6 Things To Keep In Mind If You're Dating Sober

Photographed by Eva K. Salvi.
Deciding to get into recovery is a huge life choice and, while it's ultimately a net positive in a person's life, getting sober can make certain things harder: like dating. Finding someone you like who aligns with your values is a tricky process anyway — and doing it at a time when you're already in flux can add to the challenge.
"The first two years of being in recovery are really a time where people rediscover who they are," says Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW, a clinician at Newport Academy, an adolescent treatment center for maladaptive coping mechanisms. "Their identity was probably wrapped up in the substances; who they are, who they hang out with, what they do in their free time relates to harmful behaviors to a large extent," she says. And when you're thrust into an environment like the single world, where you're constantly putting yourself out there to be judged, it's that much harder.
"You get used to that lubricant of having a drink, or whatever your poison was to feel comfortable, or at least less-inhibited to actually be myself," says Ryan, 26, a cycling instructor in Philadelphia, who is in recovery. "Not having it is something I had to get used to and still have trouble with," he says. Here are some tips, whether you're in recovery or just not into drinking, for finding those connections and making them last — at least until the end of the date.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.
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Sober dates aren't lame.

Socially, everything shifts when you're in recovery, Monroe says. If the thought of having to plan a date paralyzes you, take yourself back to the activities that brought you joy before you were getting high — and just bring along the other person, she says. "Dates don’t have to be at night and they don’t have to be at bars or coffee shops," Monroe says. Ryan says he likes to go on walks for a first hangout, or invite his date over to cook a meal (which is usually cheaper than going out). You can go biking, take a painting class, even go grocery shopping — it's not boring if the company is good, and it can actually make your initial connection stronger. "The more things you do together, and the more of a life you have without substances, the more of a connection you're going to have with someone that's genuine and authentic," Monroe says.
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You don't have to spill your soul right away.

Sobriety doesn't have to be in your dating profile, or even a topic of conversation on the first date until you absolutely feel like you're ready, Monroe says. "Some people want to wait to see if they even like the person to mention sobriety — because why be vulnerable if this person isn't my type anyways?" she says. How and when you go about telling them is completely up to you, just be honest and let them have their reaction, she says. "When someone asks me out for drinks I tend to play the tape forward in my head like, 'Ugh, my sobriety going to be a thing and I'm going to offend them' — but it doesn't actually matter," Ryan says.
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You can say as much or as little as you want.

There's also no "right way" to tell a potential partner about your sobriety, Monroe says. Curiosity from a potential partner is normal, but that doesn't mean you're obligated to provide every detail to someone right away, Monroe says. Ryan says he likes to let his dates decide how deep the conversation should go — he mentions his history and lets them ask the questions they're curious about. But just like you wouldn't necessarily bring up an ex on a first date, it's up to you to decide what's worth telling. "In the beginning, it's raw and there's a tendency to tell more or nothing at all, but as we get more comfortable with our identity with this new person that we are, it becomes less of a big deal to the person," Monroe says.
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Some people aren't worth it.

If a person you're seeing reacts negatively to your sobriety, you don't owe them anything in return, Monroe says. "When someone makes up their mind about something, there's not much you can do to convince someone otherwise," she says. "It's harmful to yourself to convince someone that you're likable even though you don't drink," she says. And if someone isn't accepting of your lifestyle and judges you for being sober, that's a red flag that you wouldn't want to hang out with that person anyway, she says.
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Don't make excuses for people outside your comfort zone.

Everyone's relationship with substances is completely different, and Monroe says you should figure out what you're comfortable being around and make sure that's in line with your partner. If you're dating someone who's drinking or doing drugs, ask yourself if being around them makes you want to drink, or just makes you feel weird in general. Making an exception for the person's habits just because you're attracted to them isn't going to help you in the long run. Ryan says he went on a date once and, even though they had a connection, his date was talking about his own substance abuse the night before. "I was like, 'I love that you're so open; continue living your life and I'll live mine,' but I can't have that," he says.
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You don't always have to be on the prowl.

If you head into every party or room looking for a partner, the pressure will be on. "Just because you're in a situation where people are looking for something — like at a bar, where everyone is trashed — it doesn't mean you have to be," Ryan says. "I realized that's not how I want to meet people." Before a healthy, sustainable relationship is possible, you have to establish your own identity within the support group you have, Monroe says. For some people that means going to a 12-step program, but there's a large population that doesn't and they're still living thriving lives, she says. Other people might be drawn to groups and meet-ups where alcohol doesn't have a place, but even that might not be where you find someone you like, Monroe says. "Finding a connection and being vulnerable is something we all work on, not just sober people."

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