drunk dating?
August 24, 2009 12:09 AM   Subscribe

I am a recently recovering alcoholic. I am casually dating someone who does not know I am a recovering alcoholic. Should I tell him? How should I tell him? Should I end things all together?

I am a very recently recovering alcoholic, as in I’m still in outpatient treatment. I’ve also recently started dating this great guy who I’ve known for almost a year now. I would classify our dating relationship as somewhat casual. We talk on the phone every night and see each other once or twice a week.

He knew me when I was drinking but he never saw the points when I hit rock bottom while drunk. I think he might be suspicious I have a drinking problem (as anyone who has seen me come into contact with booze normally is), but has never brought it up.

I am financially stable, employed, intelligent, educated. I am many things. I am also an alcoholic.

He has a normal, healthy attitude about drinking.

He doesn’t know I’ve quit drinking entirely. I’ve told him I’ve decided to take a break from alcohol when we’ve been out.

He has done and said a lot of things that suggest he’d like to become more serious. I’m not going to list them but I’m fairly certain he would like to pursue things further.

We’ve slept together. We’ve had great sober sex. But we once had sex during a relapse of mine. I was black out drunk. In order to explain why I do not think he was sleazy is because of two points. Number one being that we had sober sex several times before that. He was also not present when I consumed alcohol (I was with other people). Number two is that when I’m blacked out, I’m fully functional. There have been many times I’ve walked around, carried conversations, purchased items, etc., without people realizing the point of my intoxication.

I like him a lot. I hate what I’m doing. I want to tell him that I’m an alcoholic but I’m afraid. Obviously I have to tell him, right? Or do you think I should just cease all contact without explanation (spare us the pain, humiliation, and awkwardness that a confession would bring)? If I tell him, how detailed should I be? Obviously I’m not going to give him my first step, but would a succinct “by the way..” be enough?

I know Alcoholics Anonymous strongly suggests not dating anyone while in recovery, but part of me thinks that this could be healthy if we maintain a casual dating relationship. I know I can’t continue to do this to him. It isn’t fair. Should I tell him and then end things before things get messy? What should I do in this already mess of a situation in order to treat him kindly, fairly?

I’d like some objective advice about what I should do. Thank you.

As a side note, I am posting this anonymously for a friend who posts on MetaFilter. I don't have any professional or personal ties to this username whereas she does.
posted by somersault to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Or do you think I should just cease all contact without explanation (spare us the pain, humiliation, and awkwardness that a confession would bring)?

That would be harsh, and would leave him pretty damn confused. Seems cruel to me. "Not dating anyone" means don't start a relationship. It doesn't mean you throw a current relationship into the trash can because you're in recovery.

I think a "by the way" is pretty safe, and really there's nothing wrong with "I'm trying to stop drinking because I don't like myself when I drink." (or something like that) is very harmless. With such a large number of people more openly fighting addictions of various sorts, it doesn't have a stigma like it might have fifty years ago.

If he might be a serious relationship candidate, this seems like a great way to find out, too. A decent person would be supportive.

You suggest he's a good person. Better to find out sooner than later, I think.
posted by rokusan at 12:18 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your friend not only needs to tell her special fellow, she also needs to tell him that he is not allowed to drink around her because that can easily trigger a relapse— unless she doesn't care about staying on the bandwagon, of course. If he's the right guy for her, he'll have no trouble with this. If he absolutely refuses to abstain around her, maybe he needs the program too.
posted by Electrius at 12:20 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Your girlfriend needs to tell him. It's up to her if a "by the way, I've decided to maintain a healther non-drinking lifestyle" or "By the way, I'm a recovering alcoholic" is the right phrase. He might even ask if she is, so she'll have to see how the conversation goes. It's important that she stress she does not want to do "drinking type stuff" when they are on casual dates, that is "Go to a bar" and similarly obvious traps. If he's cool with that and the casual dating, let the rest play out one day at a time. He might even be "the guy", further down the line. He might also not be, but I'm sure a few outings with him are a pleasant way of keeping her social life real and non-drinking. A big part of recovery is changing patterns, and it is her former drinking buddies she needs to avoid at all costs.

If he drinks on all the dates, that will be a problem at this point. He doesn't have to give up drinking, but on dates with her drinking shouldn't be a big part of the picture.
posted by dabitch at 1:05 AM on August 24, 2009

Just do it, it's not as shameful as you think right now. I'm just some young person, kind of ACA, kind of child of ACA, definitely invested in 12-step culture. You should be as honest as you can in intimate relationships and own your shit. Also, talk to your sponsor and go to those meetings.

