Alcohol and relationshipsA regular feature in couples therapy is the topic of alcohol and how frequently it plays a part in confrontation and arguments.

At the very worst end of the spectrum alcohol has been found to be linked to violence in relationships in New Zealand (a 2007 survey examining the role of alcohol in intimate partner aggression found alcohol use was involved in more than 25% of the most severe intimate partner aggression incidents in New Zealand) and a 2006 World Health Organisation briefing paper described alcohol misuse and interpersonal violence as both acting as catalysts for each other.

But even at the more everyday end of Kiwis’ experience, most people would recognise having a few drinks and then spending the rest of the evening rowing with your partner about something you’d find quite inconsequential during a more sober time of the day.

So why does this happen? After all, alcohol can also play the role of social lubricant – breaking down anxieties, shyness and social barriers – so why do drinkers walk this knife-edge between good cheer and arguments?

The answer lies in how alcohol changes the chemistry in our brains and adapts the way our nervous system and hormones work. In science-speak, it slows down the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and speeds up the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-Aminobutyric acid – in laymen’s terms, it suppresses our instinctive “fight or flight” response.

This, in turn, means that your thoughts, actions, responses to social cues and consideration for consequences are all suppressed – not necessarily a bad thing if you’re enjoying a night out partying with friends. But that same coordinated slowing down of your brain’s responses also stops the brain from thinking straight and makes us more prone to aggression.

This is largely because we focus more on a single topic, misread how others are communicating with us, and ignore the consequences of picking an argument in the first place. Of course, alcohol impairment and a loss of inhibition is also more likely to let us put ourselves in situations where confrontation is more likely.

A second reason why alcohol can lead to rows stems from research which showed angry women turned to alcohol as support. Certainly some couples will use alcohol as a way to suppress strong emotions and stress elsewhere in their lives – the trouble is that that same anger is then likely to flare once they’re at home with each other.

Again, alcohol’s ability to slow down our brains is a double-edged sword: yes, it can help us to relax in the midst of a fast-paced and at-times frustrating world, but it also hides emotions which are likely to erupt at a different time.

So how do you prevent alcohol becoming a significant negative factor on your relationship?

The first step is to make sure you’re having important conversations which affect both you and your partner when you’re both sober. There may well be serious issues with your relationship but they need to be dealt with without the interference of alcohol.

The second is that, if you think you or your partner are drinking too much, approach the issue together. Try to cut back together and arrange alcohol-free days or dates, and investigate ways to socialise without alcohol.

  • If you think you and your partner have an issue with alcohol, you can talk to a qualified couples or addictions therapist at Robert Street Clinic to discuss addressing the problem. For more information about the individual skills of our psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists you can email us at info@robertstclinic.co.nz, call us on 09 973 5950, or contact us via the website.