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A Guide to Sober Dating (And, Of Course, Sober Sex)

Before I got sober, the idea of going on a date and not having several drinks was nonexistent. Dating was just excuse to imbibe, and being an alcoholic, most of the night consisted of me trying to manage my alcoholism long enough to trick myself and my date into thinking I wasn’t a lush.

I spent more time figuring out how to get maximum drinks out of the experience and still look like a lady than I did paying attention to him. Do I suggest a bottle of wine? Do I sneak to the bar and do a shot on my way back from the bathroom? Do I order that fourth drink quickly while he’s going pee and hope it comes before he returns? It was almost like I was dating alcohol itself (and as it turns out, alcohol was indeed my true love).

In reality, though, the only guys I saw more than once — or even considered having a relationship with — were men who drank like I did. Excessively. My mantra was, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink.” Looking back, this should have been a red flag along with the blackouts, the hangovers and waking up having to drop a pin to figure out where I was.

When I inevitably got sober, the idea of navigating a date without liquid courage and sex without lubricant (pun intended) was my nightmare. Dating is already daunting, but when you’re sober, it’s awkwardness to the eighth power. In almost five years of single sobriety, let me tell you, I’ve seen some shit.

So if you’re newly sober and dating and bewildered, I get it, and I’ll do the only thing I know how to do — share my experience, strength and hope with you.

First Things First…

You don’t realize it until you get sober, but there are four types of people in this world:

  • People in recovery
  • Active alcoholics/addicts
  • Teetotalers (or as I like to call them — freaks)
  • “Normies”

The foolproof way to discern between them is how they respond to the fact that you don’t drink.

People in Recovery. If you’re in a 12-step program, you’ll be meeting lots of other sober folks at meetings, and (hopefully) they’re going to love that you don’t drink. This makes it tempting to want to date them because of your shared understanding of what it’s like to wake up and have your brain screaming, “YOU’RE FUCKED!!!!!!”

There’s a hard and fast rule, however: Don’t date anyone in your regular meetings. I cannot emphasize this enough. I learned it the hard way after nearly five years of swearing I’d never do it. I lost my favorite meeting in the break-up, and even if I could go, I wouldn’t feel like I could share anymore, so it’s pointless anyway.

JUST DON’T DO IT.

It’s also an unspoken rule that you don’t date for the first year of getting sober, and I’d say, go as long as you can. Remember that getting sober is giving up most of your die-hard coping mechanisms, and when you do so, you’re walking around like a raw nerve in the early days. Your emotions will fluctuate from rage to grief to rage and more rage. It takes a minute for the brain chemistry to level out, and by “minute,” I mean a couple of years.

That said, pretty much everyone breaks that “rule.” Still, beware the tendency to replace one obsession with another. In my experience, addiction is like whack-a-mole. You get one under control, and it pops up as another thing. Suddenly you’re spending a fortune online and fucking everyone who’s willing. As my friend Anonymous says, “I put down the bottle and picked up the dick.”

I didn’t date for seven months when I got sober, and when I finally did, it was a disaster that ended in a bed-bug infestation and me nearly relapsing. Long story for another day, but take it from me, no one is worth your sobriety, so again, proceed with caution.

If you do start dating, beware the tendency to fall madly in love with the first person you date. (I did — I was infatuated.) You’ll make them your Higher Power and best friend. I repeat: Dating in early sobriety can be dangerous for your sobriety (and theirs) so make sure you’re checking in with your sponsor, your therapist and your friends who keep you honest. Admittedly, though, I’ve known quite a few newcomers who fell in love with people that had some significant time clean and got married and had kids; so if you happen to fall in love and you’re feeling it, go with it, because you never know what life has in store for you or what lessons you need to learn.

I also think the plus side of dating a person in recovery is that you speak the same language, and to a certain extent, they’ve already gone off the rails and come back. That speaks volumes about their character and resilience, and if a man or woman is working a good program, they should constantly be taking a personal inventory, which is helpful to any healthy relationship.

Active Addicts. I see this one all the time: Someone gets sober and ends up dating a bartender who drinks and/or deals cocaine. Beware this tendency to date someone you can live vicariously through and/or “save.” It’s an absolute shit show.

