The Sobriety Spectrum

Your Guide To Politely Declining Alcohol

Here's exactly what to say.

Your expert-approved guide to politely saying no to alcohol when you're not drinking.
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It’s not so easy to think of a social situation that doesn’t center around booze. Whether you’re at a wedding, happy hour, party, or even a simple brunch on a Saturday morning, alcohol often finds its way into the mix. If you don’t want to drink — whether you’re not in the mood, taking a break from cocktails, or simply don’t like drinking alcohol — it can be tough to figure out what to say to folks who ask you to join in... and even tougher if they start to lay on the guilt.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, it’s not uncommon to experience peer pressure if you turn down an alcoholic beverage. “When you’re the only one not drinking, people around you might project judgment or criticism,” she tells Bustle. They might judge themselves, too, as they start to get drunk and see that you aren’t even tipsy, she adds. That’s when they’ll try to get you to “loosen up” and join in.

Therapist Alex Ly, AMFT says pressure can also come from well-meaning friends and family who want you to have fun. “Sometimes people will try to get you to drink because they’re worried you won’t feel included,” he tells Bustle. While that’s understandable, Romanoff adds that not drinking doesn’t make a person any less sociable or fun to be around, and that’s an important distinction to make.

Got an event on the horizon? Here’s a quick script for each and every situation so you’ll know just what to say — and still have a good time. Of course, if you've decided you want to make your relationship with sobriety long-term, you might want to connect with your friends ahead of any party scenario so they don’t put you in the awkward position of constantly declining drinks (or worse, being triggered by them).

Brunch/Dinner/Movie Nights

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If you’re at a brunch, dinner, or movie night with friends and someone asks why you aren’t drinking, all you need to do is throw out a quick, “I’m not in the mood to drink right now,” and you should be all set. As licensed professional counselor Oddesty K. Langham says, good friends won’t pressure you further, won’t cross boundaries, and will still enjoy your company — even if you aren’t throwing back cold ones. After all, you don’t owe anyone a lengthy explanation... even your closest friends.

If you’ll feel more comfortable sipping on something, opt for a soda or other alcohol-free beverage. “Bartenders are really great at making non-alcoholic drinks these days,” says transformation coach Ash Cebulka. “You can still partake in toasts, without the booze.” There are also countless non-alcoholic spritzers and mocktails you can bring to the get-together, from Bella Hadid-backed Kin Euphorics to CBD-spiked Recess.

Parties

Parties typically revolve around drinking, but that doesn’t mean you need to walk in and announce you’ve taken a break from alcohol. If someone starts to pressure you, though, that’s when you can hit them with a swift, “Thanks, I’d love a seltzer, please!” Hopefully the host will guide you over to the fridge, offer a can — and everyone will move on.

From there, all you have to do is enjoy the party and get involved, same as everyone else. Remember, one of the reasons why folks put pressure on those who aren’t drinking is because they’re worried they’ll get bored or feel left out. “That’s why it helps to offer alternative ways to participate,” Ly says. Need some ideas? Grab the aux cord and play DJ for the night, divvy out cards for a quick game of poker, or surprise everyone with a food delivery. Once people see you’re having a good time, they’ll lay off.

Weddings

Certain social situations may feel more comfortable if you’re waltzing around with something in your hand — especially weddings, Romanoff says. Sipping a drink (of any kind) solves two problems that you might encounter at an event that’s chock-full of toasts: It gives you something to cheers with and it also gives you something to do with your hands. (Perfect if you have social anxiety or don’t want extra attention.)

By holding onto a beverage, folks will be less likely to give you any pressure, and you’ll be free to enjoy the event without having to explain why you aren’t hitting up the open bar. But if a tipsy aunt or inebriated groomsman gives you a hard time, don’t be afraid to get assertive.

“If anyone pressures you, set a firm and clear boundary,” Cebulka says. “You can say, ‘I'm not drinking tonight, thanks for respecting my choice.’ If they are persistent, you can remind them of what you said and add, ‘Please don't ask me again. Thank you.’”

Happy Hour

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It might sound strange to go to happy hour when you know you won’t be drinking, but, if you’re comfortable with attending one, there are plenty of ways to have fun without sipping cocktails. It’s an opportunity to get to know the folks you work (or vent to coworkers), partake in the snack menu, play bar games, and generally unwind after a long day.

To navigate the after-work occasion, often all you have to do is sip a soda and strike up a conversation about literally anything. “If someone asks why you’re not drinking, you can say, ‘I don’t feel like it,’” Cebulka says, noting you don’t need to justify yourself or explain your answer to anyone. “You can also take the booze out of mixed drinks, beer, and even wine, and try some of the fun mocktails on the menu.”

First Dates

Daytime dates are where it’s at if you don’t want to drink. “Instead of going to a bar or out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, suggest grabbing coffee or meeting up for a walk in the park so that you can comfortably get to know this person without having to worry about the question of alcohol,” dating coach Kelly Gonsalves tells Bustle.

If you do end up heading toward a bar or restaurant, just be upfront if your date asks if you’re drinking. “There’s nothing to be ashamed about,” Gonsalves says. “And if it’s going to be a problem for this person you’re going on a date with, it’s better to know sooner rather than later.” Consider it a barometer for whether or not you’re meant to be.

In Relationships

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Things can get tricky if you don’t want to drink but your partner does, but licensed therapist Justine Mastin says navigating this situation is often as easy as looking for fun things to do together as a couple that don’t center around alcohol. Instead of pouring a cocktail, visiting a winery, or going to a bar, try hanging out at the park, seeing a movie, or cooking dinner at home. As Mastin says, “This is actually a great challenge for couples who are used to having an alcohol-centered life.”

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).

Sources:

Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, clinical psychologist

Oddesty K Langham, MS, LPC, NCC, licensed professional counselor

Ash Cebulka, transformation coach

Alex Ly, AMFT, therapist

Kelly Gonsalves, CSE, dating coach

Justine Mastin, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist