So You're Dating a Civilian

By Melissa Petro 12/02/16

Arran admits that when he told his friends I was sober, at least one of them said it would never work out.

So You're Dating a Civilian
He CAN drink just one! But how?

It’s a typical Sunday night and my husband and I are relaxing in front of the TV. Our two dogs are taking up the majority of the couch. I’m wrapped in the gray blanket, my uniform now through April. My husband, Arran, is drinking a beer. As in, one beer.

As an alcoholic, this never ceases to amaze me.

My husband, you see, is a normal drinker. What we in the program call a “civilian.” When makes himself a Sazerac, he hasn’t already secretly drunk six others. And he makes himself an actual drink, not vodka mixed with vodka chased by a line of cocaine. He’ll have one or sometimes two. He won’t keep drinking for the rest of the night until he’s belligerent and sick.

Arran was the first normal drinker I ever seriously dated, and so I found that there are a lot of interesting and sometimes hilarious complications that arise from this situation. Here is what I’ve learned about how to manage one’s sobriety while dating someone who drinks:

Yes, normal drinkers do exist.

I know it may come as a shock to alcoholics who do their best to stay surrounded by other alcoholics—both before and, in some cases, after they quit drinking—but normal drinkers do exist, and some of them make excellent partners.

Maybe you’ve been burned in the past. The lady who said she drank “occasionally” passed out at your office holiday party. Casual drinker? Famous last words when he’s barfing in the Uber on the way home. Again.

No joke, my last live-in boyfriend used to get drunk while I was at my Al-Anon meetings. I’d come home and he’d be behaving erratically and slurring his speech. He blamed the smell on kombucha—and I believed him.

It's no wonder that when we finally broke up, and I started dating online, I specifically searched for men who said they never drank. Some of these men were in recovery like me. Others were on medication that required they avoid alcohol. One guy lived an ultra-healthy lifestyle that precluded even the occasional glass of wine. It may be surprising to an alcoholic like me, but lots of people just don’t drink—not for any reason other than they don’t like what it does to them or the way it tastes.

Sure, by focusing on others that abstained from alcohol, I met some great people. But you’ve got to wonder what people you’re not meeting when you limit your search. I only ended up meeting my future husband because he messaged me first.

Be honest when drinking makes you uncomfortable.

While I probably mentioned the fact that I was in recovery on our first date, it didn’t really come up until date two, when Arran and I met for dinner at a chic little pizzeria in his neighborhood. As we waited for our table, they sat us at the bar. Arran asked, “Do you mind if I order a beer?”

Truth was, I didn’t. I know that some people in recovery can’t be around others’ drinking without feeling tempted, but I am not one those people. If you are, my advice is to be as honest as you can, right from the start.

For me, temptation was never so much an issue as it is a fact that I don’t particularly like hanging out with people who are drinking—for some people, even one drink makes them act differently—and I particularly don’t like being around anyone drunk.

One drink, followed quickly by dinner, was fine. Less fine were activities where drinking was the main event. If the sole reason for going somewhere was to get wasted—like, if there wasn’t food or entertainment beyond some amateur version of Drunk History—I probably didn’t want to attend.

It took some time to figure this out. Until we did, I looked a bit like the stick in the mud. When I think back now, it makes perfect sense why I wouldn’t want to go on a bar crawl or to a wine tasting or—cringe—karaoke (drunk people singing Britney Spears does not count as entertainment). But initially, Arran and I had more than one argument over why I didn’t want to go to his friend’s birthday at Barcade or spend my Sunday morning at a German beer hall.

Being honest meant telling the guy who was slowly becoming my boyfriend that, no, I didn’t want to go to Quiz Night—not because I didn’t want to meet his friends but because I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of people I didn’t know, watching them play a game I had never played before while everyone but me got progressively more drunk. In the end, we negotiated that if he really wanted me to come to an event that was all about drinking, I would go—but only so long as Arran stayed sober too.

Whatever your needs, make them clear. The right person will understand.

Talk about what sobriety means to you.

I know it’s a fact that when a sober person dates civilians, they’re likely to meet people with prejudices. You’ll meet people who think they’ve never met another sober person before, or who just can’t get past the fact that you never drink. (Yes, never. No, not even wine or beer. Nothing. Yes, really. No, really, I’m serious. No, not even a toast.) If someone really can’t get past the fact that you’re sober, this says more about them and their relationship to alcohol than it says about you.

Before meeting Arran, I went on a date with a guy who, totally unprompted, called AA a cult. Rude! Not to mention unoriginal. Obviously, he and I were not a good match.

Arran admits that when he told his friends I was sober, at least one of them said it would never work out. Luckily, Arran didn’t harbor the same misgivings. Just as I was willing to take a chance on him, he was taking a chance on me.

This is why, early in our relationship, we had a talk. I explained alcoholism and 12-step recovery. I talked specifically about what these things meant to me. I told him about my alcoholic past. I didn’t need him to become an expert on addiction, or sign up for Al-Anon. (Maybe some people in recovery would and that’s okay.) All I needed was for him to understand that my sobriety was important to me. Recovery, for me—as for many—is more than just not drinking. Not drinking came with a set of beliefs. He didn’t have to agree with all of them, but he did have to respect them. Of course, he had his own beliefs, and issues, that I had to understand and respect. Sober or not, this is what it means to be in a relationship. 

Bottom line: If you think your dating options are limited to the good folks that hang out at your home group, think again! Your partner doesn’t have to be sober. But if you are, and you take it seriously—and you want your relationship to get serious—he or she needs to be on board. There’s a whole world of normal drinkers out there. Some of them would be great to date, and maybe even marry.

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