What Sex and Love Addicts Have to Say About Sober Dating

By Kiki Baxter 03/20/16

The rewards of maintaining emotional sobriety in a budding relationship are many, though it's easier said than done.

Get Your Heart On

On Valentine’s Day, I narrowly escape Whole Foods' taunting displays of red and pink hearts, flowers, and chocolates, clutching a steaming cup of SereniTea, and make my way around the corner to the Sex and Love Addicts “Share-A-Day” (or SAD). When I get there, I find the snack table and reach into a bag of organic apples but find them soft, bruised, and mostly rotten. I find the “bad apples” somehow apropos and ponder the symbolism of this biblically forbidden fruit. Is it a coincidence that the Apple computer, with its rainbow-striped logo unapologetically bitten into, shares at least one thing in common with addiction—that they both are considered “closed systems”? As I take a willful nibble on the good part of the ill-reputed fruit, it occurs to me that apples also represent knowledge, bringing to mind the oft-quoted sentence from the AA Big Book: Self-knowledge avails us nada. I toss the apple in the trash; it’s a spiritual solution.

So how does one practice these (spiritual) principles in our dating? Well, don’t look at me. I’ve taken a year off and plan to resume (what time is it?) in April, or maybe March 23rd, but I did talk to some folks who are doing it (on the condition of anonymity) and this is what they said. (Take what you like and leave the rest for someone who’s tired of hitting their head and heart against the wall.)


“Sober dating is really slow,” says Jen. This is her second round of sober dating, after taking time off for a relationship that ultimately didn’t work out. She’s been in SLAA for about six years and has worked the steps, and comes across as a slightly-reformed badass with attractive flourishes of courageous vulnerability. “It wasn’t fun in the beginning,” she admits, “but it’s fun now. I’m hanging out with four different guys and they’re all cute.”

Jen also owns her own business and is an active snowboarder. I wonder how she juggles it all.

“Sometimes I meet them before work for coffee.”

And um, the sex?

“I don’t sleep with them until we’re exclusive—meaning a birth control plan, we’ve both been tested (not the SATs) and he’s asked me to be his girlfriend.”

I don’t think I read about this in Cosmo

“Sober dating is a new way, and at first, it was really challenging. Everything I had ever known was negated.” She outlines some components of her dating plan. “Initially, we go out only once a week. The first two dates are only an hour. The third date is a little longer. No house date until date eight. My dating has been activity-based, so we really get to know each other and how we interact. I have more trust and more self-confidence. I do sometimes take crumbs, but I say, ‘Oh, this is crumbs. I don’t want it.’ I’ve been sober dating for a long time, so I know what I like. I like it when guys make plans ahead of time. I don’t like it when guys call the same day and ask me out. I need guys to make the effort, and that kind of behavior is not making the effort. I don’t operate in that way—in friendship or business. So in the beginning, I treat a lot of my dating like a business transaction. I like when they confirm. It’s considerate and respecting of my time. This is the way I roll, why would I pretend I’m another way? If they take off, you know what’s up. They usually stick around.”

One of the things she mentions is that sober dating helps her not get overwhelmed, whether it’s by too much information, chemistry, mood, or whatever. The feeling that dating can be overwhelming is a reoccurring theme. 


“It was one of the hardest things I had to do, other than withdrawal,” says Andy, who, similar to Jen, has notes of badassery, complimented by a big, robust bouquet of humility from vines rooted deeply in surrender. “After hitting bottom, withdrawal, and then abstinence, I got really comfortable being alone. I was really happy and felt really free, and then my sponsor said I was ready for sober dating and I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and hung up on him. He called me back and said, ‘Did you just hang up on me?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I just told you how happy I am and you tell me to start dating,’ and he said, ‘The point of this is to be in a healthy relationship—not to be alone.’ I had never sober dated in my entire life. I thought it was an oxymoron.”

Andy breaks it down for me.

“It’s dating without a motive. (Before) when I went on a date, the sex part was already there; the relationship fantasy was already there; it was just about consummating it. That got me into relationships I shouldn’t have been in in the first place. What I had to do was just go on a date as a date. Whether for coffee, or a meal, or a movie—that’s just what it is. There’s no “relationship” involved. It’s getting to know the other person before even contemplating the idea of physical intimacy, and that was very new to me.”

