Jealousy and Alcohol: A Risky Combination
By Stacey Colino
At one time or another, we’ve all been there: At a party where everyone is having a little too much to drink, you see your S.O. talking animatedly, maybe even flirtatiously, with someone attractive and before you can blink twice, you’re raging with jealousy.
Or maybe you catch your partner text-flirting with someone far away during a booze-filled evening and you lose your cool. Situations like these are not flukes. They’re incredibly common and they’re fueled by complex interactions between alcohol consumption and jealousy, according to recent research.
For starters, drinking alcohol often can loosen your inhibitions and/or magnify your emotional responses to upsetting social situations. Research from Hanover College in Indiana suggests that an increase in jealousy and mistrust between partners while drinking can be linked to “alcohol myopia” — a lack of foresight/ discernment and a narrow view of an issue while drinking. In fact, in a 2015 study involving 236 students at Towson University in Maryland, researchers found that 66% of them reported that they had engaged in social behaviors they later regretted while they were drinking. That’s alcohol myopia in action.
Meanwhile, the quality of your love connection and your underlying state of mind also may be factors in the interplay between jealousy and drinking. In a 2015 study involving 277 people, researchers from the University of Houston examined the links between relationship-contingent self-esteem (deriving your self-worth from your romantic relationship), feelings of romantic jealousy, and alcohol use. What they found was that people who experience high levels of jealousy in their romantic relationships are more likely to cope with these unpleasant feelings by drinking alcohol. “These findings were especially true for people who are less satisfied, less committed, and report feeling more disconnected from their partners,” notes study lead author Angelo DiBello, PhD, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Brown University Center for Alcohol & Addiction Studies in Providence, Rhode Island.
In other words, under these circumstances, jealous people who are in less-secure romantic relationships may end up drinking alcohol to try to blunt or self-medicate their negative feelings. But this strategy can backfire and cause the person to drink to excess (which can harm his or her health) or behave in ways that can harm the relationship (perhaps by leading to conflict, infidelity, or violence), DiBello notes.
The results of a previous study led by DiBello suggest a link between maladaptive jealousy and drinking problems: In particular, envy, vindictiveness, distrust and other negative aspects of jealousy were found to motivate some people to drink alcohol in an effort to cope with these unpleasant feelings; this tendency can, in turn, lead to greater alcohol-related problems (such as alcohol abuse and relationship violence). “We found that the combination of an individual having a higher amount drinking problems and experiencing more negative aspects of romantic jealousy was associated with increased intimate partner violence,” DiBello says.
Consider this added incentive to come to your own emotional rescue when the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head. While it’s common and natural for people to experience romantic jealousy in their relationship from time to time — “romantic jealousy is a shared human experience,” DiBello says — it can become problematic if it’s not handled well. Ultimately, using alcohol to cope with these uncomfortable feelings can prove to be more harmful than helpful by escalating emotional or physical conflict between the two of you or taking a toll on your physical and/or emotional health.
A better approach is to be open with your partner and communicate your feelings of jealousy or insecurity in a calm, rational, tactful manner — at an appropriate time. Don’t do it in the heat of the moment if one or both of you has been drinking, advises Susan Heitler, PhD, a psychologist in Denver and author of Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More. “It’s better to postpone the discussion to a time when you are feeling calm, well-fed and well-rested — and don’t have alcohol in your system.”
When you do broach the subject, avoid swinging into accusatory mode or using the word jealousy, Heitler says. “Instead, use other true but gentler words like, “I felt uncomfortable when you were dancing with Sally at the party last night” followed by a brief explanation of why. For instance, you could say, “To me, dancing feels like an intimate activity and while I wasn’t thrilled when you danced with her the first time, when you danced with her a second time, that crossed a line for me and I felt quite anxious.” Hopefully, this will spark a compassionate conversation and help you each figure out what kinds of situations push your jealousy buttons or make you feel uncomfortable.
If taking these steps doesn’t help sufficiently, and/or if jealousy seems to be damaging your relationship, you may want to consider going for professional counseling for yourself or as a couple.
Experts: Angelo DiBello, PhD, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Heitler, PhD, a psychologist in Denver and author of Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More; email@example.com