When I first talk to people about couples therapy, I usually ask: “Do you drink alcohol? Does your partner?” and if so, “How much?” I also ask whether they use other mind-altering drugs and intoxicants. Please understand — I’m not opposed to having a good time. Some people can drink in moderation without ill effects. But I want to know whether drinking or drugs may be spoiling your romance. With alcohol especially people may not make the connection between drinking and relationship problems. They may not be ready to let go of a partying lifestyle. Or they may prefer to deny problems with alcohol rather than feel shame or guilt about some of the terrible problems they’re having.
Here are some of the situations you typically see where people are having alcohol problems in their 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.”
How Do You Know if Alcohol Is the Problem?
Maybe you don’t know, because blaming only alcohol may be too simplistic. You may be surprised to read this, but usually relationship problems have several contributing causes. Many relationship issues can become much worse “under the influence” of alcohol. And alcohol affects relationships in several ways:
- as a drug;
- as cultural ritual; and
Alcohol’s Drug Effects
In my practice, 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! Alcohol is a drug, of course. By definition, a psychoactive drug chemically changes perception, thinking, and emotionality.
Alcohol also has more unwanted side effects that many prescription medications. Although its 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, heavy drinking gradually breaks down body and mind.
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.” But quitting “cold turkey” can be very dangerous, causing potentially fatal seizures.