There are plenty of people who will support your recovery and will bend over backwards to keep you out of harm's way. You have to learn how to spot those people, and not the ones who put a drug before you, as soon as possible, right? Take the step, says I.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:13 AM on August 24, 2009

"... I know Alcoholics Anonymous strongly suggests not dating anyone while in recovery..."

This. Squared.

To the point of me saying, that of the dozens of alcoholics I've known, not one who was successful in staying sober for a year, managed to do so while starting a new romantic/sexual relationship. Zero. Zip. Nada. No one.

There's are reasons for that, that I've come to understand on a personal level, although I am not an alcoholic, just a former spouse of one, and friend of many. First, the alcoholic brain is quite willing to substitute other means of generating endorphins and other pleasure center moderating brain chemicals when it can't get alcohol. The excitement of romance/sex is a potent distraction for anyone, and perhaps more so for the early recovering alcoholic. Second, there is a powerful emotional need in many people early in recovery, to find someone else to believe in them, when they can't believe in themselves. Your friend is already admitting this, in concealing her blackout drinking from her new conquest, to preserve what she think is his good opinion of her.

But, she's deluding herself. No one can be intimate with a blackout drunk, and not know that the person is at least drunk. So, if she's sure she's had drunk sex with this person, she knows he's a person who will condone her bad judgement, for the simple payoff of having sex with her. Hardly a person most of us would think of as "not sleazy," although she is trying to see him as normal.

Forget any advice I might offer, but as a new Friend of Bill W., take his advice, and that of the Big Book, and tell your friend to forego all romantic entanglements, until she's got that 1 year chip clutched tightly in her hand. Just drop this guy, with minimal explanation, and get on with getting sober. Nothing matters more, right now.
posted by paulsc at 1:14 AM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

I would tell him, as he will have to learn sooner or later. The sooner the better. (By the way I do not agree with the co-abstinance requiered of the partner as I read above, there will always be booze around. Great way to check your recovery and condition.)
But the first year I'd stay away from anything mind-altering, like drugs or a starting romance. And if this seems unbearable, SLAA offers great support.
posted by Zinda68 at 1:32 AM on August 24, 2009

But, she's deluding herself. No one can be intimate with a blackout drunk, and not know that the person is at least drunk. So, if she's sure she's had drunk sex with this person, she knows he's a person who will condone her bad judgement, for the simple payoff of having sex with her. Hardly a person most of us would think of as "not sleazy," although she is trying to see him as normal.

I think "blackout drunk" simply means she doesn't remember what happened, rather then that she was unconscious at the time.

Or do you think I should just cease all contact without explanation (spare us the pain, humiliation, and awkwardness that a confession would bring)?

I'm sure it would cause a lot more 'pain, humiliation, and awkwardness' for the guy if your friend just cut him off like that then not. Essentially you would be transferring your own discomfort and embarrassment to him, and probably amplifying it in the process.
posted by delmoi at 1:43 AM on August 24, 2009

In "How It Works" the AA Big Book talks of honesty, openmindedness, and willingness. As you have mentioned, it also suggests it may not be a good idea to begin relationships in the first year of recovery. Recovery should rightfully be the number one priority. Having a priority of recovery makes it difficult to devote appropriate attention to building a relationship.

With that in mind, if your friend believes this guy could really be "the one" and doesn't want to lose the opportunity, it is critical to maintain the attitudes of HOW; in particular total honesty. Hiding things as large as recovery from alcoholism in a budding relationship will not make for strong binds of trust and acceptance. Take it slow. Take it easy. Proceed without fear. And beyond all else, be completely honest and open with the new potential partner.

If knowledge of your friend's alcoholism is a deal breaker for the new boyfriend, so be it. Best to know about that early in the relationship, rather than later when there is so much more invested in the person, and the likelihood of a breakup causing a relapse.
posted by netbros at 2:55 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

nthing that she needs to level with the guy. I don't think she should see such disclosure as inherently humiliating; she'd be being honest about a personal limitation, which takes courage, and telling him ought to feel good in that respect. It will, however, be scary, because such a disclosure will inevitably be a turning, or ending, point for the relationship. It opens the possibility that she will be accepted and loved despite her limitations, but it also means giving the guy both an opportunity and a potential reason to reject her; it makes maintenance of the comfortable status quo impossible.

