Figuring out how drinking alcohol might figure into potential problems in a relationship calls for a great deal of reflection by both partners. Alcohol consumption features in the social lives of many people, and one Pew survey indicated that about 13 percent of married couples met at a bar, nightclub, or similar setting. Even folks who meet by other means, such as online dating, often find themselves going to the bar early in their relationships. This means that drinking can have a strong effect on how things turn out. It can also make people look past signs of greater trouble, such as an alcohol use disorder.
The bar-going stereotype isn’t all there is to relationships and drinking. Couples often choose to stay in to drink, and it’s common for people to keep liquor cabinets or wine racks in the home. It’s important to not make stereotyped assumptions about how alcohol use disorder features in a relationship. You should also be careful not to assume that binging and blacking out are the only possible symptoms of trouble.
Many couples will not experience any signs of trouble with alcohol. The mere consumption of alcohol by one or both partners does not presuppose a problem. If, however, you’re worried that something might be going on between you and your partner, you may want to look at the ways an alcohol use disorder might lead to conflict or distance.
The Medical Side of Drinking Issues
One of the more insidious aspects of alcohol problems in relationships is that a person’s brain can be significantly changed at a chemical and biological level. Contrary to popular myth, though, alcohol itself does not actually kill brain cells. The process of developing brain-related issues from alcohol consumption is more roundabout, and it has the potential to be lethal.
When we look at problem drinkers from a medical viewpoint, we see a number of possible long-term issues that can harm the brain and the body, including:
- Thiamine deficiency
- Shrinking brain matter
- Neurological problems
- Depressant effects
- Metabolic problems stemming from a decrease in liver function
- Rewired reward centers in the brain
This matters because changes in cognition can have unintended ripple effects in a relationship. Alcohol consumption can lead to brain disorders such as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, a disorder that leads to a form of Korsakoff’s psychosis in 80 percent of people who experience it. Korsakoff’s psychosis gives rise to short-term memory loss, and it also leads to retrograde amnesia. This is what feeds into the stereotype of long-term drinkers as highly forgetful people.
Reduced cognition in relationships can lead to a difficulty relating to the other person. If a partner has trouble remembering that something happened, it can foster mistrust.
Declining Relationship Investment
Each partner making an investment in a relationship is critical to its success, and a decline in investment in the other person is one of the biggest signs of trouble. Such a turn may just be the product of a relationship going through its course. If the change seems to not have a root cause, however, it’s worth asking whether alcohol use disorder might be a driver.
Alcohol and relationships can be a tricky combination because of the role that dopamine plays in both love and addiction. Dopamine is a major neuroreceptor that figures prominently in creating the sensation that love is itself addictive. Unfortunately, alcohol can change how dopamine works in the brain, hijacking the reward-forming process and redirecting it toward excessive drinking rather than relationship building.
If it feels like your partner would rather drink than spend time with you, there’s a chance that’s being propelled by a modified reward pathway in his or her brain. For some couples that include drinking as part of their interactions, this can end up being masked. It can be especially difficult to detect if both partners have alcohol use disorders and have built their relationship around beer, wine, or liquor. As much fun as a boozy fling can be, it rarely provides the foundation for lasting love.
A major indicator of addictive behavior is withdrawal from social and interpersonal interactions. This is particularly common among high-functioning alcoholics, and it can be difficult for a partner to detect if they’re not living with the person who has an alcohol use disorder. Even if you’re not living together, though, your partner should be able to find time to be with you.
Emotional distance doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as sitting in a room alone. Some people may invest in hollow friendships that are grounded by activities like binge drinking. Especially in a setting like a college where heavy alcohol consumption is widely accepted, this can allow someone to be emotionally distanced from their partner while appearing to be socially active and friendly.
This sort of situation can be problematic when one partner drinks regularly and the other doesn’t. The one who drinks may elect to go out with friends after work or on the weekend, and the behavior is often defended as just letting off steam. If it gets to the point that it means putting significant energies into drinking rather than building a relationship, it should be seen as a form of emotional distancing.
Not all people with substance use disorders necessarily withdraw. Some may, in fact, end up acting increasingly confrontational. Alcohol has a deserved reputation for playing a role in fights. This is evidenced by the fact that women who were experiencing domestic violence in their relationships reported drug or alcohol problems in their partners at twice the rate of those who weren’t subject to violence. Instances of abuse of children by maternal caregivers were also reported to be 50 percent more likely when drugs or alcohol were involved.
