but man or no man, my overall frame of mind has improved considerably since the summer of 2006.  I’m 34, single, and sober, and I’m ready for a little companionship with a funny, sensitive but not-too-normal guy. I know he’s out there. Interested parties inquire here.

 Laura Barcella's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Salon, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and The Guardian. She's the editor of Madonna and Me, a forthcoming anthology from Soft Skull Press. A version of this essay originally appeared on Drinking Diaries, a blog about women and drinking.

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