Online Dating in Sobriety

By Neville Elder 03/26/14

I used to rely heavily on alcohol to start, maintain and end relationships with women. Dating online sober has been a shaky experience, to say the least.

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My relationship with Alcohol is 'complicated.' Three years ago and freshly divorced, I created my first online dating profile with the popular matchmaker website OK Cupid. I had been sober for four years. In the section entitled 'my details' I checked the usual boxes. Height, ethnicity, age, before I came to the section 'drinks.' I was given the opportunity to select ‘very often’, ‘socially’, ‘rarely’, ‘desperately’, ‘not at all’ or leave the section mysteriously blank. My fingers trembled uncertainly over the keys. Nine years ago I would have checked 'desperately' and had a good laugh about it. I’d have laughed with my date over beers and shots and back then if a prospective love interest didn't drink, I didn't want to know. It was always my deal breaker in a relationship. And I use the term relationship lightly. My love life was simple. I wanted a drinking partner as much as I wanted to get laid. I wanted a hostage.

But what about her, this mythical, understanding, forty-something Goddess floating out there in cyberspace waiting for my email? 

I relied heavily on alcohol to start, maintain and end relationships with women. In my early drinking days growing up in a small town in the English countryside the single most revelatory experience was the discovery of ‘snakebite’—a cloudy mix of lager and a local hard cider called scrumpy which I credit with achieving my first snog-and-grope session under a pool table at a party in the local youth center. The object of my affections: a cousin of my scrappy, violent best friend Mark, a relationship itself founded through the mutual consumption of strong continental lager. I seem to recall her throwing up afterward. It didn’t bother me. I floated home through ancient country lanes to my first true hangover, utterly elated and completely in love. I forget her name. Now with nine years sober I have adjusted the idea of what I want from a partner but finding one in the crap-shoot of online dating has proven to be more difficult than I thought. 

Still, that early lesson held true. Traditional forms of engagement with the opposite sex are easier with a little alcoholic lubrication. Bars and clubs are out for me not just because I'm abstinent but I'm now in my forties. Even if I did drink, doing shots with undergrads unborn when the Smiths' first LP came out, well, I just don’t want to be that guy. I work in isolation at home so if I want to meet women my age I have to go online. 

I looked at Craigslist first. That was dispiriting. After scrolling through lots of ads from prostitutes, appalling grammar and blurry pictures, I braced myself and began filling out the user-friendly template of OK Cupid. I pondered the usual biographical choices, rewrote and fretted about by profile photo before I came to the section on alcohol and drugs. Checking the ‘never does drugs’ section was a no brainer. What forty-something who does hard drugs doesn’t need help? I don’t care about the odd joint now and again but snorting coke off a toilet seat through a dirty rolled up $20? Revolting. Next.

For a while I dated women I met at AA meetings. I had mixed results. A friend suggested if I shopped in the dented can aisle I shouldn’t complain when I find a few dings in the can. Ouch. It isn’t just that, after all my mental condition is definitely out of warranty. Like dating in any small community, dating in AA can be incestuous. After a break up gossip and awkward moments at the coffee urn can create a hostile environment. A few single men I know end up losing their favorite meetings and friends in AA divorces. But that’s nothing compared to being labeled a predator. Normally reserved for the most cynical womanizers, it’s a label easily picked up when tossed around by a spurned lover.

Before I went out into the real world, I wondered: Are women scared off by recovering alcoholics? Is there a stigma attached to my self-diagnosis? 

I discovered to my relief that most women are more tolerant because getting help shows maturity and a willingness to change. An acceptance of one’s mistakes is an admirable quality in a man. That’s the sort of partner I want.

But what about her, this mythical, understanding, forty-something Goddess floating out there in cyberspace waiting for my email? This normal woman or civilian as non-alcoholics are sometimes called, how should I read her profile? Should I consider that Sunday brunch photo with pixilated faces of close friends, Mojitos raised in salute, a deal breaker? Or is it something that some people can do without spending the rest of the day getting hammered and ending up in Atlantic City with no trousers? Invariably it's only something that comes out as you get to know them. Having said that, if she lines up limes like hostages on the bar top to keep a drink count, well, not to take someone’s inventory but that's probably a red flag.

What about that first date? Meeting for coffee serves 2 purposes: There's no booze involved. It's not as intimidating as ‘drinks,’ and mostly it occurs during daylight. Also, it doesn’t necessitate that awkward confession of alcoholic status.

At what point should I have that conversation? First, third or tenth date? If she notices I’m not drinking should I lie? “No, I don’t drink, yes I used to but I quit because it was making life unlivable.” Little bit heavy over the first latte. What about a white lie? “I’ve got to drive in the morning" or “I’m on a course of antibiotics.” Sure, whatever. If she presses the point I’ll ‘fess up. After all, there’s something telling about a date that fixates about my not drinking—maybe she has trouble with her own drinking? Great, that’s going to be a fun date.

I like women who drink socially. These days I’m comfortable around people who imbibe moderately. I’ve been sober long enough that I’m not scared by booze. Recovery can feel a little dry sometimes, if you’ll excuse the pun. To spin the statistic: Drinking is a normal part of three out four Americans’ lives. It is a completely acceptable activity after a long day and a joyful accelerant to the celebration of a holiday. For me it was a dribbling poison that almost ruined my life. But you go ahead, help yourself. I will however know exactly how much booze is in your house down to the levels in the bottles.

Alcohol might be an effective antidote to the tribulations of the working week for you but my obsession with it didn’t stop when I got sober. I have no intention of drinking again and I know full well the consequences of what will happen if I do. I will unconsciously time you as you sip your Chardonnay and though I may not say anything, I’ll be baffled if you don’t finish your wine because your prefer one with more ‘citrusy overtones.’ It’s warm? Really? Down in one, let’s hit a bar.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about the drugs used for US executions.

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