You don't want to know the ludicrous number of possible love connections I've squashed by getting sloshed on a first or second date. The things that have come out of my mouth—both figuratively and literally—on nights out with strangers make me want to crawl into the cozy cocoon of my bed and stay there.
So it's probably—no, definitely—smart that in 2006 I decided to give up drinking. I'd had enough embarrassing nights out; I'd woken up beside more than my fair share of unattractive strangers, and was, in turn, more than ready to bid farewell to the drunken rants, crying jags and battles with lovers, friends, cab drivers, cashiers and waiters. I also thrilled at the notion of never having another hangover. (Seriously, my hangovers were baaaaaad.)
I'm not sure whether I classified as an alcoholic. I didn't have to drink every day, though most days I did. Sometimes alcohol helped me relax and have fun. Sometimes it turned me into a yelling, crying beast. And there was no way to tell, when I was tossing back a vodka soda, which me would emerge that night.
But when I said goodbye to alcohol and its commensurate drama, I didn't intend to bid farewell to dating. I saw my romantic future shimmering atop a cotton candy cloud of contentment and stability. Once I was sober and ready, Mr. Right would surely be waiting for me, albeit at the local coffee shop instead of the next bar stool.
It sucked to discover that alcohol-free dating was still, well, dating: an ouchy dance of anticipation, expectations and artifice. And for those of us who don't drink, dating can be even more of a mixed bag. Why? Because in case you missed the memo, most Americans are all about alcohol. We meet for happy hour at 5 p.m., dine with wine at 7 p.m., meet lovers at a bar later on, and make every excuse to have another round. And we don't always do it gracefully—about 18 million Americans have alcohol problems, but only 1.5 million have been treated for them. Yes, it's depressing; almost makes you want to hit the bottle. Just kidding.
So here are some tips to help you navigate the wild world of dating without drinking. If nothing else, you'll remember the sex afterward—and, hopefully, actually like the people you wake up with the next morning.
1. Find folks worth dating.
You're sober, stable and on the prowl. Problem is, you have no clue where to meet potential love connections now that pub-crawling isn't an option. Where to find cuties who are cool with your new lifestyle? Try asking supportive friends whether they know any awesome, eligible bachelor/ettes who aren't big drinkers. Like attracts like. You can also try the ever-evolving world of sober online dating: not only can you search for non-drinkers on all the usual dating sites, there are also sober-only services like soberseek.com, sobersocial.com, recoveringmates.com, and soberkiss.com. If a date has difficulty grasping the fact that you don't drink, drop him and move on. There are too many options out there to waste time with someone who won't support your attempts to live your happiest life.
2. Coffee, coffee, coffee
You've been flirting online with Mr. SexyPants via SnookFinder.com for a week when he asks if you'd like to meet up. You say yes. He asks where. You freeze, cough, check your work email, Google your high school sweetheart again and put away the computer. Now take a deep breath and break that laptop back out. When someone who doesn't know you're alcohol-free asks where you'd like to go on a first date, it's best to suggest a quiet spot where alcohol isn't readily available. Meeting for coffee or tea is a great first date option; there's no lengthy dinner service to endure, so if s/he doesn't float your boat, you're free to bail post-latte.
What if Mr. HotBuns doesn't request your input about where to meet and instead asks, point-blank, "Want to meet for drinks on Thursday?" Now is the time to tell him you don't drink. Offer these three words: "I don't drink," followed by something you will do, i.e. "I don't drink, but I'd love to meet you for coffee on Thursday." Or, if you're cool with watching him imbibe, say that—"Sure, although I don't drink, but I don't mind watching you while I sip a Diet Coke." No need to explain further.
3. The dinner option
If you choose to meet McHottie for dinner, you'll probably have to handle the Weird Wine Hurdle. This occurs when the waiter asks whether you have any questions about the wine list, you say "no," your date orders a glass of something and then either the waiter or Yummy asks whether you'd like a glass too. What now?
My friend Kelly, a 33-year-old makeup artist and recovering alcoholic, suggests keeping it simple: "No, thank you—water [or whatever I'm drinking] is fine." Then, quick-like and before your date has time to notice, ask a question to steer the conversation to something more interesting than alcohol.
If you find that sipping on something other than water helps distract from first date awkwardness, nurse a Shirley Temple, Diet Coke or ginger ale. You'll feel like less of an oddball, and your probably date won't notice s/he's the only one getting buzzed. If s/he does notice—or if you feel uncomfortable with your date drinking around you—you have every right to cut the date short and walk away. One of the healthiest things you can do for yourself as a dry dater is learn how to leave when you're in an awkward situation. Remember, you don't have to stay anywhere, or with anyone, that makes you feel anxious. Your mental health comes first.
4. If s/he asks why you don't drink, be coy.
Unless you want to pop open a can of inappropriate, be evasive when your date asks why you don't drink.
My friend Michelle, a 29-year-old recovering alcoholic, tells guys she dates that she's a "reformed party girl" or an "ex-bad girl." She doesn't explain further, and they usually don't ask. If they do, she just says "long story" and changes the subject.
Kelly tells dates that she's "allergic to alcohol" (an idea that's common among recovering alcoholics, because drinking makes them sick). Remember, it's just a date—you have the right to reveal personal details about yourself as slowly as you want.
5. Relax already.
For me, the hardest part of dating sans drinking is the lack of lubrication to calm my nerves. It sounds corny, but taking some long, deep breaths before a date both centers you and settles the ever-spinning "what if?" thought loop. Inhale the essence of serenity, confidence and sex appeal; exhale the anxiety.
6. Learn subtle flirting techniques.
It's harder to feel uninhibited when you're not tipsy, so get used to the idea of subtle, grade-school style flirting techniques, like frequently patting your prey on the knee or arm, maintaining steady eye contact, and smiling and laughing at his or her better jokes.
You might feel too shy to bust a move without the help of vodka's loosening properties, but if you let your interest and intentions be known subtly, your date should get the hint.
If the chemistry is kicking and you feel like you'll explode if s/he doesn't touch you, take the initiative and invite Boytoy upstairs for tea or hot cocoa at the end of the date. Remember, "come upstairs" is pretty clear in any language—drunk or not.
The Other Side Of The Table: You're A Drinker Who's Dating Someone Sober
What if you're not a recovering alcoholic, but you're dating someone who is? Generally speaking, sober folks want support and encouragement. You don't have to abstain from drinking all the time, but refraining from imbibing around them is always appreciated. "I try to date women who don't find it weird that I'm sober," says Craig, who's been clean for three years. "The worst thing a woman can do is get wasted around me, or try to push me to have some. I need someone who really supports my recovery."
Jeannette, a sober alcoholic who hasn't has a drink in 10 months, agrees. "I don't necessarily feel tempted if I'm someplace where people are drinking, but it's just not that fun to be around a guy who's throwing them back.
Don't question your date's decision not to drink. Respect her sobriety, don't push her, and—if you want to make a really good impression—don't drink in her presence. If, heaven forbid, your partner relapses, the best thing to do is give her time and space to get her proverbial sh*t together. Don't disappear on her—your support is necessary in times like these—but give her leeway to work through her feelings.
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