As a relationship researcher and college instructor I often have conversations with students who are experiencing difficulties in their relationships. More often than not, I direct or escort students to our local campus counseling and mental health center. But there are times when students’ levels of distress don’t require professional intervention; they just want to learn more about relationships so they can better understand their own. I typically take this opportunity to remind students that conflict and ‘downtimes’ in relationships are common; it’s very difficult for two people whose lives are intertwined to not occasionally be unhappy with their partners or relationships. Students, in turn, often take the opportunity to remind me that just because what they are going through is common doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck (I jest; I fully recognize this fact). This is an important point — not getting along with somebody we care about is not fun, and can often be quite frustrating. But is relationship conflict more frustrating for some than others? And do some people try to cope with or otherwise deal with their relationship difficulties in an unhealthy manner? According to recently published research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the answer to both questions is “yes”.
The research team focused on relationship-contingent self-esteem, which generally refers to how relationship events affect how individuals feel about themselves. For example, imagine you have a fight with your boyfriend and are not happy with your relationship because of that fight. Well, if you’re high in relationship-contingent self-esteem then you’re likely to be unhappy with yourself as well (“I can’t even make a relationship work. I suck!”). The researchers wanted to test whether relationship-contingent self-esteem could lead some people to engage in unhealthy behaviors. In this case, they focused on drinking alcohol; as it turns out, low self-esteem increases the likelihood that somebody will turn to the bottle (or margarita, etc.) to try to escape feelings of self-doubt. Given this fact, they hypothesized that individuals experiencing dips in relationship satisfaction would be more likely to turn to alcohol in an unhealthy way if they were high in relationship-contingent self-esteem and tended to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers asked 78 heterosexual couples to complete a series of measures, including:
- Relationship satisfaction: How much participants agreed with statements like, “We have a good relationship.”
- Relationship-contingent self-esteem: How well participants felt they were described by statements like, “When my partner and I fight, I feel bad about myself in general.”
- Drinking to cope motives: How much participants agreed with statements like, “I drink to forget about problems”
- Alcohol-related problems: How often participants experienced specific drinking-related behaviors or problems over the prior three months. Sample items included “drove after having four drinks”; “went to work or school drunk”.
What did they find? Let’s start with the males in the relationships. Guys who were less happy with their relationships were more likely to ‘drink to cope’, but only when they were high in relationship-contingent self-esteem. In turn, these guys were more likely to report more alcohol-related problems.
Translation: Joe is unhappy with his relationship for some reason. Joe also tends to feel bad about himself when things are not going well in his relationship. As a result, Joe is more likely to try to cope with his problems by drinking, and his drinking tends to be at an unhealthy level (i.e., it leads to risky behaviors and poor decisions).
For women, although they were more likely to report alcohol-related problems when they reported drinking to cope, their levels of relationship satisfaction and relationship-contingent self-esteem did not factor into the equation. In other words, there was no evidence that women are more likely to drink when their relationship is on the skids, regardless of their levels of relationship-contingent self-esteem.
Research like this is important because drinking levels during the college years is a strong predictor of future alcohol-related problems. Thus, the more researchers can identify the various factors that affect the likelihood of developing drinking problems, the better. This work highlights the importance of looking at how people and their relationships interact to affect important life outcomes.
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Rodriguez, L. M., Knee, C. R., & Neighbors, C. (2014). Relationships can drive some to drink: Relationship-contingent self-esteem and drinking problems. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 270-290.
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.