Andy defines being sober in this way: “Being monogamous, being honest, being caring. One of the promises of SLAA is that ‘love will be a thoughtful committed decision, not a feeling to be overwhelmed by.’ I always thought I had to be overwhelmed to be in love. So in sober dating, if you feel high after, you know something’s up. You have to look at it and that can’t be processed in one day. Going on a date Saturday night and then making a date to go out Monday doesn’t really give me time to process that. So the idea is that you get to know the person over three months or so, without any physical contact, which is really hard to do—at least, for me it was—but then you can make an actual rational decision. The question is, are you the kind of guy who sees a swimming pool and rips off his clothes, runs to the pool, and dives in—and mid-dive realizes there’s no water in the pool? Aren’t you tired of hitting your head against the concrete in the pool? Why don’t you look and see if there’s water in the pool before diving in? Sober dating is maintaining your emotional sobriety so you actually get to know them before you take the leap into the pool.”


Nikki likens dating to the Olympic sport, luge, where a competitor rides a flat sled reaching speeds up to 95 miles per hour. She’s a tall, striking woman who is a blend of poise, strength, and gentleness. “I thought sober dating would be boring in comparison. I was used to pain and strife. I thought that was exciting. I spent seven years online dating and I kept going down that luge track with broken bones, thinking I would win the Olympics. Sober dating is like wearing a helmet and pads. If I get injured, banged up, or a broken bone (aka heart), I know it’s time to take a break until I feel spiritually fit again. I don’t date from deficit anymore. I date from a cup that is overflowing—overflowing with hp and love. If I’m in a place to get love, I’m not in a good place. If I’m full of love, I’m in a good place to give love (platonically). I know now when I’m overwhelmed.” 


“Sober dating is talking to my sponsor about things so I don’t cock it all up.” When Matt says “cock it up,” he means mess it up, but I probably don’t need to explain that to you. I have vagina-ed up a few things myself.

He continues: “With none of my nonsense to indulge in, I had a lot of free time in my mind, and I got a clearer take on how to live in recovery and how to conduct my life. When I started dating again, I actually knew what I was trying to do. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I knew what I was trying to do.” Matt speaks with a casual intensity that only an addict can possess; his directness is tempered with self-effacing humor.

“The way I think about it now is that I’m actively trying to not act selfishly. I actually try to take the other person’s feelings into consideration. My sponsor said, ‘Ask yourself, am I trying to get something from this situation, or am I trying to bring something to this situation? And for months, I wanted to get something from the situation. Sure, it was sex, but it was also the emotional boost from knowing that someone was into me, and someone liked me enough to go to bed with me, and again, that was the old way of operating.”

Matt is engaged to be married and has a stable, fulfilling life that he nurtures.

“I have that 40-hour a week job stability and one of my big dreams that I’ve never told anyone is to write a novel. Now that I’m sober and not a maniac anymore, I can do that. I’ve got 160 pages so far. I’m just pounding it out. That wouldn’t have been possible without getting rid of the addiction. I don’t give the addiction any time anymore.” He adds, “I didn’t always want to get married, especially when I was deep in my addiction, and wanted to be free to do whatever I wanted. I used to say that once I got the addiction out of the way, getting married seemed a lot more appealing.”


“I set the pace,” says Lilly. Her free-flowing yet grounded energy reminds me of what I heard when I got sober in AA: “When you first come into the rooms, you’re thin-skinned and hard-hearted.” Lilly is what happens after recovery: thicker-skinned but a softer heart, and more importantly, the boundaries to make that possible. “No engaging in secretive men. No leading men on if I’m not really interested. Don’t get caught up in a man’s fantasy of trying to be who he wants me to be. No shaming or blaming. Look for the lessons and the blessings; it’s really about progress, not perfection. The first two guys I dated out of the gate, I stumbled, but then I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and figured out what I learned. Don’t give up. Also, I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings. I’m only responsible for honestly expressing my own feelings. No texting a man all day long. That’s not real intimacy. There’s a lot of insta-macy going on these days. One guy wanted to spend a lot of time with me—one day after another—and after the fifth date, I had sex with him, and he got up and left, and I was really hurt by that. Before I came up with a dating plan, I never used to think about my actions, or the consequences of my actions. Many addicts spend one night which then takes years to untangle.”

To sum it up

“It’s about being happy in the long term,” concludes Andy. “If you’re sober, and in a sober relationship, you can have all the pleasure you want. But if you’re there just for the pleasure, you may not be happy.”

So if your bag is full of bad apples, fear not. The solution is just around the corner.

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