How Do Relationships Influence Young Adults’ Risks for Alcohol Problems?

Posted on August 29th, 2014
Posted in Young Adults

In the U.S., young adulthood is associated with high rates of alcohol consumption, as well as high rates of alcohol-related harm. While men drink more often than women, women also have significant risks for such problems. In a study published in July 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from two American universities used information from a long-term project called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to determine how the drinking behaviors of a young adult’s partner in a relationship influence his or her odds of developing alcohol problems a few years later.

Alcohol and Young Adulthood

Roughly 69 percent of all young adults between the ages of 21 and 25 consume alcohol in the average month. This is the highest rate of intake for any age group in the U.S. The rate of drinking participation remains well above 60 percent in all other young adults except for people between the ages of 18 and 20; only roughly 46 percent of these youngest adults drink on a monthly basis. Along with a high rate of alcohol intake comes a high rate of alcohol-related harm. For instance, the highest rates for binge drinking (intoxication-producing short-term drinking) also occur among young adults, as do the highest rates for alcohol intake above a moderate level. In addition, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have a substantially higher rate for diagnosable alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism) than people in any other age group.

Alcohol Use in Relationships

Alcohol misuse is a known factor in the onset of relationship strife, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports. Examples of serious issues that can occur when at least one partner has a drinking problem include isolated episodes or recurring patterns of domestic violence (i.e., intimate partner violence), severe relationship conflicts that don’t involve violence, a lack of economic security within the household, a lack of fidelity between married or unmarried partners and (for married partners) the initiation of a divorce. In some cases, these and other difficulties are triggered primarily by the negative impact of damaging alcohol intake. In other cases, problematic drinking adds an extra layer of strain that complicates existing issues or leads to relationship dissolution. Couples that require intervention from therapists, marriage counselors, the police or other professionals frequently contain at least one person with significant alcohol problems.

Impact on Alcohol-Related Risk

In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the University of Arkansas and Texas Tech University examined the habitual drinking behaviors of 1,347 young adults enrolled in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Heath, an ongoing project that has periodically reviewed changes in health status among the same group of people since 1994. At the time of the current study, all of the individuals in this group were somewhere between the ages of 26 and 35. Every person enrolled in the current study was in at least one relationship between the ages of 18 and 26. The researchers looked at the drinking behaviors of both partners in relationships that occurred during this timeframe, including such factors as frequency of alcohol intake, the amount of alcohol regularly consumed, the presence of binge drinking and the presence of drunkenness outside of the context of binge drinking.  They also looked at the potential impact of these drinking behaviors between the ages of 26 and 35.

After collating all of the gathered data, the researchers identified four distinct patterns of drinking within the participants’ relationships. These patterns were equal amounts of light intake by both partners, unequally frequent and excessive intake by a male partner, unequally frequent and excessive intake by a female partner and equally frequent and excessive intake by both partners. The researchers concluded that, depending on the circumstances, both equal and unequal patterns of drinking can contribute to young adults’ future risks for serious alcohol problems. For example, married men in their 20s who drink above moderate levels and consume more alcohol than their wives have higher chances of developing alcohol abuse/alcoholism than men involved in other relationship-based drinking patterns. Conversely, both partners in a relationship share an increased risk for alcohol abuse/alcoholism when they participate equally in excessive drinking (although women carry the bulk of the risk). In addition, marriages between two equally excessive drinkers have unusually high chances of ending in a divorce.

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