It’s no secret that alcohol affects our mood and personality.
Someone can go from anxious to relaxed or shy to outgoing after just a few drinks. These behavioral shifts are often alcohol’s selling point, glamorized in marketing campaigns and countless pop culture tropes— growing stronger, and often more dangerous, once alcohol consumption reaches the point of intoxication.
But how does someone’s social drinking or alcohol use disorder impact their relationships? In short, quite significantly.
As soon as someone’s drinking habits evolve, their interpersonal relationships evolve, too. It’s common for people to view someone else’s recovery as a mirror that reflects their own personal alcohol consumption. While these interpersonal changes happen among all types of relationships including work, friends, and family, this piece focuses on how those alcohol-induced behaviors affect romantic relationships.
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Alcohol Can Lead to Communication Issues
Whether someone is a social drinker or a self-identified “alcoholic”, alcohol can create communication barriers.
“Clear communication is essential for a healthy relationship,” says Keegan Herring, LPC, and mindfulness-based therapist. Even the occasional drinker can still blackout, initiating fights that they don’t remember which often leave a lasting impact on their partner(s).
Communication quite literally makes the difference in a relationship, said The Temper writer, Phoebe Claire Conybeare, in her piece on how sobriety made her a better partner.
“We blossom when we assume positive intent on behalf of the person with whom we’re in a relationship. We grow when we seek to understand and listen. We flourish when we feel welcome to express our needs and have them met with compassion, when we have our boundaries heard and respected, and when our spiritual growth is advocated for.”
Communication is akin to being vulnerable in a relationship, and many drinkers use alcohol to avoid vulnerability, which can inhibit communication.
Alcohol Can Affect Your Sex Life
Additional problems arise (pun intended) when inebriation enters the bedroom. Alcohol abuse can lead to liver disease which “reduces the testosterone levels that affect both libido and erectile function,” says Dr. Asif Muneer, urologist, and andrologist. It also has a strong impact on folks with vulvas.
“Alcohol dehydrates your body, and this affects your vagina. With less body water overall, alcohol leaves your body with less fluid available for lubrication. Alcohol is also a central nervous system depressant. This means that your nerve endings aren’t as sensitive as they are when you aren’t drinking,” says Rachel Nall, a Registered Nurse Anesthetist.
Drinking Might Change Your Ideas About Suitable Partners
While alcohol is proven to impact existing relationships, it’s also known to have a profound effect on the quality of new people we bring into our lives. In my own sobriety, I discovered that the list of traits I desired in a potential mate vastly improved.
“Drunk Me” thought that my ideal partner was anyone with a shared passion for rock ‘n roll and whiskey. “Sober Me” raised my standards to look for folks who prioritize mental and physical health, don’t party on a regular basis (if at all), and are capable of discussing their feelings. Once my standards upgraded, so did the quality of my new relationships.
Even when a relationship in sobriety ended, there were no hard feelings because we discussed everything as adults, as opposed to “Drunk Me” who emotionally erupted at any sign that the end was near. One might say that sobriety often leads to maturity. “When you’re deep in alcohol use disorder, you want to be with people who are in it too. Which creates an unhealthy dynamic,” Herring adds.
Drinking Increases Risk of Domestic and Sexual Violence
The risk of domestic and sexual violence drastically increases when alcohol is involved. According to the WHO, 55% of domestic abuse perpetrators drank alcohol prior to the assault. Women who experience domestic abuse are 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol themselves.
“Trauma changes our brain dynamic,” Herring continues, “A way to escape those PTSD symptoms is by self-medicating with something like alcohol that depresses the central nervous system.” This often happens in the form of binge drinking (consuming 4 or more drinks, raising your BAC to .08% or higher).
That stereotypical college keg party may look like it’s all fun and games but binge drinking is often tied to an increase in student assault. According to Alcohol.org, at least half of all student-on-student sexual assaults involve alcohol. Nearly 90 percent of student rapes that are perpetrated by an acquaintance of the victim (also known as date rape) also involve alcohol.
Partners of Those with AUD Need Help, Too
While suffering from alcohol use disorder is challenging for the person seeking help, it’s also tough for their partner(s). There may be underlying codependency (prioritizing someone else’s needs or health before your own to the point of dysfunction), trauma bonding (confusing love with a shared similar traumatic history), or arguments due to the lack of understanding what their loved one is going through.
“Alcohol use disorder affects all relationship dynamics,” says Herring, “If someone enters a 90-day inpatient treatment program, their relationship becomes long distance which often creates additional strain. It’s also important for the partner(s) to get their own help.”
Without finding support of their own, it’s common for a partner(s) to think that their loved one should be able to “just stop” drinking. It’s not that simple. Resources for partners can come in the form of peer support groups (either online or in-person), talk therapy, articles, and even just talking to a trusted friend or family member.
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Now that we know a bit more about how alcohol impacts romantic relationships, it’s also important to remember that someone doesn’t need to hit the proverbial rock bottom to decide they want to quit or cut back on their alcohol consumption. The only prerequisite is the desire to pause and reflect on how booze impacts your life, including the lives of your loved ones.
If you or someone you know is struggling with domestic or sexual violence, please call RAINN at 1-800-656-4673.