by Gary Seeman, Ph.D
If you believe drinking is hurting your relationship, reading this article can help you. There are many ways to recognize how problem drinking can affect a relationship, and I've done my best to discuss many of these factors. Also, I offer suggestions about how you can make changes to improve your situation.
Alcoholism can ruin your romance or your marriage. There may be other factors, but a problem with drinking can cause relationship problems and make other problems worse. Recognizing a problem is the first step in making changes.
Are You Asking Questions Like These?
- Am I living with an alcoholic?
- Does my girlfriend have a drinking problem?
- How can I help my boyfriend quit drinking?
- Do I have an alcoholic wife?
- Do I have an alcoholic husband?
- Is his or her drinking hurting our relationship?
This article will help you identify how alcohol may be affecting your relationship and what you can do for help.
Signs of Problem Drinking in Relationships
Here are some of the situations you typically see where people are having alcohol problems in relationship:
"We just got home from a party. We had a few drinks and a great time. Now we're bickering again over nothing!"
"I know we've got problems, but it's hard to cut back because all of our friends drink."
"We went out for a romantic dinner and shared a bottle of wine. We were relaxed and felt close. Then we went to a club and had a few more. Now she's losing control again and flirting with a stranger. Why does this keep happening? Does she really love me?"
"Things were great before we had kids. But I'm worried. We've had some bad fights. And I can't seem to reach him anymore. Every night he drinks a few beers and just sits in front of the TV."
You may be surprised to read this, but blaming only alcohol may be too simplistic. Usually relationship problems have several contributing causes. You'll want to find ways to address all the aspects of the issues in your relationship. But don't minimize or deny the role of alcohol in damaging your relationship.
Notice that in each of these situations, there is relationship conflict or unhappiness, but drinking is also part of the story. Relationship issues can become much worse "under the influence" of alcohol. Recognize that problem drinking has to be addressed, often before any other issues can be resolved.
How Do We Know if Alcohol Is Causing Relationship Problems?
Alcohol affects relationships in several ways: 1) as a drug, 2) as cultural ritual, and 3) psychologically.
Let's take a look at each of the ways that alcohol is involved in damaging a relationship.
Alcohol is a Drug That Affects Relationships
In my practice as a psychotherapist, I'm perplexed at how often people with obvious drinking problems push back when I suggest they may be self-medicating and might consider a psychiatric medication instead. If I suggest an antidepressant, for instance, they say they're very uncomfortable with the idea of taking a drug! If you think about it, you'll recognize that they are already taking a drug. Alcohol is a drug! It is a powerful psychoactive drug with very destructive side effects.
By definition, a psychoactive drug chemically changes perception, thinking, and emotionality. Like other popular psychoactive drugs, apparent positive experiences quickly give way to negative effects. Alcohol has more unwanted side-effects that many prescription medications.
Although alcohol's chemical effects include calming nervousness, when it starts to wear off, people get more anxious. This and its dehydrating side-effect may cause insomnia or make it worse, and make it harder to sustain sleep. Sufficient doses of alcohol also prevent the dreaming sleep that helps us process emotions at night. Even "happy drunks" who drink often find that over time they become more depressed. And although very moderate drinking can have positive health effects (as studies of the beneficial effects of red wine drinking have shown), heavy drinking gradually breaks down body and mind. I'm referring to such alcohol induced health problems as dementia, which is accelerated even with binge drinking, loss of ability to store new memories, which is associated with heavy drinking over time, cirrhosis of the liver, an increased risk for cancer. Also, chronic alcoholics can lose their very sanity, experiencing blackouts and hallucinations. And heavy drinkers who attempt to withdraw from alcohol without medical help may die from seizures.
Here's an effect most people don't know. Steady or binge drinking affects brain chemistry long after alcohol has left your body. Psychological testing is distorted as much as two weeks after not drinking -- one author advises against testing a "wet brain". [Arden, J. B. (2002). Surviving job stress: How to overcome workday pressures. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.]
If you are unconvinced that alcohol is a drug that makes alarming changes to the body's chemistry, read about the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Please be aware that quitting "cold turkey" can be very dangerous. See below for more on this.
Also recognize that drinking problems are worse when other intoxicants are involved. You may be aware of the advice (which is often ignored or even celebrated) that combining drugs is dangerous. But the effects of mixing intoxicants last long after the intoxication is over, especially if there is regular and repeated use of alcohol with other drugs.
For example, people who have problems with alcohol often find that alcohol becomes a gateway to cocaine use. Combining these two drugs is popular and has interrelated physiological effects. Psychologically, people taking this combination often experience serious problems with regulating their emotions and actions and wreak havoc on their relationships. Physically, this is like driving your car with the gas pedal to the floor and your other foot on the brakes and it risks even more devastating chemical addiction. People with this pattern are at much higher risk for serious health problems, troubles with the law, entanglements with criminals and gangs who traffic in cocaine, and the financial cost of alcohol combined with a cocaine habit.
If you can see that alcohol is a drug that profoundly alters the body's chemistry, both immediately while drinking, and long-term after repeated drinking, you can see that you are in relationship with someone who has been altered by a chemical. Their feelings, thinking, and judgment are changed by their involvement with alcohol. You are relating not just to a partner but to a partner who has been transformed by a drug.