Consuming alcohol can both benefit and harm romantic relationships. For example, drinking can be a way for couple members to connect—perhaps over a bottle of wine—and share their week. However, if someone believes their partner drinks too much, it can strain the relationship. Some recent research1 explored how perceiving one’s partner as having a drinking problem might be associated with relationship quality among college students. In addition, the researchers examined the use of drinking regulation strategies, or the behaviors that people use to try to change their partner’s drinking (such as yelling or withdrawing). After completing measures of their own drinking (e.g., number of drinks per week consumed, number of drinks consumed during recent drinking occasions) and how much they thought their partners drank, individuals reported on whether they felt (a) their partner’s drinking was a problem, (b) their own drinking was a problem, and (c) how much they tried to modify their partner’s drinking. All participants also provided information on the quality of their relationship (i.e., satisfaction, trust, commitment, and the partner’s ability to fulfill their needs).
Believing their partner drank too much was consistently associated with poorer relationship outcomes. This association was stronger when the participant did not feel he or she had a drinking problem. In other words, believing one’s partner has a drinking problem was not as problematic for the relationship if individuals believed they also had a drinking problem themselves. This finding is consistent with other research showing that relationships fare better when couple members drink similar amounts of alcohol.2,3
People in this study reported engaging in two different types of strategies to change their partner’s drinking. Some individuals primarily punished their partners for drinking (e.g., yelling, nagging, withholding sex) whereas others primarily rewarded their partners for not drinking (e.g., suggesting fun non-drinking events, praising for not drinking). The association between believing one’s partner had a drinking problem and poorer relationship quality occurred partly because of the use of punishing strategies, but not because of reward strategies. In other words, part of the reason why thinking one’s partner drinks too much is a problem for the relationship is because one engages in punishment behavior, but not because of reward behavior. Also, although punishing strategies were associated with worse relationship outcomes, rewarding strategies were not.
So if you believe your partner is drinking too much, using strategies aimed at punishing your partner will likely only create more frustration on your part, which may worsen the relationship dynamic and potentially result in even higher partner drinking (though this has not been formally tested). Also, this research shows that regardless of how much your partner drinks (or you drink), if the drinking is perceived to be a problem, then the drinking is a problem; it would benefit both you and your partner to have a healthy discussion about how much alcohol is appropriate and acceptable.
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1Rodriguez, L. M., DiBello, A. M., & Neighbors, C. (2013). Perceptions of partner drinking problems, regulation strategies, and relationship outcomes. Addictive Behaviors, 38, 2949-2957. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2013.08.028.
2Homish, G. G., & Leonard, K. E. (2007). The drinking partnership and marital satisfaction: The longitudinal influence of discrepant drinking. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75, 43–51.
3Mudar, P., Leonard, K. E., & Soltysinski, K. (2001). Discrepant substance use and marital functioning in newlywed couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 130–134.
4Rodriguez, L. M., Øverup, C. S., & Neighbors, C. (2013). Perceptions of partners’ drinking problem affect relationship outcomes beyond partner self-reported drinking: Alcohol use in committed relationships. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27, 627-638.
Lindsey Rodriguez, M.A. – Science of Relationships articles
Lindsey’s interests include the development of a comprehensive, dyadic perspective for examining how problematic alcohol use and interpersonal relationship processes interact to influence various physical, emotional, and relational outcomes for individuals and their relationship partners.