Not all conflicts show up as outright violence, though. Emotionally stressful behavior, such as making accusations against a partner, is common. This can be compounded by declining brain function, especially if a problem drinker has been consuming alcohol on a regular basis for years or decades.
A tricky aspect of conflict in relationships is that it may also manifest as displaced outbursts or violence. Individuals may seek conflict outside their home lives, directing their actions toward:
- Bar or club employees
- Other drinkers
- The police and other authority figures
- Random individuals
This can make the impact on the relationship less apparent until something destructive ends up happening.
Not all bad conduct that occurs while drinking shows up as picking a fight. Alcohol can inhibit a lot of social controls that keep people from doing stupid things. That’s why it has a reputation for being a social lubricant. Unfortunately, this rarely stops with people just being friendlier around strangers. Instead, those with alcohol use disorders may engage in a variety of reckless acts, ranging from drunk driving to unprotected sex.
A relationship can be quickly stressed by reckless conduct. An unplanned pregnancy, for example, may follow from a night of heavy drinking. Worse, sex outside the relationship may lead to more direct conflicts or even a breakup.
The stereotype of people drinking to feel or not feel runs deep in Western societies. While it gives alcohol a sense of poetry in popular culture, the reality is that it is nothing more than self-medicating. Eighty percent of individuals who end up seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder appear to have exhibited some form of severe depression during their time drinking heavily. Excessive alcohol use may also be related to a host of untreated psychiatric problems, including:
- Social phobias
- Anxiety disorders
- Anti-social personality disorders
- Suicidal ideation
- Panic attacks
If you feel like your partner needs to drink in order have a semblance of normalcy in their life, you may want to think about whether they’re actually self-medicating with alcohol.
The popular image of alcohol as driving sleepiness has been pounded into people’s minds by the notion of the nightcap and people coming home drunk and passing out. Drinking, however, has a negative impact on restful sleep. Especially during the back half of a night’s sleep, it can lead to more disrupted sleep patterns. Alcohol consumption may also break up a person’s circadian rhythm, particularly when accompanied by behaviors like drinking far into the night or until dawn.
One of the potential long-run medical effects of drinking is a decline in cardiovascular and respiratory function. This can lead to an array of sleep-related issues, including sleep apnea. If you’re seeing indications that your partner is not getting restful sleep, you may want to look at how much of a factor alcohol might be.
Expressions of Desire for Sobriety
It’s common for someone with an alcohol use disorder to express a desire to stop drinking. These sorts of statements are not necessarily direct declarations of a need to get into a recovery program. Instead, you may hear concerns stated like:
- “Why do I do this to myself?”
- “I’ve really got to tone it down, don’t I?”
- “Next time, stop me before I get that fifth shot.”
- “Wine really doesn’t agree with me.”
When these kinds of declarations become more commonplace than funny, you should consider talking with your partner about what seems to be going on.
As much as trying to quit cold turkey may sound appealing, alcohol is known to be one of the most dangerous abused substances to kick. Delirium tremens, the so-called DTs, can kick in within three days of last having a drink. This may give rise to symptoms ranging from anxiety and vomiting to psychosis and even death. The potential effects of withdrawal in those with serious alcohol problems are among the reasons why it’s important for these individuals to get professional help when working to kick their habit.
Given alcohol’s reputation as a difficult substance to hang up on, those who seem to be having trouble quitting drinking may want to look into recovery program options, such as The Recovery Team. From a relationship perspective, it’s important to let your partner or spouse know that you’re not pressuring them. If now is not the time for them to confront the situation, at least let them know that you’ll still be supportive when circumstances change.
Regardless of your commitment to a relationship, do not endanger yourself or your children on account of trying to get your partner help. Supportiveness should not come at the cost of your safety.
When the time comes for someone you care about to go into recovery, you should try to find a program that matches their needs. If they have a mixture of drug and alcohol use disorders, it’s particularly important that they enter into a program that’s capable of keeping an eye out for adverse interactions and withdrawal symptoms. By using a structured approach, however, you and your partner can have a chance to successfully move forward through the recovery process.