Just before shelter in place went into effect in New York on March 20, I unofficially moved in with my boyfriend Will Gorfein, 32. I grabbed some essentials from my Manhattan apartment — including half-empty bottles of hand sanitizer, nonperishable food and comfortable clothes — to prepare for the uncertain weeks ahead. I purposely left behind alcohol.
The First Shot
Will and I first met at a costume party on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the fall of 2015. I was holding a Solo cup containing a mixed concoction of soda and liquor (probably tequila). He was, too.
Will is 6 foot 2, with blue eyes and thick dirty-blonde hair (although the pandemic recently inspired us to shave his head.) During our initial chat, I learned his slight southern accent was a byproduct of growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, despite being born on Long Island. Our flirty conversation ranged from silly topics like our Halloween costumes to standard queries about work and who we knew at the party. (Me: panda/writer. Him: American gladiator/entrepreneur. Both: guests of guests.)
I was 27 at the time, single and intrigued. “Save this number,” he confidently messaged at 1:25 a.m., after we had parted ways. “Your email is showing up,” I responded, indicating the text accidentally sent from his iCloud address.
Will and I went on five dates over the course of a month: dinners, bars, bowling and an exercise boot camp class. All but the latter involved some form of alcohol, whether it was a glass of pinot or a late night with cocktails.
Per my girlfriends and guy friends who were also single then, alcohol was a staple (read: a bonding mechanism) in their love lives, too. For late 20-somethings on a date in New York, “grabbing a drink” was (and is) the norm. (No judgment here.)
Perhaps our timing was off, but I distinctly remember telling a friend that I couldn’t gauge if there was a spark between Will and I — and drinking wasn’t helping my research. So we went our separate ways.
Over the next two years, I was in a long-term relationship and then back on the dating scene. For months, every first date (and second date) had an imbibing element to it. At bars there were drinks. At dinners, there were drinks. Concerts, cooking classes and even sitting outside involved drinking.
Limiting myself to two drinks on two dates per week would amount to 208 drinks each year (excluding hangouts with friends, work events and celebrations like birthdays and weddings).
By December 2016, I felt tired and bored. Dating was becoming an activity I approached with less and less enthusiasm.
As the end of 2016 neared, I caught up with my friend Alejandro Piekarewicz, 34, over sushi. We talked about work, life and dates, and very briefly about Dry January, the act of giving up all forms of alcohol — wine, beer, spirits and cocktails — for 31 days. He knew someone who completed a Dry January and raved about it’s mental, physical and emotional benefits. I didn’t think much of it. In fact, I forgot about it within minutes.
A week later on New Year’s Eve, while holding a glass of champagne, I texted Alejandro and initiated a Dry January bet. If either of us had as little as one sip of alcohol within 31 days: that person lost. At the end, the winner would be treated to a fancy dinner paid for by the loser. (If we both lost: no prize dinner. If we both won: we’d split the bill.)
When the ball dropped, 2017 and my first dry challenge promptly began. I was excited, nervous and still single. I didn’t know how giving up alcohol for a month would change me (if at all), but wondered how it could effect my love life.
During the first week, I felt awkward telling dates and friends that I wasn’t drinking. Everyone wanted to know why now — Couldn’t I just have one? What was the big deal? — especially because this wasn’t going to be forever.
As a single woman participating in Dry January (I repeated the dry challenge solo in 2018), I learned some very important takeaways about dating without a beverage in hand.
Dates became more creative. They took place at ice cream shops and dessert cafes, fitness studios and painting classes, instead of repetitively “grabbing a drink” again and again.
Without alcohol, I could spot red flags early on, rather than guessing if I misinterpreted someone’s words under the influence. Drinking wasn’t providing false sparks or interfering with real ones either.
I observed who respected my dry challenge and who rolled their eyes. People who genuinely cared about me supported my endeavor because it was (and is) something meaningful to me.
These periods granted me the insight to make better dating and life decisions. I had epiphanies about how I was spending my time (and with whom). I felt more confident and energetic. I experienced other benefits as well, including clearer skin and decreased anxiety. I took a pause from dating, too, and went on trips with friends. There were no hangovers, no bits of insomnia and no regrets.
Also, Alejandro lost our bet during year No. 1 and I won an unforgettable dinner at Momofuku Ko in Manhattan’s East Village.
In 2018, Will and I reconnected as friends. He was still handsome, charming, and had figured out how to use text messaging. For weeks, I mentioned the dry challenge and how much it changed my perspective on dating, social activities and my overall well-being. (I also ended up drinking less for the remainder of the year, which is a common side effect for many dry month participants.)
When Will and I started dating, it was during my third Dry January last year. The month before, he volunteered to participate as well. Together, we gave up alcohol for 31 days. We did it again in January 2020.
Instead of sharing bottles of wine over dinner, and spending weekend mornings dehydrated, we’d wake up early and workout. On vacation, rather than hourslong boozy brunches followed by lazy days, we’d hike or explore different parts of a city.
The Last Call
As social distancing became the new normal in March and cocktail hour made its comeback, Will and I chose to take a break from alcohol for 31 days again — even through my April 2 birthday. I missed my friends, and I missed the celebratory plans that were canceled when the coronavirus pandemic changed our lives. But I didn’t miss alcohol. He didn’t either.
During these times, we’re cooking a lot and have dinner together every night. We’ve watched an excessive amount of documentaries, cut his hair and had a few impromptu dance parties. We started a puzzle, moved some furniture and discovered how to happily cohabitate.
Although Will and I haven’t completely eliminated drinking from our lives, a temporary hiatus from the liquor cabinet has gone a long way since our introduction four and a half years ago. Unlike our initial dates, I haven’t questioned our compatibility once. There aren’t alcohol-inspired mixed messages, beer goggles (he’s cute anyway!) or decisions clouded by cocktails. We’re more understanding, well-rested, less stressed individuals — and, dare I say, a happier couple — when we aren’t drinking for consecutive weeks.
When I was single, giving up wine, beer and spirits for a mere 31 days at a time granted me the perspective I needed to find my person.
Together, a dry month is something we bond over, enjoy and even look forward to.
With any beverage in hand, I’m happy to extend my glass and say, “Cheers!”
Hilary Sheinbaum is a writer and speaker based in New York. Her book, “The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month” (Harper Design), is to be released Dec. 29.