By Derek Bolen
Editor’s Note: We’ve been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so much to learn. Through the individual stories and experiences shared in Real Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman Institute. Submit your Real Relationship story here.
Kate and I “met” on January 24th, 2019, while I was traveling for work in Philadelphia, where she lived, and we matched on Bumble. This was the latest in a long line of gifts that sobriety has offered me—my Bumble profile was set to “never drinks,” and Kate, who is also sober, was filtering for profiles of sober people. It sounds hokey (and kind of weird, due to this all happening on a dating app), but the moment I laid eyes on her Bumble profile, I knew I would never want anyone else again. When we started chatting, it was obvious there was instant chemistry—we were both sober, she had visited Vancouver, where I live, the previous year. I was only in town for one more night and figured I’d take a chance and ask her out. Clearly, it was meant to be, except for one small detail: Kate had another Bumble date lined up that night and couldn’t meet me.
Despite this soul-crushing defeat, I was determined to enjoy the rest of my time in Philadelphia. I treated myself to a delicious dinner and mocktails, went back to the hotel, woke up the next morning, and headed to the airport. And I kept messaging Kate. We chatted all day long, as I caught two flights back to Vancouver. We talked about everything—our sordid pasts, why and how we sobered up, our families, our dating histories—no topic was too weird or too off-limits. The text messaging escalated into voice notes and Instagram (how MODERN), and Kate suggested that we have a FaceTime date later in the week when I got home to see if our chemistry translated into the closest approximation for “real life” that we had.
I don’t remember a lot about that first FaceTime date. I remember being more nervous than I had been for any “actual” date in the history of my life—fun, yet obvious, fact about sober dating: you don’t just get to blunt your nerves with alcohol anymore. I remember that she wore an old Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt, which probably made me fall in love with her on the spot, even though I’m a lifelong Seahawks fan. I remember laughing a lot, seeing how proud she was of herself every time she made me laugh, and how that elicited a weird reaction in me where it felt like my heart was going to fly out of my body. I remember that towards the end of it, all I could do was gawk at her like she was the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life. I remember that somehow, she convinced me to sign up for a ten-mile run in Philadelphia in May, so that I could come back and see her. And I remember thinking, more than once, “What is actually happening here? How does this person exist, and why do they only exist on the opposite side of the continent, in a different country?”
The FaceTime dates and text message infatuation continued while I went on a family vacation to China for two weeks. Then Kate proposed that we take the impossibly weird step of meeting in person, so we booked an impromptu trip to Denver, where we finally met in “real life” at gate A44 of Denver International Airport. It was exactly like a scene from a Hollywood romance—if the Hollywood romance starred two weird, awkward, sober people with warped senses of humor and nerves for days. Our “first date” was perfect—three full days in beautiful Denver, opening up more to each other, doing actual date activities (like attending an Alanis Morissette tribute show to introduce her to Canadian culture) and communicating face-to-face for the first time ever.
Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of FaceTime dates, actual visits, endless text message conversations, and steadily growing from “What am I doing?” to “This is the most real relationship I’ve ever had.” Here’s why:
The sober connection
For some people, to sober up is just to stop drinking. And that’s fine, if that’s what you’re looking for, but both Kate and I understand that just “stopping drinking” isn’t going to fix our lives. For both of us, substance abuse was a symptom, not a cause. We both have very similar stories around why we drank, our drinking patterns, and a litany of truly awful things that happened to both of us when we drank that allows us to relate better to each other. We’re able to open up to each other about the darkest moments of our alcohol use because we know the other is listening free of judgment—and that trust spills over into other areas of our lives, too.
Being able to be our messy, authentic selves and know that each other is coming from a place of understanding and support is incredibly liberating. I used to drink because I didn’t like myself very much and had this exhausting public persona I felt I had to maintain in order to be liked by others. Thanks to a combination of sobriety, introspection, therapy, and Kate’s support, I’m feeling more comfortable showing up authentically both inside and outside this relationship.
