How to start sober dating —and why you should give it a go

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Your guide to sober datingKosamtu - Getty Images

Dating is hard. There’s connecting with someone new, picking the location for the date, coming up with conversation starters, choosing an outfit that looks nice but not too formal, and of course… to kiss or not to kiss? If you’re used to doing all of this with a shot of liquid courage, the thought of sober dating can add even more anxiety to first date jitters. Plus, how does someone who’s sober or sober-curious put themselves out there when 'let’s grab a drink' is usually the default first date invitation?

First, realise that you’re not alone—many more people are becoming sober-curious, even beyond Dry January and Sober October. In fact, 75 percent of Gen Z singles want dates that aren’t centered around alcohol because they want to be of sound mind while forming authentic connections, according to a June 2022 study from dating app Hinge. Two-thirds of the 3,000 singles surveyed also stated that seeing their date get drunk on the first date is a red flag.

This uptick indicates that daters don’t want to waste their time, says Scott Schutzman, LFMT, a psychotherapist based in New York. 'If they go on a date, they want to be sure that who they are meeting is who they really are. They are smart enough to know that alcohol can have an impact on one’s personality and also on one's judgment.' Schutzman adds that the increase in visibility and awareness for mental illness and addiction might be a factor, too.

Meet the experts:
Scott Schutzman, LMFT is a psychotherapist based in New York.

Amanda E. White, LPC is a licensed therapist and author of Not Drinking Tonight.

Bethany Stevens is a sober sex educator who's currently getting her PhD in sociology.

Keisha Scott is the host of Done With Debauchery, a sobriety and wellness podcast.

Whether you're in recovery, newly sober, or even just sober-curious in the wake of Dry January, you might still have some questions about dating without drinks: like, when is it time to get back out there? How do you tell a Hinge match that wine bars aren't exactly your vibe these days? And what do you even do on a sober date, anyway?

Ahead, everything I learned through my own sober dating journey—along with some more tips from therapists and women who have been there.

Why should I try sober dating?

I quit drinking in 2015 and started sober dating in 2016, so I’ve certainly had my own share of alcohol-free dating experiences. Dating without booze back then was still somewhat rare, and terms like sober-curious and months like Dry January definitely helped normalise the 'I’m not drinking right now' conversation.

But besides becoming more ubiquitous, alcohol-free dating has many benefits, even if you aren't in recovery. For one, having a clear mind can help you come up with out-of-the-box dates that can lead to a deeper connection, says Amanda E. White, LPC, licensed therapist and author of Not Drinking Tonight.

'You are more likely to discover if you truly enjoy spending time with this person without the haze of alcohol, and you are more likely to save time [figuring out if this person is right for you] when you are clear-headed,' White says.'Excessive alcohol use on dates can also lead to unhealthy behaviors like people-pleasing, and a booze-free date can help you stay on track while getting to know someone new.'

When should I jump into sober dating?

It’s hard to find a healthy relationship with, well, relationships, if you barely know yourself. On my own sober dating journey, I learned that early sobriety can be a vulnerable time: Not only was I learning to live without alcohol, but I learned to sit with, and talk about or journal about, those uncomfortable feelings that led me to drink in the first place. As a healthy distraction, I filled my time with those things I'd always wanted to do One Day. I took writing courses, studied Spanish, and even took an improv class (cringe!). I referred to this as my era of dating myself.

The idea of dating yourself is something I recommend to all folks who take a step back from booze. Yes, even folks in relationships! Whether you get into rock climbing, take a pottery workshop, or volunteer for an organization that means something to you, you’ll enjoy reconnecting with yourself while also connecting with like-minded people. Flexing those creative muscles can also help you feel more connected to who you are, even helping you feel more confident. Plus, you’ll have fun topics to discuss on your sober dates!

In some recovery communities, it’s suggested that people spend their first sober year single (unless, of course, you’re already in a relationship, but that’s a whole other conversation!). While one year of dating yourself is a nice idea, it’s not always realistic. Prolonging dating can also be a form of avoidance, says White.

'Some people may need to wait longer than one year because they're still repeating the same patterns,' she explains. 'It's more about doing the opposite of what you did in your addiction [rather] than the timeframe—noticing what your patterns are and trying to take action that's in alignment with your values.' You can also consult a licensed mental health professional (if accessible), sponsor, or recovery community for advice.

