The Perils of Sober Dating

Is it possible to navigate the dating minefields without a single drop of alcohol? One brave writer finds out.

woman drinking cocktail
(Image credit: Scott and Zoe)

It seemed like only yesterday: I was on a blind date with a friend-of-a-friend. She'd described him as "cute, successful, the total package." He was all that and chivalrous, too, rising from his bar stool when I arrived and asking if he could get me a drink. "Oh, just a seltzer," I said. Though he was already nursing a vodka drink, he didn't flinch at my response. But before we'd even finished the appetizers, his two vodkas had turned into four, and by the time dinner arrived, he was slurring his words. In my old life, I probably wouldn't have noticed — I might have kept up with him. But when you're sober, spending three hours with a guy who keeps trying to hang his jacket on the hook under the bar while he's still wearing it is torture.

See, I decided to quit drinking after a 10-year battle with insomnia and sleeping pills. Though never a huge drinker, I was a steady one — easily downing up to three glasses of red wine per night — and since I'd become hopelessly addicted to Ambien, I was afraid that alcohol might turn problematic, too. At the time, I was freshly single, and it had been a while since I'd been called upon to make awkward conversation with a stranger, play the "Who's Going to Pay for Dinner?" game, or watch an unfamiliar face lean in for a kiss. Was it even possible to make it through a first date without a single sip of wine?

For the first year, I didn't have to answer that question because I didn't date at all in order to get used to my new life: to have fun at a party without a drink in my hand, tear up the dance floor sober, and unwind from a stressful day by meditating instead of pouring a glass. But eventually, it was time for me to start dating again, so I reactivated my online profile. The first guy who wrote to me asked why I'd checked "Never" under "My drinking habits." I didn't think he needed to know about my sleep issues, so I wrote, "Alcohol doesn't really agree with me." I never heard from him again. The next guy did ask me out, but grew visibly uncomfortable when I ordered a seltzer on our date. "Aren't you going to have a glass of wine?" he asked. "Oh ... it says on my profile that I don't drink," I said. "It does?" he said incredulously. "I must not have noticed that." I never heard from him again, either.

When I vented to a guy friend, he said, "Well, you can't really blame these guys. I don't trust a woman who doesn't drink. Is she afraid that if she lets down her defenses her true colors will show?" Another guy friend weighed in, "Without alcohol, you have to work harder to connect on a deeper level. And if you embarrass yourself, she's going to notice." And another guy put it this way, "It's simple: Alcohol = less inhibited = I have a better chance to score."

Regardless, I started meeting dates in cafés instead of bars and making plans that took place at museums and parks. But inevitably, we would move on to dinner dates and I would be faced with the same conundrum. And yet I didn't want to add drinking — a fairly universal activity — to my list of deal-breakers, along with doesn't want children and still involved with his ex. How many guys was I going to reject when I was actively looking for a boyfriend? I got why people liked to drink — hell, even I mis-sed nights that began with polite chitchat and ended with us draped over a stranger's car. Those things never happened in sobriety, and it didn't seem fair.

One night, I was out with a friend in New York City who introduced me to a guy who was a bit boring — but indisputably hot — and as the night wore on, I thought, It's been a long time since I've had sex. Here was my chance to have a fun romp, to prove that casual sex was just as fun sober as it was with a buzz. So I invited him back to my place. As soon as we arrived, he started removing my clothes. I then realized that sex with a stranger while stone-cold sober is an entirely different concept altogether. I did not stumble to the bedroom in a happy, confident daze as my clothes melted off my body; rather, he unbuttoned my shirt, struggling with one of the buttons. I held one arm over my breasts and said, "Hold on, let me play some music." He sidled up behind me and started to push my jeans over my hips; I quickly straightened up, gave him a strangled smile, and said, "Um, the bedroom is ... in there." He tried to pick me up to carry me to the bed; I couldn't make my legs pliant enough to leave the floor. It was the most awkward experience ever, and the sex wasn't much better. I just wasn't interested in his personality, and without booze, I couldn't force my body to experience uninhibited pleasure.

For a year, I straddled my old and new life. On dates, I had to dig within to find confidence — and sometimes, it simply wasn't there. Instead of reaching for a glass of wine to calm my nerves, I had to reach for something else: a deep breath, a new thread of conversation, a little prayer. Used to telling men I was "an open book," I had to learn how to stop over-sharing. Did a first — or second, third, or fourth — date really need to know that I hadn't spoken to my father in eight years? For the first time, I understood that one couldn't know a person after only a few dates, and I should notice a guy's actions rather than fantasize about what our wedding would be like.

Then, a funny thing happened: I started to attract an entirely new type of guy. One who was unfazed by the fact that I didn't drink. One who didn't drink much, either, though he might cut loose from time to time. What stimulated him were good conversation and spontaneous adventure.

Not too long ago, one of these new types — a guy I'd actually been dating for several weeks — made dinner for me. After eating lamb shanks and apple tarts, we lay on his couch, watching a DVD. Suddenly, he said, "I have a crazy idea, and stop me if it's weird: Want to take a steam together?" Though we hadn't had a drop to drink — and hadn't yet seen each other naked — we raced upstairs and jumped in his steam room. Here's the thing: When you realize that a drink isn't necessary to abandon your inhibitions, you're privy to your real wild side — the part that feels safe enough to let go. Then you know that your confidence comes from inside of you rather than the inside of a bottle. Best of all? You get to remember — and savor — every moment.