When I first got sober, I was really surprised to discover that I had an insatiable sex drive and attraction to everyone around me; I felt like a teenager who had discovered sex for the first time. While that might sound exciting, anyone who is sober will know that dating for the first time in recovery isn’t all a bed of roses. The longer you’re in recovery, the more you realize that dating as a newly sober person is one of the hardest things we tackle in our recovery. That said, it is possible to overcome our relational challenges and find love — we just have to be mindful of how to navigate dating. 

Women in recovery share their dating experiences.

Over the last eight years of recovery, I’ve had a lot of dating experiences. I’ve tried dating in the rooms — which I do not recommend, mostly because you are there for recovery — online dating, and trying to date friends. Oh, and going back to exes, twice. 

During that time, I’ve experienced a lot of growth and many learning experiences!

Inwardly, I’ve uncovered my insecure attachment style — which explains why I kept seeking avoidant types — and the deep relational wounds that really preceded my substance use disorder. Years of trauma therapy led me to the conclusion that when we experience problems with romantic relationships in our recovery, it is usually because of some unresolved wounds and a lack of experience with healthy relationships.

Outwardly, my online experiences have been pretty bad. I’d go as far as to say my experiences have been so terrible that they’re comical to look back at, although they weren’t so funny at the time. What I now know is that I had to first heal my relational wounds. It was also crucial to build my self-esteem enough to recognize my value and worth. Only then could I pick more suitable mates and spot red flags. 

I’m not alone in these experiences. I spoke to two sober women about their experiences of dating online.

“They feed into a false sense that I need someone to make me feel more complete, constantly searching for something or someone instead of letting go and letting intention for healthy love come to me.”

Jamie found the negative experiences of dating apps far outweighed any benefit: “These sites are more dangerous to me than walking into a bar,” she says. “They feed into a false sense that I need someone to make me feel more complete, constantly searching for something or someone instead of letting go and letting intention for healthy love come to me. I know there are people out there who can use them without major problems or emotional fallout but I am not one of those people.” 

However, for Irina — our lovely editor — the online dating experience was more positive. 

“When I met the man who is now my husband, I was terrified,” she says. “I had been online dating on and off since I was 23 years old, and I had just turned 30 and gotten sober. I didn’t know how to approach things, especially when all of my previous online dates had been a ‘let’s grab a drink’ type thing. But I was determined to rock my recovery, so I signed up for the Bumble app and went from there. For me, Bumble worked really well because it allows women to reach out to the men first — which was great because I am picky but also assertive. I figured that this way, I could have a bit more control over who I communicated with and could obviously reject anyone who seemed more into the party scene than I was. My husband was the first person I connected with and the first person I went on a date with. And, it turned out, the last!”

I find stories like Irina’s heartwarming, and they give me some much-needed hope that not all online dating experiences are a disaster. Dating while in recovery is an added challenge because recovery has to come first. I asked Irina how she managed this.

“I was still healing and seeking support in recovery, so whoever I dated needed to understand that and be willing to become a part of my support system along with my family and friends.”

“My big strategy was to practice radical honesty with him. I was still healing and seeking support in recovery, so whoever I dated needed to understand that and be willing to become a part of my support system along with my family and friends. Basically, this meant that I opened up about being in recovery early on,” Irina explains. “A month into dating, my husband gave up alcohol to support my recovery. Needless to say, I knew he was a keeper then. He has been sober ever since, and I have been sober for four and a half years. We’ve been together for almost four years.”

Of course, dating online if you’re sober can still be pretty tricky. If you’re hoping to be able to do it successfully, here are some tips.

Top 5 Tips For Successful Dating

1. Do the work: Like with anything else in recovery, we have to do the work if we want to find healing and healthy relationships. If you spot that you’re acting irrationally in a relationship or if you experience any pain, be sure to reach out to a professional for relationship help.

2. Be conscious of chasing the reward: Online dating can be a pleasure-seeking reward factory. Think of all those hits of dopamine when we match with someone and then again when they message us. This type of reward-seeking has a lot of parallels to addiction, especially when you’re only using the app for a reward.

Try to be mindful of your interactions and keeping them aligned with your recovery goals. Read: Have healthy interactions with suitable people. I don’t necessarily mean seeking relationships, either. There are healthy ways to hook up, if that’s your thing: Clear communication, consent, and ethical behavior.

3. Watch out for red flags: If you notice any of these red flags, it’s best to take a big step back and walk in the other direction.

Here are a few things to avoid (this is by no means an exhaustive list): Avoidance, inability to take accountability, petulance/acting like a child when they don’t get their own way, promising to rescue you, putting their needs ahead of yours, a lack of hobbies or personal interests and instead focusing solely on your relationship, any form of dishonesty (including lies of omission), sudden mood shifts, erratic behavior, outbursts of anger, and being unable to discuss and resolve conflicts.

4. Learn healthy relationship traits: Even though there are relational red flags, it’s important to note that we don’t suddenly wake up and know how to have healthy relationships — learning these important elements takes time. We need to learn about boundaries, communication, trust, how to retain an independent identity in a relationship, and how to manage conflict.

One of my favorite learning tools is following therapists and other informative accounts on Instagram. Check out: Nedra Glover Tawwab, The Queer Counselor,  Tracy Murphy, Dr. Nicole LePera, Lisa Olivera, Whats Wrong with Molly Margaret, and Ava Puckett.

5. Treat it as a learning experience: Please don’t berate yourself for negative dating experiences. Chalk it up as a learning experience, process it, and move on. 

Let’s face it: Finding love is never easy. It might be even harder when you’re bringing a complicated history into the relationship. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on your hope of finding love — and if online dating is something you want to try, you CAN do it successfully in recovery.