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Dating Under the Influence
Most of us know “DUI” stands for “driving under the influence.” But the acronym has another meaning, one with consequences that rival the damage done when one gets behind the wheel impaired. Although dating under the influence doesn’t cause motor vehicle accidents, it certainly can run your personal life off the road.
One study suggests what can happen when drinking and dating mix. Couples ages 18 to 26 that had four or five alcoholic beverages two to three times a week were more likely than those who occasionally drank to have a relationship split within six years, according to research conducted by Jacquelyn D. Wiersma, PhD, and Judith L. Fischer, PhD.
Myths About Alcohol and Social Interaction
Why do some couples drink too much? Many people hold misconceptions about the effect of alcohol, including that it makes people more lively and social. Quite the opposite is true. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, like anesthesia. This means it can reduce inhibition — an effect that might at first make it seem as if the person imbibing is happy — but ultimately it contributes to a downturn in emotion.
A second myth is that alcohol has aphrodisiac properties. But while it might feel that way initially because drinking weakens discernment, alcohol also diminishes performance and enjoyment for men and women alike.
How Alcohol Affects Relationships
Drinking tends to worsen agitation and contention. Clinical psychologist Stanley Ducharme, PhD, advises that couples working to manage conflict examine how alcohol affects their interactions. “With alcohol, there is a better chance of escalating the problem than resolving it,” he writes on his website. “Sometimes it may be helpful to see if there is a pattern between alcohol use and conflict. Many couples discover that alcohol use is a factor in many of their conflicts and disagreements.”
And although alcohol doesn’t necessarily cause domestic violence, it can aggravate abusive factors within a relationship. Intoxication also can blur cognition, making it more difficult to interpret the other party’s words and actions — possibly leading to an escalation in anger. One person’s use of substances might also be a source of relationship conflict.
On the flip side, research from the University of Buffalo on couples in their first nine years of marriage indicates that partners with similar drinking habits — that is, both or neither drank heavily — were more likely to remain married than couples in which only one person was a heavy drinker. But that isn’t to say that sharing addictive behavior leads to relationship bliss. Because it impairs comprehension, intoxication can cause miscommunication. The effects of alcohol weaken the filters that ideally keep conversations loving, or at least civil.
Romance in Recovery
When one member of a partnership has a substance abuse issue, it’s like having a third person in the relationship — one neither person expected would take up so much space. When both partners use, it’s like having four people in the union; that gets especially complicated.
Each party can make a commitment to sobriety that supersedes the relationship itself. A couple who met in Alcoholics Anonymous promised each other in their wedding vows that because their bond was a gift that came with their sobriety, they’d end the relationship if it got in the way of their continued recovery. This is a brave and difficult — but healthy — decision.
In relationships in which one or both parties are in recovery, it might be necessary to re-establishing trust. Something one person said or did while under the influence might have stung enough for healing to be needed.
Additionally, it’s normal for a change in substance use to affect physical intimacy. If one or both partners had used alcohol to reduce vulnerability before, sober sex might take some getting used to. But when both people are fully present — to their own feelings and to their partner’s — sex can become far more intimate and satisfying.
But choosing to prioritize the relationship over alcohol doesn’t permanently remove conflict. It might at times be a struggle not to return to enabling behaviors. Open discussions and a clear understanding of what each person needs in the partnership can help prevent sliding back into old patterns that might’ve enabled or gotten exacerbated by drinking.
Dating under the influence can lead to complications that are harder to free yourself from than a multicar crash. Exercising good judgment can help you develop a naturally intoxicating romance — one with a partner who puts a sparkle in your eyes and not in your glass.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1