There are many reasons people in early recovery do this — because they miss drama; because they’re having a hard time giving up the lifestyle that went along with the substances; because they have a savior-complex; because instead of using drugs, they now want to use people to get high; because underneath their addiction is a raging case of codependence.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point, just be wary. If you find yourself dating someone you know probably needs to get sober, GET OUT. It’s very, very hard to stay sober when you’re around a person who glamorizes partying or is in a downward spiral. Aside from their obvious drinking habits, they’re going to do their best to hide the fact that they have a problem. But you’ll know. We can recognize one of our own almost immediately. On your first date they’ll be the one who belabors the point that you don’t drink: “Really???? Never? “Why can’t you just have one?” they’ll ask for the fourth time.

This question drives me particularly nuts because you’d never ask someone trying to quit smoking why they “couldn’t have just one” because it’s been successfully demonized in our culture. But trust me, statements like, “I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” — or my personal favorite, “It’s just going to another extreme — adults know how to moderate, Bridget” — say more about them than you.

Even worse, they’ll drink at you. They won’t ask you if you care that they drink before proceeding to throw back five or ten drinks and progressively get more passive aggressive and nasty as the date goes on. It’s not conscious. It’s just alcoholism.

As such, always, ALWAYS have an exit strategy from social situations where drinking is involved. I’ve had many a night where I had no desire to drink when I went out, and suddenly, I needed to get home. Addiction is sneaky. It preys on your weaknesses and insecurities, your feelings of not being included. It pops up when we least expect it. In short, go out with an escape plan.

Teetotalers and “Normies.” “Normies” by definition are people who can drink moderately without any effort. I emphasize without any effort because when I was in rehab at age 19, they told me, “Any attempt to control your use no matter what the substance or behavior, means you have a problem.” I know plenty of people who drink or smoke weed “moderately,” but they have to really work at it. They aren’t normies, though you might think they are for the first few dates. They’re high-functioning, well-regulated addicts. I did that for years, and it was a hell I don’t miss. The amount of energy I freed up just from taking the option completely off the table was staggering. But you’ll recognize them by the fact that when they do allow themselves to indulge, they’ll fucking go for it and they’ll NEVER leave a drink unfinished.

Normies will have a glass and a half of wine occasionally, and it’s not a big deal. (Beware: That unfinished half a glass of wine is going to drive you fucking crazy.) Normies don’t care if you drink one way or another because they themselves can take it or leave it. (Teetotalers are also in this category although you’re going to think they’re psychopaths for never, ever having the desire to drink.) Still, when you don’t order a cocktail in those early dates, normies are rightfully going to have questions. Never forget that complete abstinence can be a red flag from a normie’s perspective. So while your sobriety is something to be proud of, you have to manage the narrative. Here’s a sample interaction to help you out.

Waiter: What can I get for you?
Normie: Um, I’ll have the Pinot, please.
Waiter: Would you like something to drink?

Have alternative drink orders ready. Coffee. Sparkling water. Whatever mocktail is on the menu (if that’s not triggering to you.)

You: I’ll have a Pellegrino with a lemon, please.
Normie: Oh, you aren’t drinking? So you just aren’t drinking today? Or you never drink?

Now you have to make a decision. If you don’t think you’ll ever see them again, if you don’t feel like breaking your anonymity yet or if you don’t want to get into further questions with a stranger from Tinder, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell a white lie. I’m sure I’ll get a world of shit from people telling me it’s not sober behavior to lie, but I don’t always want to get into why I quit drinking with a stranger. And so, in the past, I’ve said things like, “I’m on antibiotics.” Or: ”I’m training for a 5K.” My go-to, however, is, “No, I’m just not drinking today.” Because technically, that’s the truth. I’m not drinking. One day at a time.

Keep in mind, if you don’t disclose that you’re in recovery immediately, you’re setting yourself up for a mea culpa if you make it to the third date. That said, most people won’t hold it against you if you choose to wait to break your anonymity until you get to know them better. If they do get upset and accuse you of lying, it’s “Check please.”

Now, if there is chemistry and you want to see this person again — or if you’re like me and you’re comfortable being open about the fact that you’re in recovery — you might as well rip the Band-Aid off and get it out of the way. My sobriety is such a huge part of my life, not mentioning it would be akin to not mentioning the fact that I had a child (if I, in fact, had a child).

