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Drinking Can Be A Problem For Couples, Research Shows There Are Ways To Work It Out

man and woman hold hands, drinking
Couples may use alcohol as a social lubricant or bonding mechanism

Drinking is one of the top reasons for divorce in married couples.

And while alcohol can be a problem for couples of all ages, a psychology researcher at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg says there are ways to work through it.

In the 1987 classic, Fairytale of New York, Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues' Shane MacGowan sing about a young romance that gets crushed by addiction and alcohol.

You were handsome
You were pretty

Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more…

Lindsey Rodriguez is an assistant professor at USF St Petersburg who studies the effect of drinking on relationships. And just like in the song, she says drinking is often not a problem, at first.

"You can imagine a couple going on a first date and maybe they go to a restaurant or a bar and they have a drink. They use it as a sort of bonding mechanism."

But when one person's drinking gets a little bit out of control...

You're a bum
You're a punk...

"That's when you start to see it become a problem in relationships," said Rodriguez.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the first of the 12 steps to recovery is to admit you have a problem.

But Rodriguez says, when it comes to relationships, whether a person has a problem or not can depend on how their drinking is perceived by their partner.

"In terms of predicting their own relationship satisfaction and trust and commitment, the only thing that matters is if they are worried about their partner's drinking," she said. "It doesn't matter how much their partner is actually drinking."

People who drink may wonder if they are drinking too much. Federal dietary guidelines define "moderate drinking" as one drink per day for women and two for men.

But that doesn't recognize how complicated different people's relationships with alcohol can be.

USF St. Petersburg assistant professor Lindsey Rodriguez studies the effect of alcohol on relationships
Credit USFSP

"The way that researchers looked at problem drinking for a long time was you are either an alcoholic or you are not. And that was an old school way of thinking about it. And we have moved as a field to thinking about problem drinking on a spectrum and alcohol use disorders on a spectrum of risk rather than this black or white threshold," said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez has done surveys, asking people how many drinks per week they think is a problem. She says the answers ranged from 3 drinks a week to 50.

One way that can help drinkers cut back is to adjust their own perceptions of how much others drink.

"So if I ask a heavy drinking college student how much they think the average college student drinks in a week, they might say 15, 20 or 30 drinks, and they might themselves report drinking 15 or 20 drinks per week," she said.

"But when we tell them we actually asked a representative sample of students on campus and we found that the average number of drinks a week is four or five, then the person who is drinking 15 might say, 'Oh my gosh. I am drinking triple the average.'"

How a partner brings up their concerns also matters.

"When people bring up the problem softly and gently and particularly when the other person isn't drinking, that tends to be related with more effective and better outcomes. And when people use strategies like trying to emphasize how much they like spending time with their partner when their partner isn't drinking -- so doing things like going for walks or maybe exercising together -- that tends to help partners reduce their drinking in the future."

She's also done research, asking people to write about a fight, or a conflict they had with another person, but describe it from a neutral point of view.

"Thinking about it from the perspective of a neutral third party reduced people's drinking and drinking problems at two week follow up."

So in short, Rodriguez's research shows there is hope for a happy ending. 

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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