Illustrator: Jo Yeh

Is alcohol the third wheel in your dating life?

I’m meeting a date at a sports bar for the first time. I am early, as usual. I order something neutral like a vodka soda and take a seat awaiting my tablemate. I’m planning to have one drink tonight—maybe two—for no good reason other than the fact that this is a first date, and getting to know each other over cocktails seems to be the script. 

My date joins me and also orders a vodka soda. The conversation is flowing, and, almost on cue in the slightest lull, my date asks if I’d like another drink. “Sure, I’ll have one more drink. I’ll have a … Michelob Ultra, please!” Something sippable, an accessory to chit-chat. I thank him and do the obligatory phone check while he fetches our round. 

A few minutes later, he returns: “I have good news and bad news….” He chuckles as he plunks down a bucket full of Michelob Ultras. 

I politely giggle as he hands me one. He is quite pleased with himself for the joke, which I could tell he’d been planning since the bartender told him a bucket would cost a mere $2 more than our previous order. We continue our banter, and I sip my beer as he downs his. Soon ready for another, he twists the cap off one for himself, and raises his eyebrows to wordlessly inquire if I’d like to join him. “Aw thanks, I’m okay though, I really just wanted one more drink,” I say. 

I feel like a killjoy and we soon wind down our get-to-know-yous. I say goodbye to my date and the interloper that our evening had triangulated around: a half-bucket of bobbing, warming beers. 

Are Drinking and Dating A Good Match?

This experience has stayed with me, and it has taken me a while to determine exactly why. What I’ve landed on is this: my date’s assumption that I would want three more beers, despite my expressed desire for just one, is based on the premise that alcohol indulgence is a requisite ingredient to a good time, especially in courtship. Now, this happened some time ago, before I’d done some of the therapeutic work to more deeply interrogate my relationship with alcohol. (Spoiler alert: it does not help my clinical anxiety. Shocker.) 

There has always been something vaguely uncomfortable to me about alcohol’s supposed necessity as a romantic lubricant, notwithstanding a deeper psychological crutch. In dating, alcohol consumption seems to have become the default out of which one must awkwardly opt. While many dating norms have become more fluid over time, has drinking while dating become more entrenched?

Data suggests this, with 86% of people saying that grabbing drinks is an “ideal first date activity,” according to a recent survey conducted by Bounce. Theories have been tossed around as to why this is, and many argue that social media and dating apps have a stake. Legacy dating apps encourage a dating profile that is a filtered “supercut” of an individual, an image that is difficult—if not impossible—to maintain in the real world. To be social, soothe jitters, and appear confident, many daters turn to drinks as a way to take the edge off. It is also a time-limited activity, allowing for an easy escape if necessary. 

These norms around alcohol use certainly reflect our broader culture, especially as they relate to “low-risk” drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “For women, low-risk drinking is no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than seven drinks per week. For men, it is defined as no more than four drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week.” 

This definition, though, comes from an institution (even one focused on public health), and as such, doesn’t take into account what an individual might determine to be right for themselves, given their mental, emotional, and physical health, and, of course, personal and family history. 

Examining Our Relationship to Alcohol

In a recent We Can Do Hard Things podcast episode, hosted by Glennon Doyle, Doyle’s sister Amanda presents some food for thought: “I feel like our culture does not make room for people who are not in that super-serious, dramatically problematic drinking space to question in any way whether their drinking is working for them. And I feel like it’s kind of this very counter-cultural concept, if your life is quote-unquote working, to even look at it. And it makes everyone uncomfortable when you do so.” 

This resistance is likely intertwined with omnipresent societal forces. Quit Like a Woman author Holly Whitaker points the finger at corporations. “Very smart people with… money, power and access benefit from … our believing that drinking is an act of empowerment,” she states. 

Because of these marketing-driven associations, many see alcohol consumption as a normal, if not freeing, part of their lives, especially in dating. When someone around them starts to question this assumption, relational dynamics shift. 

While some may feel no need to alter alcohol use in their interpersonal lives, the substance’s prevalence suggests that its role in relationships is at least worth understanding further, if for no other reason than pure self-discovery. Consider these ideas for digging into and potentially shifting alcohol’s enmeshment within your dating life:

Look beyond what you think you want.

Many of us have mental associations that are deeply ingrained; meeting someone new pairs with a cold drink. What are we truly seeking, though? In this context, what we are likely craving is to connect and to be seen, known, or liked (and down the road, loved). We’ve been led to believe that alcohol is a bridge to those things by providing us with a calm demeanor, a carefree attitude, or even simply a break from the relentless worries in our head. Those fleeting feelings, as described in We Can Do Hard Things, are often a “consolation prize to a higher need.” 

Be honest and set expectations.

Dating apps can help with self-disclosure, allowing users to toggle their frequency of drinking, smoking, and other lifestyle choices. Katie, 25, says that while she doesn’t consider it the most important criteria, she will still check the setting to “make sure our social lifestyles match up.” She continues, “I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone and one of us ends up being unhappy.” 

A person who is right for you will understand and appreciate your candor and self-awareness of your needs. As Nedra Glover Tawaab explains in her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, “We don’t naturally fall into perfect relationships; we create them.” 

Choose an alternative.

Drinking provides another benefit during a sometimes uneasy dating experience: something to do with your fidgety hands. “A drink is like a prop that tells me that this is the moment where I can be completely relaxed,” says Julia Bainbridge, author of the Good Drinks alcohol-free recipe book. 

If you’re aiming to be more discreet in your choice to avoid drinking, more menus now feature a mocktail section, and some may even offer non-alcoholic spirits to pair with your favorite mixers. You can also just steer clear from temptation altogether and “grab a coffee instead,” as suggested by the Sober Sisters Society. 

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to create more space for ourselves—and each other—to choose the path of empowerment in our lifestyle choices and preferences. The goal is to make intentional and mindful decisions about how we invite alcohol to play a role in courtship and beyond. Perhaps for some, it works best for that bucket of beers to take a backseat.