Thus, I usually say something like, “No, I quit drinking.” (If you say, “I don’t drink,” they’re going to ask you if you ever drank or quit — so might as well go straight to admitting you quit.)

Whenever it is you decide to disclose, the response is most likely going to be something along the lines of, “Why?”

Yet another word of warning: When confronted with this question, do NOT overshare. This isn’t the moment to air your dirty laundry; this isn’t the time to talk about how you felt dead inside or tell that story about hitting rock bottom in the most debauched way imaginable. That’s why I always say, “It was getting in the way of what I wanted to do.”

The follow-up question is usually, “Oh do you go to meetings?”

If you do, tell the truth. No point in lying as it’ll come out eventually.

This is where your date, if they’re a kind and empathetic individual will say something like, “Oh no, do you mind if I drink?” And of course you don’t mind because if you do — you aren’t ready to be going on dates.

Coping with the Awkward

Once I stopped dulling my senses with drugs and alcohol, I COULD SEE EVERYTHING. All the nonverbal cues, the passive aggressive remarks, the backhanded compliments and body language that belies whatever bullshit people might be spewing. I felt like AI that had recently become self-aware — alert to my surroundings like the Terminator, and yet, overthinking the correct way to position my hands.

For me, sobriety is a constant exercise in getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, and nowhere is this more evident than on a date. I deal with awkwardness by calling it out or making jokes. Ask questions and pay attention to the answers. If you truly “practice these principles in all your affairs” show up to a date the way you show up to life — with love and in service.

Moreover, when I got sober, it became painfully clear to me how low I’d set the bar for potential mates. Raise the standards for yourself, and the caliber of people you attract will be vibrating at the same frequency. Granted, in early sobriety oftentimes you aren’t always in the best financial situation — just stay focused on improving the quality of your inner life, and trust me, before you know it, you’ll draw the kind of people that reflect that into your world.

Sober Sex and *GASP* Feelings

No exaggeration, I’m pretty sure I was intoxicated 98 percent of the time I had sex before I got sober. Since I didn’t even date for the first seven months, I felt like a virgin all over again when I finally did. I had no idea what to expect, but I can tell you, it was better than whatever I’d imagined it would be.

Just a heads up if you’re new to sobriety and you’re on antidepressants or any other kind of meds for the first time — a lot of these medications can affect your libido in different ways, from rock cock to premature ejaculation and everything in between. Unfortunately you’re not going to know until you’ve had sex a few times, but if you’re experiencing negative side-effects, talk to your doctor. They can always switch your dose or prescription.

At first, getting over the initial interpersonal awkwardness and petty insecurity about my body was my biggest hurdle to overcome, but a lot of that was alleviated by surrendering to the passion of the moment and getting out of my head. Still, intimacy has always been creepy to me, and true intimacy is the final frontier. I can fuck like a porn star, but looking someone in the eye while they’re inside me — that shit still terrifies me even five years into sobriety.

Because the other side of connection is coming to know real rejection. Recently after a passionate weekend with a man I felt I had a truly honest, genuine interaction with, I sent him a sexy selfie and a cute message thanking him.

“Thanks, I’ll go rub one out now,” he replied. After weeks of sweet nothings, the crassness was jarring. In that moment, as painful as it was, I had to confront that I’d been used — and discarded. I could frame it any way I wanted, but that was the honest truth and there was no escaping it. He’d said all the right things, and I believed him because I wanted to and now he was done. I’d been had. It happens to the best of us — even by other people in sobriety. Just because we get sober, doesn’t mean we aren’t still fallible humans (or can’t be fooled).

Pre-sober Bridget would have dealt with this snub by smoking a bowl, going out dancing, getting wasted and proving my “worth” by snagging someone in a bar (and even right in this moment, I gotta tell ya, that sounds better than feeling these feels). Instead, I just have to sit with whatever feelings are coming up and observe what they’re teaching me. A painful reality, but a worthwhile one as well.

It goes both ways, too. That is, I’ve broken as many hearts in sobriety as I’ve had mine broken. I’ve even slept with men and regretted it. But I’ve had zero mornings waking up hungover in a strange place wondering, “Did we…?” And no matter how awkward, challenging and scary dating can be sober, it’s light years better than when I was drunk.