In a good relationship, sharing a frosty-cold light beer on a sunny afternoon with your main hang is among the more glorious doing-nothing experiences on earth. But add booze to a bad relationship, or one with even the slightest bit of tension roiling below, and you may as well hop onto a giant bottle of vodka and ride it into a carnival funhouse of nightmare mirrors.
That’s because in any relationship where booze is a character too, it has the potential to change the story dramatically. But the research suggests it’s not necessarily how much you drink that matters.
We might all assume that heavy-drinking couples are probably a train wreck — the knock-down, drag-out, lit-up dysfunction of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
They certainly can be. Booze, it should be noted, can be great at detecting and swiftly surfacing any contemptuous feelings in a relationship, no matter how deeply repressed they may be. In my 20s, at my boyfriend’s parents’ house, I saw this play out in real time. On the fritz now that his father had endured a streak of bad luck with unemployment, his mother would down one giant glass of wine, get on a tangent about some trip they weren’t taking or some home improvement they couldn’t afford due to tough times. Then she would swig, pause and announce to the room in a thick Jersey-Italian sneer, “Well, ya fawther doesn’t make that kind of money anymore.” As you can guess, they were divorced in six months.
But you also don’t have to be in a bad relationship to have terrible drunk fights. Or rather, the booze will turn a perfectly good thing bad all by itself, too. Why? Alcohol washes your brain in alcohol but also dopamine, and when it’s on dopamine overload, it blocks your ability to regulate normal responses to stress or anxiety.
That means if the chemicals line it up right, you can end up on one of those drunk, yelly gargoyle nights, where two partners turn into scavenging animals who pick apart the carcass of the relationship until it’s all bloody and dead.
And yet, drinking together can be sweet and silly and fun! The right amount of drinking can be a great bonding experience, something to while away the night, and a warmly remembered ritual of easygoing rapport between a couple. For people who get all affectionate and talky on booze together, it’s a real charmer. Like in the movie Drinking Buddies, except if the leads were romantically involved.
The problem is, you can’t always be sure what you’re getting. Largely this is because drunk people individually are usually an exercise in extremes. They’re either highly entertaining or insufferably terrible. There’s almost no in-between. So anytime you get two drunk people together in a relationship, you’re really hoping for the best.
Still, research has delved into what actually matters most when it comes to drinking and coupling.
Only One of You Drinking Is Bad
If you know what it’s like to have a good buzz, you know what a buzzkill it is to be around someone who doesn’t have one when you do. Research on 650 couples over nine years found that heavy drinking wasn’t the problem in couples, unless only one person was doing the heavy drinking. In those couples, the divorce rate was 50 percent when one person knocked back six or more drinks a night, while the other person, one can only guess, did a little knitting. In other words, being totally soused all the time alone in a marriage confers the same divorce rate as every other married couple out there playing bingo instead. But getting hammered together improves your odds. Couples who both drank heavily together only had a 30 percent divorce rate.
“Our results indicate that it is the difference between the couple’s drinking habits, rather than the drinking itself, that leads to marital dissatisfaction, separation and divorce,” lead study author Kenneth Leonard at University of Buffalo said of the results.
Yes, they note, this doesn’t mean those people are blissfully happy and don’t have any problems. And yes, drinking a lot can still fuck up your children because it’s not a great environment to grow up in. Also of note, women were unhappier in couples when they were the lone drinker and their husband declined to join in. That, the drinking women said, was because there was more negativity and criticism when they were the tying one on solo. This, of course, makes perfect sense; being around a slurring drunko when you’re sober is among the most annoying experiences on earth.
Trouble also brews when two couples used to drink together a lot, and then one suddenly announces the party is over and they will now be sober. Called disequilibrium, it can lead to the newly sober partner growing, evolving and picking up new, healthier habits, while the other person is just still sitting around getting drunk. That usually leads to splitsville, and it should — experts advise putting the recovery first no matter what, and you can’t do that with someone trying to talk you into a third tequila shot.
When You Both Drink the Same, It’s Better
You know how the couple who pray together stay together? Well, the couple who swill together chill together.
At least in older couples. In 2016, a study from the Gerontological Society of America asked some 5,000 marrieds who were over 50 years of age about how much they imbibe. They found a link between drinking habits and marital happiness. And the link was this: People who drink the same amount in a relationship are happiest, whether the same means none, a couple or evenings doing keg stands in the backyard.
That doesn’t mean drinking will save a marriage where you have nothing else in common (unless you both just like drinking all the time, and nothing else). Researchers assumed it was likely that people who drink together just like hanging out and doing stuff together in their leisure, drinking included. But of note: These people had been married, on average, 33 years. And 75 percent of them were still on the first marriage. Which means marriage does more than preserve your liver, it preserves your love. In large part, it seems it’s because drinking the same amount together made people less irritated with each other.
Drinking, then, when done in similar amounts, is a salve, a social lubricant, a bonding experience and often a bang-up time. But that doesn’t mean these people have it all figured out. As sociologist and study author Kira Birditt noted of the results, “Couples often stay together despite being irritated.”
And it’s precisely those people who should probably take up drinking.