3 Reasons Sober Dating May Be the Move for You

Sober dating (also known as dry dating) is the newest thing you've likely already seen mentioned on dating apps. As the name suggests, it's what happens when people date completely sober. Sure, it makes sense for people who can't or choose not to drink as a lifestyle, but for those of you who do enjoy the casual cocktail or glass of wine, especially to ease any nerves, shyness, or social anxiety, dating without the crutch of alcohol is a tough sell.

Interest in dry dating is ticking up, though, and Bumble even predicted it would be a popular dating trend last year. The app linked it to a larger COVID-related shift, reporting that 25 percent of Americans say they drink less now than before the pandemic. "This shift has affected dating, with 34 percent of folks using the Bumble app saying that they're more likely to go on a 'dry date' now than pre-COVID," Bumble noted.

Therapist and dating coach Jessica Engle, LMFT, director of the Social Anxiety Support Center and Bay Area Dating Coach, agrees that the pandemic is the most likely cause behind the shift in drinking-while-dating habits. "We've had a lot of calls from people who [said], 'Look, I need to work on my dating life, because I realized that I want a life partner,'" she explains. "I think that people are, in some cases, getting more serious about finding their partner, and they want to do it in a way that is healthy and very clear-eyed."

Convinced? Not so convinced? We talked to Engle about the ins and outs of sober dating, how to know if it's right for you, and some anxiety-coping mechanisms that could replace your usual drinks.

What Is Sober Dating?

Coined as "dry dating," sober dating is dating without any type of substance (including drugs, alcohol, and more), Engle says. Since dating culture so often revolves around casually meeting up for drinks, you're not alone if the thought of dating sans alcohol feels daunting — especially if you've come to rely on alcohol to loosen up over an awkward first date. Despite all this, Engle says dry dating does offer some substantial benefits:

It allows you to be fully yourself and develop a genuine connection. Staying sober can help you keep a clear mind on a date. "You're really seeing the person across from you clearly," Engle says, and you are better able to judge how deep your connection really is. "If we have a substance in our systems, we're not our perhaps truest self," she explains. "We don't actually get to use that experience to gauge whether we're a good fit with the other person." Staying sober might help you be more authentic.

Being honest and vulnerable about your nerves can actually make you more attractive. If you usually drink on or before a date to quiet your nerves, consider being honest about your feelings instead. It's possible those anxious feelings you want to numb could actually open the door to a deeper connection. Try saying something like, "Wow, I don't know about you, but I had some butterflies getting ready today," to break the ice and see how they respond.

You'll get better at dry dating over time. One of the main tenets of social-anxiety treatment, Engle says, is that "we have to give our nervous systems a chance to have an experience and process it sober, in order to get used to it." Adding a substance into the mix "buffers" the experience of the date and doesn't allow you to truly get used to the person or even the situation of being on a date. "If you're not giving yourself that sober space to ease in with [your date], it's hard to have a very strong foundation," Engle says.

All of this said, dry dating also comes with some challenges. For one, you may notice a lack of confidence, since drinking lowers our inhibitions and often makes us feel more sexy and self-assured. You might find that it's also awkward to explain why you're not drinking to your date. "That can be challenging for some people. It can feel like, 'Oh, I'm rocking the boat,'" Engle explains. But it's worth nothing that someone who hassles you for not drinking probably isn't worth the date anyway.

While these aren't necessarily meant to discourage you from sober dating, it's worth noting where you might have some difficulty so it won't feel like a surprise attack when some social anxiety pops up or an awkward situation arises.

Is Sober Dating For You?

As with most things surrounding dating, whether you drink or not is a personal choice. Given the benefits we talked about above, it's likely that most of us could benefit from a bit of dry dating, but it could be particularly helpful for people who are truly looking for their life partner, Engle says. "They're going to want to be as clear-eyed and mindful as possible on those dates to make sure that the alcohol is not making the person look more attractive or clouding their vision," she explains.

Of course, it's normal to feel a bit unsure about actually trying dry dating, especially if you tend to lean on alcohol or other substances to help you relax or relieve anxiety. Luckily, Engle says, "there are a lot of other ways to relax, and there are so many practices that can allow us to be present and grounded with another person." It might take more effort, she says, but "it does set us up for more relational success in the long run."

How to Not Be Nervous on a Date

Here are a few things you can do to calm your nerves if you decide to skip the drinks:

Take a deep breath to relax in the moment. "Deep breathing is one of the most powerful, most portable, most invisible tools we have for managing our state [of mind]," Engle says. Take one big deep breath to clear your mind, and try to exhale for a little longer than you inhale to really relax. You can also excuse yourself for a couple minutes or go to the bathroom if you need a longer reset period.

Exercise before your date to sweat out some stress. Pre-date exercise can help you work off some of your excess energy, which allows you to feel less nervous and calmer. Plus, that rush of endorphins can help you feel more positive — research has shown that even one 30-minute workout can improve body image, which might boost your confidence.

Start a meditation practice. Meditating before a date can be a great way to loosen up and calm down, but Engle also recommends starting a regular meditation practice. "Your nervous system, your brain starts to learn what it's like to go into that calm state when you want to," she explains.

Try therapy if your anxiety is preventing you from opening up. "If you're at the level where you can't think of things to say, you're completely freezing up, blanking, that's a level of social anxiety that I think is best to actually address with therapy," Engle says. "The truth is, if you are that shy or socially anxious at the beginning of the relationship, and that's not attended to, it's going to come up later in the relationship in some way." You might consider looking for a therapist who specializes in social anxiety, dating, relationships, or whatever specific needs you have.