How to Date Without Drinking

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Terrifying isn't usually the first word most of think of when it comes to sex, yet in a recent interview, that's how Colin Farrell described his first time having sex after becoming sober. "It was lovely [...] She was very gentle, but it was terrifying," he told US Weekly. "Because I was just used to drunkenness and dark rooms and clubs and toilets and wherever.”

As Farrell illustrates, sex is just one of the many ways that relationships change when you're dating someone who is recovering from alcoholism. 

Relationships are tricky anyhow, but sobriety adds another layer of difficulty. "The emotional components of a romantic relationship can be triggering for some people," says Justine Shuey, Ph.D, a certified sexuality educator. The high of a new relationship, the lows of a fading one, or simply the normal stresses of a regular one can all increase the urge to drink, she says, adding that this is why Alcoholics Anonymous discourages people from starting new relationships or igniting old ones during the first year of recovery (current relationships are fine as long as the partner is supportive).

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So if you're dating someone newly sober, Shuey says to first remember that your partner's sobriety is not your responsibility—it's theirs. However, if you want to be a loving and supportive part of their recovery, there are definitely some things you can do.

1. Talk about your own drinking. Having a sober partner doesn't necessarily mean that you can never have a beer out with friends, Shuey says, but it depends on each individual. "Some are fine with others drinking around them, but many are not, so talk to your partner about what they can handle. When in doubt, just don't drink," she says.

2. Don't offer them alcohol. Sounds obvious, but so much of our culture revolves around alcohol that it's easy to slip and ask to meet them for drinks, invite them to a party where drinking is a main activity, or ask them if they want one. 

3. Recognize your relationship is different. Without the dampening effect of alcohol, many can find it hard to discuss their fears and insecurities, says Sheryl Ross, M.D., an ob-gyn at Saint John’s Health Center. These are skills you have to re-learn, both for the sober partner and the supporting partner. The good news, Ross says, is that not drinking makes it a lot easier for them to really pay attention to your needs and wants as well. 

4. Understand triggers. A trigger is anything that reminds the person of drinking and can cause intense cravings. Examples include certain friends, old hangouts, holidays, and even little things like music or liquor ads. Shuey recommends discussing what your partner's worst triggers are so you can help avoid them. 

5. Don't rush sex. "Alcohol lowers inhibitions, so it changes who people will have sex with, why they have sex, and what sex acts they will do," Shuey says. It might feel a little awkward at first—especially if you've been in the relationship for awhile—but before you hit the sheets, you need to discuss your boundaries and your partner's, realizing that they may be different now. And if you need alcohol to have sex, you probably shouldn't be having it. 

6. Skip the bar scene. One of the best things you can do is meet up in a sober environment (i.e. not a bar), making sure you plan dinners and other activities outside of establishments that primarily serve alcohol. 

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7. Find a support group for you. "Finding a community that you can really connect with is so important," says Mollena Williams, an alternative sex educator, and author of Playing Well With Others. Alcoholics Anonymous is a great resource for addicts in all stages of recovery, as well as families and loved ones of addicts.

8. Be careful about outing them. Shuey recommends being cautious in conversations with others—whether your partner wants to discuss their sobriety or not should be up to them. Don't put your partner in a situation where they either have to out themselves as a recovering alcoholic or go to a potentially triggering place. 

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