Identifying, then working through issues that often have you reaching for a drink as a coping mechanism can make your dating experience more intentional. 'If you’re always dating and always drinking, that can muddle what "your stuff" is,' White adds. 'Getting familiar with why you feel triggered can help you explain those feelings to a future partner.'

I found my partner through the sober community, so recovery is the foundation of our relationship. We each had over three years of sobriety, sober dating, and therapy under our belts before even meeting each other. The time we spent (and still spend!) working on ourselves helps us show up in a healthy way for each other.

When and how do I 'come out' as sober?

Dating apps make it much easier to share your relationship with sobriety—in fact, Bumble even has a filter you can use if you’re interested in dating other sober folks. 'Within your dating profile is a good place to throw down the info if you want to filter people out,' says Bethany Stevens, a sober sex educator currently getting her PhD in sociology. 'You may experience fewer responses, but they may be better matched to you.' Another option includes chatting about your sobriety or sober curiosity while exchanging DMs or texts. This approach might help you discover if they’re prioritizing a boozy date more than actually getting to know you, she adds.

Messaging an app match first? Try something like, 'Hey! Your dog is adorable (or reference something in their photo). Would you two like to go for a walk this afternoon?' This shows that you’re interested in their lives, while subtly suggesting a booze-free date.

Or, if you're replying to their 'Want to grab a drink?' message, try something simple like, 'I’d love to! As long as a drink includes tea or coffee.' Then suggest your favorite local spot or even or a sober bar.

Another option, Stevens says, is to wait until it’s time to order drinks on the actual date. This action can speak for itself without drawing too much attention or feeling like you’re 'coming out.'

Talking about being sober-curious can also be very different from letting someone know that you’re in long-term recovery from substance use disorder. 'Opening up about your recovery is a very personal thing,' Schutzman says, adding that, for many people, substance use is a literal matter of life or death. 'At a certain point, one comes to see that sobriety is a lifestyle that makes their life better. It opens the door to a life of possibilities and not a source of shame.'

You can (and should) share your sobriety journey with someone with a strong sense of dignity because you know that taking care of your personal, physical, mental, and emotional health is the top priority, he adds. And if your date can’t respect that? 'Then it’s simply time to say "Thank you, take care," and keep it moving,' says Schutzman.

What should I do on a sober date?

Spoiler alert: Dating is inherently booze-free! It’s up to us if we want to add the wine (or the margs or the negronis).

Remember the dating anxiety I mentioned earlier? One of the best zero-proof antidotes to first date jitters is doing something active like bowling, going for a walk, or taking a painting class.

It’s all about creating an experience, says Keisha Scott, host of Done with Debauchery, a sobriety and wellness podcast. 'My favorite sober date ideas would be playful things you can do together like going to a basketball game, a cooking class, or going for brunch and a walk,' Scott says. 'Ask yourself what you like to do and go do it. Literally anything you want to do can be a sober date idea.'

Like any date, a sober date can also end in the bedroom. If the thought of hooking up without alcohol feels overwhelming, you’re not alone. As a drinker, I felt more comfortable with sex (and other forms of physical intimacy) than I did with emotional intimacy (a.k.a., talking about my feelings or asking for what I wanted in bed). 'A lot of people use physical intimacy as a crutch—to avoid their feelings, to avoid having hard conversations, to avoid being honest with themselves or someone else,' White says.

So when you are ready to move to that next level, be honest with yourself and your partner about how you’re feeling, and the pace that works for you. Clear communication can be an example of building emotional intimacy. 'It's important for people to learn the difference between emotional intimacy and physical intimacy,' White continues. 'A lot of people use physical intimacy as a crutch, to avoid their feelings, to avoid having hard conversations, to avoid being honest with themselves or someone else.' Those 'hard conversations' can be straightforward, though. Sometimes, something simple like, 'This is my first time hooking up without alcohol. I need to take this slow,' can be quite effective.

With all these sober dating tips in your back pocket, you’ll no longer feel the societal pressure to 'just grab a drink.' Even better—you’ll realize you never needed the liquid courage, because you had that confidence inside you all along.

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