When One Drinks and the Other Doesn't

Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

The mood was festive, the company good, the restaurant Mexican. So Kathy ordered a margarita on the rocks.

"And for you, sir?" the bar waitress asked Roger. "I'll have some iced tea," he responded.

"Oh, well, in that case, I'll have iced tea also," Kathy sputtered. But Roger insisted that she stick with her original request.

It was the couple's first date, and Kathy, a legal aide in Costa Mesa, did not yet know that Roger is a recovering alcoholic. She took a few perfunctory sips of her margarita, then ordered coffee.

"I don't like drinking alone," Kathy, 28, said. "To me, drinking is a social affair. I feel self-conscious when I'm the only person doing it. I know it's purely psychological, but I can feel tipsy after half a glass of wine if the other person isn't partaking."

Romancing a teetotaler has proved a new experience because she previously was involved with a wine collector for four years. "I have to admit that I still miss some things about dating a drinker," Kathy said. "My ex-boyfriend and I would order a bottle of good wine with dinner, then discuss the wine over our meal. We'd have friends over for wine and cheese. Drinking was an integral part of our relationship."

Today, Kathy seldom drinks alcohol in Roger's presence. "It's just not much fun, drinking a good glass of Cabernet while your date is sitting there drinking water."

Roger says that the choice to refrain is Kathy's. "It's more an issue with her than it is with me," said the 28-year-old business consultant, who lives in Irvine. "Kathy doesn't drink in excess, so it doesn't bother me when she has a drink.

"When I first became sober a few years ago, I didn't care to be around drinkers, but I've gotten over that. The odd thing is that drinkers haven't gotten over me not drinking. They'll act apologetic--making it a point to say that they don't drive intoxicated.

"Kathy and I have been going out for a year now, and she still says things like, 'It's been a long day at work, so I'm entitled to one glass of wine. I say, 'Go right ahead--you don't need to rationalize to me.' "

Despite their difference on the alcohol front, Kathy and Roger obviously have found enough common ground to foster a relationship. Regardless, they both confess to noticing a discrepancy on occasion.

"I would never, ever make any decision about our relationship based on the fact that Roger doesn't drink," Kathy said. "But that doesn't mean that I don't sometimes wish he weren't a recovering alcoholic--although, of course, I'm glad that he's 'recovering' as opposed to just 'alcoholic.'

"I've never had any sort of addiction to alcohol; it's just a fun recreation for me. My ex-boyfriend and I would pop a bottle of champagne and sit in his sauna and get loose and giggly. I miss that."

Roger wonders if marrying a nondrinker like himself might--in the long run--be the safer route. "Kathy and I don't live together, so there's no alcohol around my house," he said. "If we do move in together, I wouldn't want to say, 'No, you can't keep that bottle of tequila in our cabinet.'

"Once you know what it's like to have craved alcohol, you can't help but have this little fear that--given the opportunity--you might someday lose control and start drinking again."

Carol Hughes, an El Toro psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of chemical dependency, said the degree of discomfort encountered between a drinker and a nondrinker depends on the pair's self-confidence.

"If the nondrinker grew up with an alcoholic parent, and he hasn't worked through those issues, watching someone else drink can push a lot of old buttons," Hughes said. "He can be very rigid. Control is enormously important to him, because he saw his parents so out of control.

"On the other hand, if the person who drinks has an inkling that he drinks too much, even though he calls himself a social drinker, he might overreact to a nondrinker. The nondrinker can make him feel guilty and make him question himself."

When confronted with a nondrinker, Hughes said, an insecure "social drinker" might worry: "What's wrong with me? This person can have a good time without liquor. Why can't I?"

Drinkers often view nondrinkers as "duds," Hughes observed. "They might think, 'This person doesn't know how to relax and have a good time.' It's common in our culture for those who are drinking to encourage others to drink: 'Oh, come on. One drink isn't going to hurt you.' In our society, being sociable and having a good time is linked with drinking."

Katherine, an Irvine resident, concurred. "I feel constant pressure to drink, even from good friends. They act as if I don't want to let my hair down. And I've gotten the feeling that people think I'm frowning on them for drinking, and that's not the case at all."

The 40-year-old flight attendant cut back on dating at the same time that she cut back on drinking five years ago. "I date less due to a lot of factors that have nothing to do with drinking--I'm older, I'm busier," she said. "Still, it was easier to have a social life when I drank. I don't go to bars anymore, and I'm not as readily accepted at parties where everyone is drinking."

Hughes recommends that newly recovering alcoholics avoid dating drinkers. "The legs of sobriety are very shaky at first. But after a couple of years, most recovering alcoholics can handle socializing with drinkers."

Although she stopped imbibing for health reasons rather than because she was alcoholic, Lynne Cessna inadvertently changed her circle of friends when she changed her drinking habits.

"I used to meet a lot of men in bars," said the Orange resident, 31, who works in computer supplies. "The men I date now have more direction. They're looking for something different from a relationship--like, maybe a relationship itself."

Cessna, however, has "no specific rule against drinking" and said she doesn't mind being in the company of moderate drinkers.

One of her friends, Bob Conry, 29, an engineer in Orange, has no qualms about enjoying a beer or glass of wine while Cessna sips a soda.

"That's fine with me if she doesn't want to drink," Conry said. "I have a lot of friends who don't drink, but I drink in front of them anyway. It doesn't bother me in the least."

Nondrinkers who want to maintain their friendships with drinkers should guard against presenting themselves as holier than thou, Hughes warned.

"They can turn off other people by saying things like: 'My body is my temple; I wouldn't put any toxin in my body.' They forget that they live in the Los Angeles area and breathe toxins everyday," Hughes said. "Another turnoff is: 'I don't need booze to have a good time,' which implies that the other people do need booze. That superior attitude is a sign of insecurity."

Glen Howard, 38, of Fullerton is a recovering alcoholic who hangs out with drinkers almost every night; he works as a bartender. So, he said, dating drinkers poses no threat whatsoever.

"I'm upfront about being an alcoholic, but I'll go out of my way to put my date at ease if she drinks," he said. "I'll even suggest various fancy drinks for her to experiment with since that's my profession. I'd only feel uncomfortable if there were obvious signs that she had a drinking problem."

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