On drinking and dating

When I first stopped drinking, I didn’t plan to stay stopped. If I had, the prospect of sober dating would have loomed as large and terrifying as that of sober holidays.

Here was my worry: dating would be boring without alcohol. I enjoyed drinking so much that, even on the least promising first-dates (which, let’s be honest, is most first dates), I knew at least alcohol would be involved. In fact, it was unclear to me whether I liked dating at all, or if it was just so closely associated with (free) drinks that I was conflating the two.

Even in my rum-colored glasses, I knew: most dates are disappointing, and most people are worse than they seem on the app. This isn’t a comment on the human condition, mind you; I don’t think most people “suck,” objectively (whatever that means). I just think most people “suck” at the very particular niche role required by a first date, i.e., being a person I could see myself with. (If not in the long-term, then at least on a second date).

Mostly, I was right. That is, I was right that dating was a lot less exciting without alcohol. And indeed, I went on way fewer dates after I stopped drinking. I was chagrined (though not surprised) to find that booze had been driving most of my excitement to “go out.” But oddly, this did not make me miss alcohol. Rather, I thanked my lucky stars that I was done with it. After going on a couple first dates that were conclusively dull without alcohol, I thought, Wow. Had liquor been involved, I might have promised that snoozefest a second date. (Again, I mean that in the most humanistic, life-honoring way possible.)

Here’s the other thing they don’t tell you about dating sober: when it’s good, it’s really good. The moment you realize you are wholly and completely enjoying someone’s company through your pure and unfettered consciousness – that’s the moment you feel human. When you think, Oh. Maybe I really didn’t need alcohol to feel high. When you have forgotten yourself, not in a drunken haze, but because you are so fully engaged with the other – that’s only possible sober.

I’ll put it in terms you could understand, though I never have. Word on the street is that the best steaks don’t need A1 sauce. (Again, I don’t pretend to get it.) A bad and even moderate steak will be improved with steak sauce, but the best ones will be tarnished. That’s like dating without alcohol. Bad dates are improved by a drink. The same is true all the way up to a B+ kind of date. But you’ll never see your A+ date in all his glory when you’re covering him with condiments. (Erm. I mean. When you’re drinking.)

When my boyfriend and I started dating, I suggested a bar for our first date. In Wisconsin, bars are the norm for first dates, and I figured it was better than betting on an entire dinner with a stranger. At the last moment, he messaged me from the app: “Hey – just realized the place you suggested is a bar, and I actually don’t drink. If that’s not a deal breaker, want to meet somewhere else?”

I almost fell off my seat. Not a dealbreaker!? I’m in Madison, WI, and an attractive person under 25 just so happens to not drink? I tried to keep my obvious excitement to a minimum, the way you do on first dates when you don’t want to show someone they’re special. I said “sure!” and quickly suggested the place with the best sweet potato fries.

I’m telling you: skip the sauce. When it's good sober, it’s really good.