Alcohol, romance: Not always a bad mix

U. BUFFALO (US) — Drinking plays an important and sometimes unexpected role in young people’s relationships, having negative—and perhaps surprisingly—positive effects as well.

“We really can’t make the blanket statements about drinking and romantic relationships that people have come to expect,” says Ash Levitt, postdoctoral fellow at the University at Buffalo.

“For instance, it turns out that drinking together rather than apart is clearly good for relationships. Individuals who drink with their partner report feeling increased intimacy and decreased relationship problems the next day, compared to individuals who drink apart from their partner or do not drink at all.”

The study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, may prove helpful in providing clues about who might be at risk from the adverse consequences of alcohol use within committed relationships.

The beneficial outcomes for relationships were associated with relatively lower levels of drinking, one to three drinks, whereas harmful outcomes—decreased intimacy and increased relationship problems—were associated with heavier levels of drinking, as in four or more drinks.

The study included 69 heterosexual couples who averaged 20-21 years of age. The majority of the participants were white and over 90 percent were college students. Most were dating seriously and seven of the couples were married.

Interestingly, heavy alcohol consumption was not always harmful to relationships, Levitt says. “The harmful effects of heavy drinking were buffered when partners drank together versus apart.

“Also, when both partners drank either heavy or light amounts, as long as they were similar amounts compared to their partner, it was better for the relationship than when one drank heavily and the other lightly.”

Finally, the associations between drinking and relationships were stronger and more numerous for women than for men, suggesting that alcohol use plays a larger role in romantic relationships for women than it does for men.

Women appeared to drink with their partner in response to relationship problems, feeling disconnected, or when they perceived that he had behaved negatively toward them the day before.

Also, only women were protected from the harmful effects of heavier drinking when they drank with their partner; men did not benefit in the same situation. Women also drank significantly more on days following negative events with their partners than men did after negative events.

“Using computerized or online daily diary methods to compile day-to-day variations in thoughts and behaviors provided us with very accurate sequences of events,” Levitt says.

“This reliable record of effects for each gender, the nature of the drinking, and the processes occurring between the partners provided information about factors that may make or break relationships over time.”

Researchers from the University of Missouri contributed to the study.

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