I suspect the reason she's considering simply ending the relationship without explanation is that doing so would allow her to retain a sense of control by denying him the opportunity to reject her. This is not the courageous path. She can end the relationship for the sake of her own recovery, if she chooses, or she can let him decide whether he's willing to be involved with an alcoholic, but she owes him (and herself) honesty.
posted by jon1270 at 4:04 AM on August 24, 2009

poster: I hate what I’m doing. I want to tell him that I’m an alcoholic but I’m afraid.

For what it's worth, what you're doing here is cultivating shame. I'm not an alcoholic, but I've been close to a few people who have, and while I don't know the AA way of thinking about these things, I know from my own host of unfortunate and often cruel habits that shame is probably the most effective and pervasive catalyst of addictive behavior.

Shame is fear of the revelation of past sins and the subsequent attempt to hide those past sins. The thing about it is that, no matter how much it may seem to cause us pressure, shame is actually the furthest thing from a motivational force; in fact, shame usually makes us shut down and keeps us from acting decisively. In this situation, you haven't done anything about the fact that he doesn't know this very important thing about you in all this time; the shame is paralyzing you.

When you let the paralysis of shame continue to affect your life and your habits, you become more and more afraid of the things which someone might discover about you and simultaneously less and less able to actually address those problems; so that, while you're tying yourself up by telling yourself you can't let somebody find out about your problem, you're also promising yourself that you'll do better and get rid of your problem whilst at that very moment making it impossible for you to actually do anything at all about it.

The inevitable result of prolonged shame is relapse. Whatever you choose to do, please act now to free yourself from this bind you're in.
posted by koeselitz at 4:52 AM on August 24, 2009 [23 favorites]

By dating someone new this early in the recovery process, your friend is defocusing. Right now - and forevermore - her sobriety is going to have to be her number one priority. But especially this early in the game, she has to remain free of new romantic entanglements. She might think that she's "okay" and capable of handling it, but - assuming she stays sober - she'll probably look back, scratch her head and wonder what the heck she was thinking.

If she insists on continuing to see this man, she absolutely must be upfront with him about being an alcoholic. Not doing so is dangerous because it can allow her to slip back into drinking. If she's worried about telling him, then she's definitely not ready for a mature, sober relationship. A good way to say this without getting all "heavy," by the way, is something like "I don't drink anymore; I like it way too much."
posted by meggie78 at 5:14 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

A couple of things need to be addressed. From an AA perspective, if you are already in a relationship when you are drinking alcoholically, you don't have to end that relationship once you get sober. What you do need to do is keep in mind that you are getting sober for yourself not for the other person. This may mean that the relationship might have to end or it may not.

Secondly you should be talking to an AA sponsor about this issue. A sponsor has extensive experience with sobriety and should be able to work with you to come up with a good course of action. Lastly, keep in mind that the general public (even here on Metafilter) has little knowledge of the reality of alcoholism and what the life experience of a recovering alcoholic is really like. You may be the only recovering alcoholic your friend will ever meet, think of it as an opportunity and tell him your story.
posted by Xurando at 6:34 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you dump him without explanation, then you're going to feel guilty about it, which means that you'll end up telling him the truth anyway when you get to step eight. Save yourself some time and tell him now.
posted by bingo at 7:10 AM on August 24, 2009

Tell him the truth. He'll either leave or he won't.

Also, I am an ACA and I also wholeheartedly believe your friend is doing a disservice to herself being involved in a new relationship right now. She must concentrate on recovery. If this guy is the one, he will work with her to maintain their friendship while she concentrates on recovery. At the very least she needs to stop sleeping with him. The dopamines your brain puts out in the new love phase are very powerful. They make healthy people do crazy things. Someone in recovery needs time to let their brain chemistry reset.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 8:00 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not alcoholic, but I do have bipolar disorder, and there are times when a partner might see evidence of that. I've always thought it's best to let people know early on, so they can decide on whether it's something they want to be party to - and if they don't, or they feel it's too much for them, then that relationship wouldn't have had much of a future anyway. If it's casual, and you don't mind about that, then telling him might scare him off, but not telling him might leave you in a position where relapse is more likely.

