How to Date a Sober Person

I didn’t realize it was a date until midway through coffee. Kate and I had known each other in university, but I hadn’t seen her in a few years when we ran into each other outside of a grocery store. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up, but I figured she was just being friendly. Wedged into the booth side of a comically undersized table, I listened as Kate spoke and our conversation flowed easily. It didn’t fully click for me until she put her hand on my arm, and afterwards I immediately got nervous and began compulsively running my fingers through my hair. Still, when the coffee shop closed Kate suggested we get a drink.

“I’m actually not drinking right now,” I told her. First Kate looked confused, then disappointed. While I’m not sober, in the past few years I’ve considerably cut back on alcohol. Partially at the advice of medical professionals. Partially because sometimes when I drink too much I engage in self-destructive behavior—you know, fighting traffic cones like Don Quixote fought windmills or texting my ex. Explaining this can be difficult, particularly in a romantic context. Briefly Kate and I considered alternate locations to a bar, but when I awkwardly suggested a second coffee shop she remembered a work thing that needed urgent attending to. We didn’t see each other again.

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Dating culture and bar culture can seem intertwined, but recently alcohol-free dating has become more common. It’s a part of a larger trend of people cutting back on booze—or cutting it out entirely. See: the rise of sober bars, temperance cocktails, and the increased use of weed.

“As the trend towards overall wellness continues and people abstain from alcohol for health and personal reasons, it’s possible that you’ll see more sober dating in the future,” said relationship expert and sex columnist Simone Paget. Paget noted that when she was dating heavily she was also drinking more. That resulted in spending time with people she wouldn’t have found appealing without alcohol. While she still enjoys an occasional cocktail, sober dating helps her figure out if there’s a real connection much more quickly.

But traversing the dating world without alcohol comes with its own set of challenges. The learning curve on sober dating can feel steep, especially if you’ve previously used booze to power through the initial shyness of talking with strangers. That’s why, with the help of some sober friends, I’ve put together suggestions for dating while sober or dating someone who is.

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Tell your dates about your sobriety as early as possible.

A few weeks back, I told someone I wasn’t drinking, and in response, they asked if I hated fun. On other occasions when I’ve been dry, people have pushed me to join them, going as far as to order drinks for me, as though my personal choice was an affront to their good time. In a one-on-one setting, especially when you two don’t know each other well yet, choosing not to drink can create the sensation of yet another barrier to overcome, or that you guys are on totally different planes. Letting people know about your sobriety early—when you’re setting up a date or even directly in your dating profile—can ward off mismatches upfront. That can save everyone involved a lot of time.

Make sure you’re ready to start dating.

In recovery programs, you’re not supposed to make major decisions within the first year. Sobriety takes focus. Anything that pulls away from that focus—moving, changing jobs, beginning a new relationship—should be handled with caution. It’s sound advice that absolutely none of the people I spoke with adhered to, though all of them wish they had.

“I think that if you’re newly sober it would help to be—and I hate to use this term—mindful when dating. Especially early on,” said comedian Krissy Howard. “I definitely tried to replace drugs with people, which just damaged the relationships. You can’t pick up a person like you would a bag of dope and just expect them to make you feel good all the time.”

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