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Where to Look For (Sober) Love

When bars are out of the question and parties can be triggers, how are people in recovery supposed to find dates?

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By Sam Lansky

12/17/11

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When I first got sober, my favorite trick was to stumble around bars pretending to be drunk in the hopes that the hot guy across the room would take advantage of me. Now that I’ve outgrown that unsurprisingly ineffective technique, meeting prospective dates in sobriety is often a matter of sheer serendipity—of keeping an eye out for eligibles with mutual interests and having my radar on for prospective partners in the periphery. To some extent everyone does this, but being in recovery is both a blessing and a curse in terms of honing that romance-detector: our mental faculties are clear enough that we’re more aware of potential mates in our environment but, without the crutch of alcohol to slacken our inhibitions and the dim lighting of a bar to make everything seductive, it’s often more difficult to feel comfortable approaching a complete stranger.

That anxiety makes the early stages of dating challenging, says relationship expert Dr. Belisa Vranich. Newly sober alcoholics, she says, are likely to feel “really intense fear” when they first re-enter the dating pool. “A lot of people who are newly sober have never dated before without being under the influence of something,” Vranich says. “It’s terrifying not to be at least a little bit high—to have nothing to lean on to relax.” But the longer you’re clean, the easier dating gets. So what can you do to find people to practice—and potentially succeed—with?

Transparency about your sober status can sometimes pay unexpected dividends.

Get involved with social or political activities

In my hard-partying days, the only political issue I was passionate about was lowering the drinking age but sobriety opened up a whole new world of opportunities for social and political activism. And getting plugged into the community is a great way to meet like-minded people. Vranich also recommends signing up for volunteer work since conversations in these environments happen organically as a result of shared interests that extend beyond the same brand of gin. (Volunteering will also put you in touch with some honest-to-goodness quality people; jerks tend not to donate their time to those less fortunate.) The Internet can, of course, give you access to groups of people who share your interests—MeetUp is a site that offers a way for people who are passionate about everything from snowshoeing to hypnosis to exotic cheeses to meet each other (meetings are held across the United States as well as internationally). 

My friend Celeste, a 25-year-old student from Portland, Oregon, was heavily involved with her local Occupy movement, even though, she says, “It was kind of stoner city down there.” Still, at the Occupy camp, she began chatting with a guy who was more pass than puff-puff and it turned out that he was also in recovery. “After the cops shut down the camp, the relationship kinda fizzled out and we stopped hooking up,” she laughs. “But it was good to have a sober ally there.”

Go online

This is a major, if obvious, option and one that Vranich espouses emphatically. “With Internet dating,” she says, “you can actually say you don’t drink before the date, which really helps weed people out”—not to mention getting you weeded out by hard partiers. (I love it when I’m mistaken for a naturally responsible teetotaler, rather than somebody who used to black out and wake up in different states.) Specifying that you don’t imbibe on conventional dating sites like Match or OKCupid is easy since the sites actually ask you the question, while still others—like the sober social networking website In The Rooms—are specifically geared toward sober people. “Some couples reconnect after knowing each other in the program 20 years ago, losing touch, and then finding each other on our site,” says In The Rooms co-founder Ken Pomerance. Meeting on a sobriety-specific social network, he says, cuts through the getting-to-kn0w-you clutter. “There’s a gut-level trust and honesty that you’ll find from people in recovery,” he says. “You don’t have to walk around the elephant in the room.”

Flirt over fitness

After leaving the haze of active alcoholism or addiction, many of us develop a newfound interest in taking care of our bodies—and there’s no reason to be bashful about picking up equally health-conscious dates at a gym, yoga class or triathlon. Darren, a 46-year-old doctor from San Francisco, found his future spouse in his cycling club a few years after separating from his ex-wife and getting sober. “One morning after a ride in Golden Gate Park, this pretty, quick-witted blonde and I got to talking, and we just clicked,” he says. “It was nice because my sobriety didn’t even come up, but if we’d been in a bar it probably would have been an issue. She has a moderate relationship with alcohol, but since we’ve both been training for a triathlon, she’s hardly been drinking, either.”

Discover your passions—and the people who share them 

Vranich encourages sober people to ask themselves what they’re interested in that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol. “What do you do with the time that you would have been drinking or drugging or hung over?” she asks. “What are the things that make you happy? And what would you like to do that you’ve never tried before?” Abandoning the darkness of active addiction leaves a significant space for new interests to develop or old ones to be rediscovered, so why not go back to childhood, adolescence or those infrequent days of unintended sobriety and try to remember what moved or inspired you? Then do it.

My friend Kurt, a 27-year-old graphic designer from New York, discovered his passion for graphic design after he got sober and he met his current beau at the graphic design section of a bookstore. “I was being clumsy and dumb and accidentally knocked over a book,” he says. “Alex smiled at me and started asking me about Photoshop. Even though I was still being totally awkward, he seemed to think it was cute. We ended up really hitting it off.” Likewise, Jeremy, a 24-year-old student from Philadelphia, made it a priority to go to more music shows in sobriety—music had always electrified him but he’d usually been too drunk to appreciate it—and he met the woman who became his girlfriend while standing in line at an Arcade Fire concert. “We started talking about how great the set was and went from there,” he says.

Overdisclose (but not too much)

Many of us tend to be understandably reticent about identifying as people in recovery, but transparency about your sober status can sometimes pay unexpected dividends. When you’re honest about being sober, you make yourself vulnerable—and allow others the same opportunity. Catie, a 27-year-old fashion merchandiser from Austin, says, “I have this bad habit of always telling people that I’m sober, even when it’s not necessary so when I was meeting friends at a wine bar and the waiter asked me what kind of wine he could bring me, I said, ‘No, I don’t drink,’” she recalls. “He blurted out, ‘Neither do I!’ Even though it was just a lucky accident, if I hadn’t had such poor boundaries, I never would have met him.” The two ended up going out twice after that. 

Just Say Yes

When I was newly sober and living in Southern California and working as an underpaid retail slave, a girl approached me on the sales floor one afternoon. “See my friend Jamie over there?” she asked, pointing to a nondescript guy across the room that was pretending to examine a scarf. “He’s here on a business trip, and he thinks you’re really cute.” He wasn’t my type (which was probably a blessing, since “my type” was emotionally abusive felons in their 40s with personality disorders and violent ex-wives), but I thought, What the hell. He took me out to dinner that night and we spent the weekend together. Though I never saw him again, I realized that going out with people, even if I don’t think there’s relationship potential there, can be beneficial: getting comfortable engaging in sober conversation is like a low-stakes dress rehearsal for the times when I really do like someone.

The truth is, it’s liberating to be in control after losing so much time in the fog of inebriation. Whether I meet a guy at a bookstore, a triathlon, or on a dating site, at least I know that if I wake up in his bed the next morning, I’ll remember how I got there. 

Sam Lansky is an editor at Wetpaint and a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about his sobriety in relation to Britney Spears and dating in sobriety, among many other topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky

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