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How to Navigate Dating when One Match Drinks and the Other Doesn’t

By Ashley Edwards Walker

Meeting for drinks is a first date go-to. It’s fun, simple, and makes it blessedly easy to dictate how much time you want to spend with a potential partner. (Are you motioning for the check after one cocktail? Or suggesting extending the evening to include dinner?) But for the growing number of sober or sober curious millennials and Gen Zs out there, drinks are no longer the default date idea. In fact, in a recent Bumble survey, 34% of respondents worldwide shared that they’re now more likely to consider going on a ‘dry date’ than they were pre-pandemic.

While the reasons for not drinking vary (being in recovery, prioritizing one’s health, a serious aversion to hangovers), at the end of the day sobriety is just one of the many lifestyle choices each of us makes, like being vegan or deciding to remain child-free. Navigating dates when one person drinks and the other abstains doesn’t need to be awkward—and it’s certainly not a relationship deal-breaker. So what exactly is the best policy for getting to know a match when one of you is alcohol-free and the other isn’t? Bumble asked experts and sober daters to get their best advice.

Disclose your sobriety when and how you’re comfortable.

Sometimes, it’s best to get to the point, and listing your sober status on your dating profile certainly does that. Plus, it can be a helpful way to filter out people who aren’t compatible with a substance-free partner. That’s the pragmatic approach Adam, 33, took after getting sober in 2014 and going through a divorce. “For what I’m looking for at this point in my life, I’d rather have a more narrow field to play,” he explains. “I think putting it on my profile ultimately saves everybody a bit of time.” Still, others believe context is key. Elissa, 30, has been sober since 2014 and learned that her dates go better when she discloses her sobriety face to face. Simply reading that information on a dating profile, she worries, “can cause people to assume it’s a religious thing, or a judgmental thing. I want to be able to explain it in my own words.” 

Either approach is fine and, ultimately, just one of many conversations that need to take place when dating someone new. So don’t let it be a roadblock. Plenty of sober folks are open to dating a partner who drinks (both Adam and Elissa have). The crucial thing is for all parties to be honest with themselves and their match about the role alcohol plays in their life and how much they’re willing to compromise.

Consider making the first date dry

As co-founder of Lionrock Recovery, a telehealth rehab program, Ashley Loeb Blassingame has learned a thing or two about dating without alcohol. If you’re sober or sober curious, if you think (or know) your date is sober, or if you’re just looking for a booze-free meet up, Loeb Blassingame’s suggestion for a first date is meeting for coffee. “It’s during the day,” she explains. “It can be a long date or short date. You can add food, or not. It’s a safe way to interact with somebody, talk to them, and feel them out.” (For more alcohol-free first date ideas, see here!)

Dry first dates also help ensure both parties feel in full control of their safety and cognitive abilities, which is important when laying the groundwork for any potential relationship. In Adam’s experience, going on a first date with someone who’s drinking when he’s not puts him in “a defensive state” because he feels pressured to “spill my beans” about why he’s sober before he’s emotionally ready to share. “Once we get to know each other and the trust is there, then I have no issue with somebody drinking a bit while we’re hanging out,” explains Adam. “It’s just that initial contrast [in sobriety] that can create a disconnect.” And if you’re someone who isn’t ready to give up having a glass or two of wine on date night, fear not. You can always continue the discussion and set new boundaries for future dates down the line. 

But not all dates need to be alcohol-free 

While keeping the first date free of drinking is a good idea, that doesn’t mean that all of your dates need to be sober. A picnic in the sunshine, meeting up at a bar to play shuffleboard, planning a taco truck crawl—these are all excellent second, third, or even 10th date ideas when one person doesn’t drink: alcohol might be present, but consuming it is not the main activity. In fact, opting for activity-based outings, like playing mini golf or taking a cooking class together, is great for all couples regardless of whether the individuals drink, says Liz Higgins, therapist and founder of Millennial Life Counseling. “People tend to open up more and differently when they’re doing an activity,” she says. “Doing something experiential helps us get connected to deeper elements of our feelings.” 

Have a go-to bev of choice 

If your date doesn’t know that you’re not drinking and asks to split a bottle of wine or offers you a cocktail, it doesn’t have to turn into a whole thing. If you’re not ready to explain the whys of your sobriety, Loeb Blassingame says it’s totally fine to keep your response simple. “Just say, ‘no, thank you.’ Then order a virgin cocktail,” she recommends. Luckily, more and more restaurants and bars are introducing signature mocktail offerings, making booze-free dating even easier. If you’re a drinker and still inclined to have a cocktail, Loeb Blassingame assures there’s no reason to feel weird. “Just ask, ‘Are you comfortable with me having a drink? I want to be respectful.’” Check in with each other, order what you want, then get back to the conversation.

Avoid projecting your own feelings about drinking onto your date.

When Elissa tells dates that she doesn’t drink, she often finds herself needing to comfort them. “I have to really reassure people, like, ‘I swear, we can go to a bar. It’s okay for me to go to a party. I don’t mind if you have a couple of drinks,’” she says. Loeb Blassingame says these exchanges often occur when “we’re treating sobriety like it’s something bad or awkward,” which can cause both parties to feel guilty. “I don’t want my recovery to make anyone else feel bad because then I feel like I’m doing something wrong,” Loeb Blassingame, who has been sober for 16 years, says. So, if you find yourself on a date with someone who reveals they’re sober and you find yourself feeling concerned about it, ask yourself why. Are you feeling bad about drinking alone? Judged? Worried about appearing inconsiderate? Deciphering where those feelings come from will help you determine whether there’s potential for a long-term match despite the differences in lifestyle.

After all, compatibility between two people doesn’t hinge on their respective decisions to drink or not to drink. It’s dependent on whether the people in the relationship are willing and able to make space for their partner’s needs and be tolerant of their choices, even if they differ from their own.