Kate was looking to date someone who did not drink, or had at least been through some serious self-reflection—but even dating other sober people presented challenges because everyone’s recovery is different. We’re “lucky,” if you can say that, that we had a common thread in how we drank, why we drank, and why we stopped drinking. But more importantly, we’re able to approach each other with authenticity and acceptance—both things that have been borne of our sobriety (and a lot of introspection). Kate says this is her first meaningful relationship, her first time feeling like an equal, her first time to be her authentic self without having to appease expectations. For me, it’s the first relationship I’ve had where I feel comfortable letting my guard down, where I’m more concerned about listening to and loving the person I’m with instead of how I’m being perceived, where I feel like our needs and values are both on equal footing and we’re approaching every situation with the intent of finding an equitable outcome.
The telephone game
More than any other situation in my life, this relationship has forced me to develop my communication skills. For starters, Kate is already one of the most effective communicators I’ve ever met, due to the years of work she’s put in on herself post-sobriety. And because of the space we’ve created to share openly and authentically and free of judgment, she’s incredibly open and honest about what she’s feeling or experiencing or doing or going through. She’s also extremely empathetic, and a lot of times can sense what I’m feeling even before I do. As a result of her communication style, and because I want to show up in the best way possible every day, I’ve had the opportunity to work on being more open and vulnerable with her, communicating my own feelings, and listening to understand versus listening to respond, which has been my default mode of operation basically my entire adult life. This is probably the biggest challenge for me and something I have to be conscious of every single day.
The other reason is that when you’re in a long-distance relationship that started out long-distance, 95% of your interactions take place through a device. For the first five weeks we knew each other, all we could do was talk—and we talked a lot. Before we even had our first kiss, we knew each other’s entire life stories, even the messiest parts. As a result, we had a solid foundation of emotional intimacy and mutual trust before ever even getting the opportunity to become physically intimate. In a way, I think that also allowed both of us to trust that our feelings were legitimate—that we weren’t being confused by hormones or physical loneliness or desperation, but building an actual, meaningful relationship.
Our sobriety plays a role here, as well. Regardless of the medium we’re communicating by, we’re creating a space where we can be open, authentic, and completely honest with each other. A lot of technology-dependent communication can feel empty or less meaningful at times, but we’ve been able to mitigate that in large part because an outcome of our sobriety has been a better understanding of ourselves and an increased awareness of other people. For us, that translates into an ability to better communicate openly and honestly, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel, and to be more aware of what each other is saying/feeling. It really doesn’t feel like any communication is wasted with Kate and me.
Building a life around, not on top of
When you’re in a long-distance relationship, you don’t have the option of pinning your entire self on another person. I mean, you could, but you’d spend a lot of time forlornly laying around your home waiting for a call back. I just did the math, and Kate and I have spent 15 actual days out of the 161 we’ve known each other in each other’s presence—providing us with a lot of time for us to focus on our own lives, hobbies, dreams, and desires.
For Kate, that’s running a successful sober meetup group for women in Philadelphia, spending quality time with her family and friends, competing in triathlons, hiking, and recently acquiring a new job in a big career change for her. For me, it’s spending time with my son, working on freelance projects, running, producing two podcasts, hiking, and still finding time to spend with my social circle here. I’ve made the mistake of starting to date someone and throwing my entire life into them before, in a way that was completely unhealthy. Having these mandatory boundaries to enable us to do these things for ourselves, and the support and encouragement of each other to pursue them, isn’t just making a difference in the here and now; it’s establishing boundaries and behaviors that will continue to serve us when we finally close the distance. Of course, we still make an effort to share what we’re doing—either when we’re catching up on a FaceTime call, sending videos through Instagram, or sending a quick text message to say what we’re up to—for both of us, it’s a thoughtful way of communicating that we’re still thinking of each other, despite the distance.
A border and 2,402 miles separate us (that’s 3,867 kilometres, for my fellow Canadians), but I’ve never felt closer to another person. There are downsides, sure—it’s hard to miss the physical touch of someone when you’ve had a tough day, returning to “real” life after one of our trips always feels like I’m waking up from a dream, and there are definitely a lot of tough conversations and logistical decisions to come, but if you asked either one of us, the experience of building a relationship that spans an entire continent, and of getting to take this journey together, is one neither of us would trade for anything.
Subscribe below to receive our blog posts directly to your inbox.