In a now famous Ted Talk, British journalist and author of Chasing The Scream Johann Hari shared his conclusion from significant research, that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection. Hari’s opinion is supported by psychiatrist and author Dr. Gabor Maté, who identified issues of isolation and poor interpersonal relationships as key issues for those who become addicted to drugs and alcohol. In his book, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Maté makes a convincing case that all addiction is actually a case of human development gone askew.
So, as with anyone, relationships and connectedness are crucial components to a full life to those recovering from an addiction like alcoholism. But what are the unique aspects of dating a sober alcoholic?
For a person who determines they are an alcoholic and must remain abstinent from alcohol going forward, establishing relationships with others can be difficult initially. For those with severe alcohol problems, the connection between the individual and alcohol can be considered a relationship. A destructive, toxic, and abusive relationship, but a relationship nonetheless.
Relationships in Early Sobriety
In early sobriety, the now sober individual must relearn, or possibly learn for the first time, appropriate skills for healthy relationships with others. Communication, intimacy, and trust can be difficult areas to master for the newly sober individual.
In some recovery circles, there is an unwritten suggestion that new romantic relationships are best avoided during the first year of sobriety. For proponents of this, the reasoning is that this is a time of great personal growth and self-work. Additionally, it is a period when sober skill building occurs, which both solidifies sobriety and allows the individual to gain skills to apply in relationships going forward.
If a newly sober person does get into a relationship too soon after getting sober, the concern is two-fold. Without more adaptive coping skills, the individual may reenact the negative patterns of former relationships that either occurred or led to alcohol. Also, the risk of relapse may be heightened by the emotional aspects of coping with a relationship, and the demands it may make.
Whether or not someone chooses to avoid relationships for a period of time in early sobriety or not, certain aspects of dating a recovering alcoholic remain.
A recovering author in a piece for Cosmopolitan wrote: “Drinking is one of the many socially acceptable ways to mitigate the self-protective barriers we erect to deal with dating. It loosens us up. It releases endorphins, making us feel confident, good-looking, and hilarious. It’s the perfect first date accessory — to everyone except the sober guy. We have to feel all those feelings without liquid courage.”
And herein lies the crux in some ways, of dating and socializing in a drinking culture. Wine with dinner seems like the civilized thing to do. Meeting for a drink at the bar after work or on a Friday night is seen as a great way to relax and unwind with friends. Meeting for drinks seems like the most common first date. A few drinks relieve the nervousness, you have the opportunity to talk and get to know each other, and if it doesn’t feel like a match, it can be ended quickly and cleanly.
The Culture of Drinking
Unlike illicit drugs, which are illegal in most of the world, drinking is often seen as harmless and socially acceptable – but alcohol is anything but harmless. The Washington Post published an article on The Hidden Cost of Your Drinking Habit. With data obtained from The Center for Disease Control on the toll of drinking in America, they obtained facts that were, well, sobering. “They found out that collectively, our national drinking habit costs society $249 billion a year. That cost comes primarily from excessive drinking — bingeing on four or more drinks per evening, or drinking heavily all week long. That total cost manifests itself primarily in things like early mortality due to alcohol ($75 billion of the total), lost productivity and absenteeism at work ($82 billion), health-care costs ($28 billion), crime ($25 billion) and car crashes ($13 billion).”
An article in The Guardian compared the drinking cultures of various countries. Though the amount of alcohol consumed and the circumstances (for example, in Italy, alcohol is imbibed most often along with food), it is clear that in most countries, alcohol plays a role in daily life.
So, what is a sober person to do in a world of drinkers? And, more specifically, what is dating like for both the sober person and their partner?
Keys to a Successful Relationship in Sobriety
It is easy to create a list of drawbacks and reasons why it is unwise to date someone with a history of alcohol abuse the main one being: What if they relapse? This is an understandable concern and a reason perhaps for both people in the relationship to move slowly and cautiously. This allows time for both people to get to know each other and gain some emotional intimacy before jumping into a serious relationship.
Openness and honesty is key in all relationships and especially so when one or both of the partners are sober. This is a time to learn about each other, talk about triggers, and what types of situations feel comfortable. Some recovering alcoholics have no problem if their partner drinks and feel no uneasiness going to bars or clubs where alcohol is served. For others, those situations are too risky and need to be avoided. The early part of a relationship is learning about each other and discovering whether there is compatibility.
Author Sarah Hepola wrote in an essay for Elle. “And online dating was not a bad move for me. It allowed me to inch toward intimacy with built-in distance. It granted me the clarity that “hanging out at the bar” often lacked. One of the great, unheralded aspects of Internet dating was that the word dating was in the title, thus eliminating any ambiguity. Were we dating? Was this a date? The answer was yes………..It also allowed me to say up front: I don’t drink. I’d worried so much about how to reveal this. I didn’t want to watch some guy’s face fall when I ordered a Diet Coke and then endure the pecks of his curiosity. So my “About Me” statement began “I used to drink, but I don’t anymore.” I’ve had stronger openings, but this one was good for now.”
Regina Walker is a psychotherapist and writer in NYC.