When my drinking life came to a halt last April, my dating life did too. It was hard to explain to a virtual stranger why I stopped drinking when I was still figuring it out myself. More than that, I didn’t know what dating looked like without alcohol.
Not that I didn’t try.
Early in sobriety, I went on dates that left me feeling like something was wrong with me. I couldn’t talk about my relationship to alcohol without it sounding like a confession. After enough cringe-worthy exchanges over soda water in wine bars, I decided to take a break.
It was jarring to not be dating. I was someone who was constantly getting into something, getting out of another thing, or getting over someone. Distracted with getting to know another person, I didn’t have to spend any time alone with myself. I preferred it that way.
With the newfound free time of singledom, I panicked. Throwing myself into hobbies, I started doodling, making floral arrangements, and writing regularly. I relearned Spanish. I joined a running club and started dancing again. My friends and I hosted dinner parties and poetry slams. Instead of trying to win over whichever unavailable artist I was dating, I spent my time trying to meet the artist in me.
Meanwhile, my social life started to change without alcohol as an anchor. Over the months, I met interesting people in the new communities I sought out. To my surprise, several people asked me on dates. Even though I liked myself more once I stopped drinking, it hadn’t occurred to me that other people might too.
I’m not saying that being asked out was the magic shortcut for me to get comfortable owning my sobriety. But it did show me that it’s possible to date without drinking, a love story I hadn’t seen depicted in rom coms growing up. When I met people through activities like running or writing, they got a much more accurate picture of who I am than they would have if we’d met for drinks. I started to wonder what else I had been getting wrong in my old way of dating, and took a hard look at my previous relationships.
It was clear that the way I had used to date, with sparks flying on a marathon night that went from drinks to dinner to dessert to nightcap, produced chemistry. But it didn’t beget intimacy. What did real intimacy look like? I wasn’t sure. More than the one-night-stand, rom com dreams I had been sold since I was a little girl, I wanted to know what being deeply known feels like.
Six months after my last drink, I rejoined the apps. No longer feeling the need to explain my sobriety, I put a quip about being a sober vegan on my dating profile (makes for a cheap date!) and called it a day. If asked why I didn’t drink, I answered by sharing what I’ve learned from not drinking instead. We spoke about how much more I was writing and how my marathon training had improved. Moving the conversation to what I’ve gained by not drinking helped me stop feeling like I needed to divulge what I had lost.
Dating without drinking was sobering in more ways than one. It was very clear from the first date whether I liked the person or not. There was no numbing my feelings, no hiding in the darkness of a sexy, dimly lit wine bar.
God, it was awkward.
Some dates were pretty bad. A walk with a wildlife photographer turned into a bird-watching jaunt (I’m afraid of birds). During coffee with a tantra instructor, he kept shouting body parts at the top of his lungs in a crowded cafe.
But even more sobering was the realization that I had gotten it all backwards. When I was drinking, I’d date with the sole purpose of making the other person like me. Only months in, I’d finally wake up and realize I didn’t like the person at all.
Dating without alcohol shortened this feedback loop from two months to two hours. Over the span of a dinner I could easily tell whether I felt energized or drained. I’ll never forget the first date that I realized I was not having fun. My date had not asked a single question to me over the span of two hours. When he went to the bathroom, I straightened up in my seat. I hadn’t noticed how long I had been hunched over and holding my breath.
“I’m not having a good time,” I thought as I exhaled.
The lightbulb went off. My face broke into an enormous smile.
“I’m not having a good time!” I wanted to jump up and shout across the restaurant, jubilant in my realization.
I didn’t have to be on a date with this person. He didn’t have to like me. I could leave. His opinion of me wouldn’t change my perception of myself. I owed him nothing. The time spent acting as a pseudo executive coach to a stranger on a first date could be better used making dinner with my friends. Or drawing alone in my room. Or sleeping. Literally anything else. I was no longer interested in dating people I needed to win over.
Since I was a child, I have been a chronic people pleaser, desperate to be liked. Choosing to stop drinking was the first time I had broken a social norm. It meant setting a boundary. I had to trust that the people who knew me deeply would understand and those who didn't, didn’t matter. I would not be liked by everyone, but I would like myself.
Taking the time away from dating allowed me to figure out who I was when I wasn’t trying to be like everyone else. When I did start dating again, I did so with a clarity and awareness I had never experienced before. I no longer needed another person to see me so that I could see myself.
What I didn’t anticipate is that sober dating is fun. Yes, the bad dates are bad, but the good are like nothing I’ve ever experienced. On one date, I physically fell off my chair laughing. On another, we stayed up until 6 a.m. talking and drinking tea. Every decision I make to further a relationship is a whole-hearted yes instead of a blurry maybe.
Dating without alcohol introduced me to real intimacy. It turns out that intimacy is not always sexy. I have found it in hard conversations and ugly cries. It builds slowly through the culmination of a million little moments of courage. Saying the things that needed to be said, soberly.
While dating now may not have the same fireworks that I used to seek out, the slow burn of honest communication has lit me from the inside out. I’m no longer anxious and confused, pretending to be chill and need-less, as I play games so someone will chase me. Now, I’m learning to set boundaries and express how I’m feeling.
Not only have I found intimacy with other people, but I have also rediscovered it with myself. I enjoy my time alone, and I’m proud of the person I am becoming. It turns out that what I looked for in other people was locked deep within myself. Only with the space of solitude and the clarity of sobriety was I able to access it.
All this time, I was looking for love in the wrong places. Instead of searching for a soulmate in a crowded bar, I needed to sit in a room alone and get to know myself.
Alcohol fueled chemistry, but sobriety has created intimacy. I’d choose the latter every time.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.