Dating Without the Drink

By Emily McCombs 06/29/11
The world of romance is tough even when you can down a few vodka tonics or sip a glass of merlot. How are you supposed to do it stone cold sober?
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Do I really need to be sober for this? Thinkstock

When 29-year-old Justin first got sober two years ago, he was eager to jump into the dating fray. “When I did drugs, I didn’t really hang around with anybody so the whole social structure of dating was refreshing to me,” he says. As a result, while he was still in rehab, he began seeing a girl whose antics included randomly showing up outside his treatment center at odd times and throwing a screaming fit when he refused to join her in making a “God box.” But what seemed inexplicable at the time feels more like an inevitable outcome now. “I only attracted screwed-up, crazy girls,” he says.” “Any girl with a sane brain in her head would look at a newly sober guy still in rehab who didn’t have a pot to piss in and think, ‘Maybe you need time for yourself.’”

Justin’s experience perfectly illustrates why so many experts—and sponsors—caution addicts about dating during the first year of sobriety. Indeed, while the cardinal rule for all newly sober people is—hello—not to drink, writ slightly lower in the rulebook, in lighter ink, is a mandate against dating during the first year; while it isn’t found in any 12-step literature, the axiom is both whispered and stated aloud in almost any meeting newcomers attend. “I know people who are able to sustain fairly healthy relationships when they’re six months sober, but I know others who need five years. The motto of early recovery is that for at least for six months, you really shouldn’t date.”

Turns out there’s solid reasoning behind the recommendation. “Early on in recovery, we tend to recreate our traumas,” says Dr. Jamie Huysman, a certified addiction counselor. “Sometimes I say a patient’s ‘picker’ is broken because they’re drawn to that negative energy of what they know best.” He suggests that the newly sober focus on treatment until they hit their year mark, though he admits that the 12-month suggested waiting period is a bit arbitrary. “In general, the first year of recovery seems to be the most vulnerable time for relapse,” he says. “It’s important to wait because you’re going to be doing clinical psychological work in the first year which will help you know better if a person is good for you or not.”

Dr. Reef Karim, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, adds that conflict and emotions brought up by rocky relationships can lead to relapse. However, he believes that the no-dating restriction should be somewhat dependent on the situation. “I know people who are able to sustain fairly healthy relationships when they’re six months sober,” he says. “But I know others who need five years. The motto of early recovery is that for at least for six months, you really shouldn’t date.”

Of course, dating in sobriety comes with a unique set of issues. Like: where the hell do non-drinkers meet people? Bars and clubs can be perilous environments for newly sober people, and even those capable of braving the boozy atmosphere won’t necessarily find what they want. Says Justin, “I’ve hit on girls in bars or clubs sober and I say something that I think is so witty and perfectly timed and funny and they just look at me like I spoke Greek to them. Had I just come up to them and grunted a few times, they might have responded.”

Carlton, a 28-year-old from Connecticut who doesn’t drink because alcoholism runs in his family, says, “On eHarmony, two of the questions are ‘Do you drink?’ and ‘What do you prefer in a girl?’ If you pick girls who don’t drink, there are like three matches.”

Unsurprisingly Dr. Karim recommends that newly sober people spend dates away from drinking environments. “If you go to sporting events, bars and clubs and places where people socialize, alcohol drives a lot of the relationships,” he says. “Some of my patients go to dance classes and cooking classes and travel and are outdoorsy. Finding substitutive ways to meet people is great once you’ve established your recovery.”

Some, of course, meet potential partners in recovery circles—a situation that eliminates the pressure of navigating drinking environments but adds a new set of issues. “It’s great to date another recovering person,” says Huysman. “But they both have to their own recovery life or they’ll lean on each other, and when one person falls or relapses, the other one may, too.”

There’s also the opposite problem. Heather, a 30-year-old New Yorker who met her fiancé in a 12-step-group when she was a little over a year sober, says, “It gets real boring sometimes with sober people. We’re in bed at 11:15 on New Year’s Eve. I miss drama.”

But dating a non-alcoholic—or “normie”—has its own pitfalls. Nina, a 27-year-old actress in L.A., says, “In my experience, non-alcoholics tend not to believe me when I tell them what I’m like when I’m using and will thus try to convince me that I would probably be fine if I drank or did drugs at this point.”

Alice, a 31-year-old teacher in New York, has had the same experience. “The guy I’m dating is not an alcoholic, and he once told me he looks forward to me drinking again,” she says. “This led to a three-week discussion about what would happen if I relapsed. Finally I asked him, ‘Have you ever woken up with somebody who’s thrown up all over the bed? Because my ex-boyfriend woke up like that almost every single morning.’”

Many now-sober addicts aren’t sure when they should talk about their recovery on dates—and how much they should share. While plenty choose to disclose all when the topic comes up organically in conversation, others prefer to keep their sobriety private, and cite stories of telling potential partners they’re alcoholic and never hearing from them again. (Which is probably for the best, since being comfortable with alcoholism is a fairly essential prerequisite for dating a recovering person.)

Catherine, a 34-year-old marketing rep, says she feels the question of whether or not to tell a would-be paramour she’s sober feels like the “third person on the date.” It wasn’t until her second date with her now boyfriend that she felt a strong enough connection to tell him she was a recovering alcoholic, an emotional experience that brought her to tears. “That was a very intense thing,” she says. “I can’t imagine going to that level on every first date. I can’t imagine going through that a couple times a week.”

Still the biggest question about dating in early recovery is this: How do you do it? After all, when they were drinking, many alcoholics’ definition of a “date” was the same as 40-year-old Darcy’s—“Let’s get drunk and fool around.” As Nina puts it, “Dating is just weird in general. The main difference is being forced to stay present through the awkwardness.” Dr. Karim agrees that dating gets a lot harder when you subtract alcohol. “If you’re sober, you’re dealing with more anxiety, less impulsivity, more guardedness and more caution,” he says. “It’s a lot more difficult.”

That guardedness and lack of impulsivity also makes it harder to hook up—which may not be a bad thing, according to Alice. “I didn’t sleep with my current boyfriend for six weeks, which is the longest I’d ever gone in my entire life without having sex with somebody,” she says. “And we’re still together.”

Even if you do manage to make it through the awkwardness of the date into intimate territory, there’s also the question of how to handle swapping spit with someone who’s been imbibing. Some addicts cop to enjoying the vicarious thrill. Says Heather, “Personally, I like it. I like the smell. Like every good alcoholic, I still want to taste that liquor. I want to lick the cap.” But according to Dr. Huysman, locking lips with liquor is “dancing with the devil,” and both he and Karim caution that it could trigger a recovering alcoholic to want to drink.

If you’re making out with someone who’s been actively drinking, you’ll get a little taste. “If you’re desperate for alcohol, that little taste may be enough to start a cascade of other feelings and thoughts in your head,” says Dr. Karim. “But for most people, it just adds to the excitement. They can consider it a little guilty pleasure.” 

Emily McCombs is the Managing Editor of Before that, she was the managing editor of the men's site, where she created and starred in a weekly web series "A Woman's Perspective." Her writing has appeared in BUST, Elle, Marie Claire, and She is in need of at least five different recovery programs, but has been free from drugs and alcohol for over two years. She also wrote about transferring addictions for The Fix.

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