With you I think it's more important, because being around someone who drinks is of course going to be a problem. I found a good reason for telling people early was that my medication means that drinking or drugs isn't much of an option for me, and for some that can be a dealbreaker (or, in my head, I'd worry they'd think I was boring). So at this stage it may have an effect on your social life and dating, because you won't feel comfortable right now going to bars and not drinking.
posted by mippy at 8:00 AM on August 24, 2009

I understand being afraid about telling him that you're an alcoholic. There's a huge stigma attached to being a drunk. I know this from experience. People think you're about one bad day away from relapsing, or they assume the worst about your past (and sometimes they should) or they think you're all fragile and don't know what to say to you.

But it's part of who you are. And in fact you are taking positive steps to release yourself from the damaging chains of a horrifically difficult and damaging addiction. There is nothing to be ashamed of and anyone worth having in your life is not going to think less of you for admitting to your problem and working on improving yourself.

I came out as an alcoholic fairly recently. It was hard at times. I lost a few people I'd thought were friends, but who were really just drinking buddies disguised as friends. And that was okay. The people worth hanging onto have stuck around and our friendships are the better for it.

If you think you need to be alone while you get on steadier ground, tell him that. And tell him why. But (and this will probably get me some flames, but whatever) if you think you want to be in a relationship with this person while you recover, that's okay too. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to recovery, no matter what the conventional wisdom says. Do what works for you.

By the way, in social situations, a simple "No thanks, I don't drink" is fine. If you don't want to tell everyone you meet that you're a recovering alcoholic, you don't have to. You're not obligated to tell the world about your health problems, or self-flagellate publicly to atone for your "sins". I recommend telling those you're closest to, because it's a huge burden to bear by yourself, but casual acquaintances don't have to know if you don't want to talk about it.
posted by balls at 8:02 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

If your friend is ashamed and afraid of telling her boyfriend about being sober, and why, then she still has more invested in her relationship with alcohol than she does with the boyfriend. This is pretty normal at early stages of recovery (and later ones, too, of course, depending on the person). She needs to think about that, talk with her sponsor (does she have one yet?) or therapist about it, and really really consider if she's emotionally ready to be in even a casual relationship. If she decides she isn't, she needs to tell the guy why, gently. Good luck.
posted by rtha at 8:42 AM on August 24, 2009

netbros mentions "How it Works" - and I think that's a great place for you to start with your inquiry. The words that stuck with me immediately, and which I credit with my sobriety to this day, are: "we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start." Fearless and Thorough. Don't cut corners and don't be afraid.

Why is that important? Well, it was important for me because honesty was what kept me sober. I found freedom (!) telling friends, family, coworkers, strangers, and anyone else I might be alone with that I am a drunk, and that the minute no one is looking, I'm going to lunge for the closest bottle. It wasn't that I WANTED to tell everyone. What I WANTED was to keep my drinking a secret until it killed me. And it wasn't that I wanted to make it someone else's job to babysit me. But I know that is true, and I know that I have to avoid creating safe spaces to drink in. Being in a place where someone doesn't know I'm a drunk is a safe space for me to drink in. And that is NOT safe. koeslitz is right in saying what you're doing here is cultivating shame. That's why I'm so honest about being a drunk: Because I need to own it to take its power away.

Asking whether you should hide your addiction so that you can invest in something other than your sobriety really doesn't sound fearless and thorough to me. It sounds entirely human, and it sounds like something I would do, but it doesn't sound fearless and thorough.

Speaking of things that I would do: I dated in early sobriety. I dated a therapist (not my own!) who didn't drink. I told him immediately that I was an alcoholic. And he and I had lovely sober times together. He was also very understanding when I needed to excuse myself from functions where there was heavy drinking going on. He was very supportive and dating him was a very positive experience for my sobriety. But it WAS a distraction. And ultimately, I learned a lot of things about myself through working the steps - enough to recognize that my relationship with him, while sober, was following the same dysfunctional cycle of all my other relationships. I wasn't ready to date.

Usually, when I tell someone I'm an alcoholic, the response is overwhelmingly positive, and I think that comes from my comfort with it. Instead of dejectedly mentioning it to them as if begging for their approval, I tell them the facts proudly: I don't drink in any and all situations and I guard that very closely. That inspires a certain respect in people, even if they don't really know what it is like to battle an addiction. In my online dating profile, I mention that I'm an alcoholic, and I add the following: "Which would you prefer: that I keep it a secret and be crazy, or be honest about it and do what I need to do to live a happy, healthy life?" And I think that usually puts it into perspective for people.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:19 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Short answer: You should tell him if you plan on maintaining a relationship of any sort (friendship or otherwise) with him. It’s only fair. Speaking from experience, he will most likely be totally cool and supportive of you. If he isn’t then I would question whether you really want to spend any time with him anyway. Either way, it’s better that you know now.

