In her early twenties, Allie McCormick’s drinking started to interfere with meeting the right romantic partner. Men told her that her drinking was unattractive (even if they drank to the same extent). Some men judged her; others took advantage. After cutting back a little, the Sober Alley founder met someone who enjoyed drinking as much as she did. They bonded over their shared pasts and, eventually, got married.
Years later, when McCormick decided to quit drinking altogether because it was hindering her work and day-to-day life, her husband had a hard time understanding why. He’d seen her drinking decline and didn’t think sobriety was necessary. He continued to drink while McCormick struggled to stay sober.
“This caused conflict for quite some time,” she says.
And not surprisingly so. When one partner changes their drinking habits, the entire relationship dynamic can shift. In one study looking at 634 newly married couples over the course of nine years, researchers found that 50% of couples with a discrepant drinking pattern (where one partner drank heavily, and the other did not) got divorced—higher than the 30% of couples who shared similar drinking patterns and got divorced.
McCormick and her husband have worked through these problems—and McCormick is now 15 months sober. But that’s not always the case.
Alcohol can often wreak havoc on a relationship, especially when a couple disagrees on how much alcohol should or shouldn’t be consumed. What happens when you start deviating from the routine you and your partner have established? What happens when you start drinking without your partner? What if your partner encourages you to return to drinking, even if you you know you want to quit? What if your partner decides to quit drinking, even though you still enjoy it?
“[For many], alcohol is the third partner in the romantic relationship,” says Howard Forman MD, addiction psychiatrist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. For this reason, couples need to be honest and open about the role that alcohol plays in their relationship. If the two don’t agree, this can lead to a number of issues, including disagreements, resentment, intimacy issues, and in the worse-case scenarios, domestic abuse.
As you begin to contemplate your partner’s drinking habits or your own, look out for these signs that show alcohol is negatively impacting your relationship.
1. Alcohol consumption is sparking conflict.
We might have good intentions. We might intend to meet a friend for one drink, and that might lead to a second or third, and then another bar. Then, three hours later, we are inebriated, disoriented, and drunk-dialing or stumbling home and starting a fight with our partner, which we either don’t remember—or don’t want to remember.
It’s easy to pinpoint a reason for someone’s behavior or put blame elsewhere. It was the tequila, or the fifth beer, or the lack of food, or the friend who bought one-too-many pitchers that needed to be drank. This happens, of course, and it might not mean you have a problem. But it might be causing ongoing conflicts in your relationship.
As we drink alcohol, we lower our ability to self-regulate. As the alcohol consumption increases, we stop caring about the choices we’re about to make—or have already made—which is often why we stay out later than we intend to, accept another shot (even if we don’t want to), say something we don’t mean, or pick a fight with our partner even if we aren’t sure why.
If you and your partner are only fighting when alcohol is involved, or the fighting increases as the alcohol consumption by one or both parties increases, then you’ll need to examine why it’s happening. Unfortunately, alcohol can lead to anger, to frequent arguing, emotional disconnect, or abuse.
Alcohol can’t serve any purpose in your relationship. –Howard Forman
“I have yet to see a case of domestic violence where drugs of abuse were not involved,” Dr. Forman says.
2. Alcohol plays an important role in your relationship.
Maybe you met at a bar. Maybe you spend your weekends drinking with friends. Maybe you share a bottle of wine while you make dinner. Maybe you drink to make the intimacy more enjoyable. Maybe you drink to feel less angry. Maybe alcohol is one of the reasons you and your partner get along.
“Alcohol can’t serve any purpose in your relationship,” Dr. Forman says. He says that if your partner needs to drink to calm themself, or you need to drink to tolerate your partner, then the relationship will be eventually hindered by alcohol.
Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker and international women’s mental health expert, was afraid that her relationship with her husband would struggle to work if she changed her drinking habits. She and her husband would occasionally hire a babysitter for their four kids to go out for drinks. They would share a drink (or many more) to unwind. But this would sometimes lead to Kitley making accusatory comments, starting arguments, or getting into fights with her husband. Kitley realized that her drinking was preventing her from being the type of partner and parent she wanted to be.
But her and her husband had met at a bar that one of her parents owned. What if he didn’t support her choice to be sober?
He did. Although they had to endure a transition period of establishing new boundaries (since Kitley was navigating an alcohol use disorder and her husband was not), they learned to establish new routines including attending comedy shows, plays, or going to the movies. Kitley stills visits bars sometimes, but not to drink.
“Our 15-year relationship, as a married couple, is stronger today than it has ever been,” she says.
Her fears, though, weren’t unfounded. Researchers in a 2016 study published found that couples who shared similar drinking habits were happier than couples who had different drinking habits. This led to numerous articles falsely stating that couples who drink together stay together.
But the study had a major flaw, according to Tala Johartchi, a licensed clinical psychologist and addiction expert. Researchers found that only a small percentage of the participants (20% of the men and 6% of the women) were “problem drinkers,” meaning most participants were not problem-drinkers and were likely low-risk social drinkers. So the study doesn’t really take problem drinking into account, which can play a major role in a relationship.
“Problem drinkers,” as the study defines them, are individuals whose health, relationship, and/or life is negatively impacted by their drinking habits. Studies show that problem drinking affects many of us. You may not have alcohol use disorder, by definition, but you might still be a “problem drinker”—and this is, of course, a problem for you and your partner.
3. Drinking choices are causing dishonesty or deception.
Many of us would argue that honesty is at the heart of any good relationship, with studies supporting the theory. It’s little surprise that lying or being dishonest about your drinking can drive a wedge between you and your partner.
If you’re hiding your drinking from your partner or lying to them about it … that’s a sign that alcohol’s damaging your relationship. –Kate Bee
In the moment, it might feel like a little white lie. You might feel like you’re protecting your partner, or keeping them from worrying, but saying you only had two beers (and neglecting to mention the three shots), or telling your partner you’re going to a friend’s house but going to the bar instead. These lies can eventually catch up to you.
“If you’re hiding your drinking from your partner or lying to them about it … that’s a sign that alcohol’s damaging your relationship,” says Kate Bee, founder of The Sober School.
On the other side, if you’re noticing that your partner has forgotten conversations from drinking too much, is lying about their drinking, or if your partner prefers to drink alone rather than with you, consider speaking to them about them.
According to Bee, “addiction thrives in isolation.”
Are you noticing any of these developments?
“Bring your concern to your partner’s attention,” says Kitley. “If repeated patterns continue and conflicts are escalating and not being resolved, it might be best to walk away by recognizing that the relationship is no longer serving you.”
If, however, you choose to stand by your partner as they begin to address and overcome these issues, you can see a therapist or join a support group like Al-Anon (a group of recovery for friends, spouses, and family members of people with a substance use disorder).
Don’t be afraid to address your concerns. If you feel drinking is negatively impacting your relationship or causing your partner to become argumentative, dishonest, or angry, then there’s a problem. And if you are feeling like alcohol is no longer serving you, then perhaps it’s time reassess your own drinking.
Even if your partner has a different stance, they should be willing to work through the changes you want to make.