Navigating romance during Dry January? Here are tips for sober dating.

When it’s time to order beverages, you can simply say, “I’m not drinking tonight,” and opt for something nonalcoholic.

When it’s time to order beverages, you can simply say, “I’m not drinking tonight,” and opt for something nonalcoholic.

Tom McCorkle / For The Washington Post

Dry dating — getting to know someone in a setting without alcohol — can make first meetings less stressful and more fun, experts say. And with a clear head, you also may be able to better gauge whether you and your date mesh well.

And if you want to try sober dating, you’re likely to find a potential partner open to the idea. A January 2021 YouGov poll found that among adults who drink alcohol, 23 percent planned to participate in Dry January, a month of voluntary sobriety, including 27 percent of millennials. A July 2022 Gallup poll found that 71 percent of U.S. adults said alcohol has a negative effect on most drinkers.

Dating without drinking might feel strange at first, especially if you’re in recovery and aren’t sure how to navigate the process. But an alcohol-free date, which may grow into an alcohol-free relationship, doesn’t have to be complicated.

What are the benefits of dry dating?

Abstaining while getting to know someone has several benefits, experts say.

You may feel more confident. “People often drink alcohol to relieve anxiety,” says Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist in the division of alcohol, drugs and addiction at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “However, if you’re not relying on a substance, you may feel more confident presenting your authentic self.”

You can clearly decide whether you mesh well. “Dating sober affords space to determine whether the chemistry is genuine,” says Sarah Weston, manager of the recovery management-connection program at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Center City, Minn. “It allows individuals to show up and be fully present and engaged — it affords space for authentic conversation.”

You can plan more creative dates. Instead of meeting at a bar or restaurant, you can think “creatively about dates that don’t include drinking, which can lead to discovering shared interests,” Weston says.

You can prioritize your own needs for a partner. “It’s amazing what you settle for when you’re inebriated,” says Melissa Waugh, a nutrition health coach in Atlanta, who says she chose abstinence after two decades of excessive alcohol use. “Things that felt normal while I was drinking now feel completely unacceptable.”

Waugh said that she settled for things such as “people putting themselves before me.” She adds, “I wasn’t able to stand up for myself. I didn’t hold anyone accountable for poor behavior.”

You may feel safer. “Excessive drinking is linked to unwanted sexual aggression, and having a relationship built on sobriety may lessen this,” says Kenneth Leonard, professor of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo and director of the Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions. “Saying that you’d like to get to know your date without alcohol may be a way of providing some boundaries.”

How to navigate a dry date

Don’t make the evening about not drinking. When it’s time to order beverages, you can simply say, “I’m not drinking tonight,” and opt for something nonalcoholic. “Avoid making excuses like ‘I’m taking this medication and can’t drink right now,’” Sugarman says. “This gives the impression your sobriety is time-limited, and on the next date, you’ll need another excuse.”

Answer any question with honesty. Keep the conversation light, but be honest. “You can explain that being alcohol-free is a very positive thing,” says Lawrence J. Cheskin, professor of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University and adjunct professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “You could say, ‘I find that without alcohol, I can get to know people better.’ When you’re meeting new people, how they react to what you say will help you see if you have things in common, too.”

A study from Finland surveyed nondrinkers about their social experiences. They reported that they were most commonly asked to explain or justify their decision to abstain. You don’t have to divulge the reason for abstaining. Nor should you feel the need to order a drink because it makes your date more comfortable.

Lindsey Metselaar, a social media manager and podcast host in New York, was a sober dater before her marriage. “Most people are cool unless they tell you, ‘I don’t want to drink alone,’” she says. “That’s a reflection on their relationship to alcohol.”

On the other hand, you should not judge your date’s choice if they want to drink. “A partner doesn’t have to be alcohol-free to be supportive,” Sugarman says. “However, if drinking is a big part of that person’s life, they might not be a good fit for someone who has committed to sobriety.”

How to navigate more dates

If you choose to stay sober over more dates, addressing your choice in detail is important.

Have a deeper conversation. “If you’re moving on to a second or third date, you talk more in-depth,” Cheswick says. You can explain your reasons for not drinking and ask your partner what they think.

If you are abstaining because of problems with alcohol, it may be best to talk about, Leonard says. “If you have decided that alcohol is not conducive to the life and relationships you want, you can start the conversation by saying that,” he says. “Your partner’s reaction will give you an idea if this is a person who you want to continue to develop a relationship with.”

Your decision deserves respect. “Be willing to have honest, open and transparent communication about what you need from your partner for support,” Weston says. Your partner may decide to stop drinking as well, in solidarity and to make your life easier. This choice can create a very strong bond, she says.

No matter your reasons for staying sober, there is no need to compromise.

“If your partner is unwilling or unable to provide the support you need, reevaluate whether this is a relationship you want to continue,” Weston says. “You have many wonderful attributes, including being sober. You deserve a partner who embraces you as a whole person.”