You can just say to him – Look, my drinking has recently started to concern me and I’m getting some help for it. You don’t have to go into great detail if you aren’t comfortable with it. There are some good suggestions above, but I’d like to reiterate that while it is very nerve-wracking and scary, you will most likely be pleasantly surprised by his response. I’ve been there and I’ve never not been pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions.

Long answer (based on my own personal opinions, feel free to disregard) - as far as I know, there is nowhere in the Big Book of AA where it says that a person cannot be in a relationship in their first year or sobriety. If it specifically says that, I would appreciate if someone would tell me where I would find it. It has over the years become received wisdom amongst members. While it may be a good idea for many people and while it is undoubtedly important that sobriety be a person’s main focus; there are certain groups and people within AA who are extremely dogmatic regarding certain topics – mainly God, relationships and drugs among other things. This one-size-fits-all approach to recovery is disturbing to me as I think it goes against the spirit of what the founders intended – which was that what they were saying were only suggestions and that each person needs to find what works best for them. You only need to look through past threads on AA to see how many people are completely turned off by, for example, the religiosity of the program. While the founders did use a lot of “God” language (indicative of the times, I think), I do believe that they were sincere in stating that a person does not need to believe in God and that the program welcomes agnostics and atheists as well. Unfortunately, the apparent refusal of some members of AA to acknowledge that there are alternate ways of doing things which still adhere to the spirit of the program of recovery put forth by Bill and Bob drives many people away. I’ve seen it drive people away.

Back on topic – there are people who will say that you should not be in a relationship for the first year. This is probably the right advice for many people. But ultimately it is up to each individual and their sponsor to determine the right path for that person. It involves being very honest with yourself and some people are not capable of that at first. But having been in AA since 1990 I know just as many people who have started a relationship in their first year or sobriety and are still sober and doing great, many years on – for what anecdata is worth. It may be that you tell this guy and he turns out to be very encouraging and supportive and allows you the room and space to make your sobriety your first priority. And if you are the kind of person who can honestly assess the situation and make the right decisions WRT your recovery, then the relationship could end up being a net gain as far as I’m concerned. We all could use people who will support us through thick and thin.

Anyway, this topic can be rather politically charged within certain circles of AA, so feel free to disregard the above as my own personal opinion if you wish. Ultimately my best and most objective answer to any person would be – talk to your sponsor. Feel free to memail me if you’d like to discuss this further.
posted by triggerfinger at 9:48 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

1) In my experience, people who aren't rigorously honest relapse.

2) You aren't going to be the same person in a year as you are now. I recommend telling your guy what you're going through and see where he's at with it. If he likes you that much he'll be willing to back burner the relationship for 12 months.

3) If you aren't willing to let him in on this very important part of your life, you're putting this relationship ahead of your recovery.

4) Be prepared to lose anything you put ahead of your recovery.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:13 AM on August 24, 2009

Be honest. "Guy, I've recently begun to get sober. I realized that my drinking was in control, and I decided it was time to stop. It's a pretty major life change, and you might not be up for being a big part of it. I really like you, and knew it was past time to be honest."
posted by theora55 at 11:02 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

nthing Talk to your sponsor. If she hasn't told her sponsor about this relationship, she may be setting herself up for a relapse. She might not like what her sponsor has to say but here is the willingness part and the part where we remain open and teachable. Nothing matters more than your sobriety.

Also, seconding everything small_ruminant has to say.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:55 AM on August 24, 2009

1. he needs to know, like, immediately. he will have to make the decision about whether or not to continue drinking around her. she's already relapsed once, and there will be more. he should not be a trigger for her relapse.

2. bazillion nthing the sponsor talk. they are wise, they've been through and seen it all.

3. there is a reason you aren't supposed to date in recovery: dating is stressful and you cannot be fully focused on your own recovery if you are in a relationship that also demands your attention -- no matter how casual the relationship. sex complicates things.

4. if guy wants to get serious, he extra needs to know, because he also has to decide if he's willing to take on a lifetime of being really supportive-but-not-enabling, and to deal with relapses if they occur. it's a big deal for the other person involved. it's just as life-changing as getting sober.
posted by unlucky.lisp at 1:06 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

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