Research suggests couples form ‘drinking partnerships’ that encourage binge drinking

New research has found that romantic partners influence each other’s future binge drinking behavior.

Published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, the 3-year-long study of 179 heterosexual couples in serious relationships found that each partner in the couple influenced the heavy episodic drinking behavior of his or her partner. However, this influence was not as powerful as the influence of each partner’s own past drinking behavior. Women influenced their partners’ binge drinking just as much as men influenced their partners’ binge drinking.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Sara J. Bartel of Dalhousie University. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Bartel: Binge drinking, defined as consuming at least five drinks on one occasion, is quite pervasive in the 21st century; as many as 1/5 Canadians and ¼ Americans binge drink each month. This pattern of alcohol consumption is tied to serious health, social and economic consequences, yet individuals continue to binge drink. Understanding what factors influence binge drinking is critical if we are to find a way to reduce this behavior. Since we know that people exert influence on each other, and that this influence becomes stronger as people become more important and immediate to us, we wondered what influence romantic partners might have on each other’s drinking.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Binge drinking in couples is not an isolated activity, but rather is heavily influenced by one’s romantic partner. We found that binge drinking in one member of a couple predicts the binge drinking of the other member of the couple three years later. To offer an example, imagine that John and Emma live together as a romantic couple. John’s level of binge drinking in 2014 predicts Emma’s level of binge drinking in 2017, and the more John binge drinks in 2014, the more Emma binge drinks in 2017. The reverse is also true, with Emma equally influencing John’s binge drinking. Our study suggests couples form drinking partnerships that encourage binge drinking.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

It is important to note that although we did control for partner selection (i.e. individual’s choosing romantic partners with similar drinking patterns to themselves), we did not explicitly study partner selection. Thus, it is not clear what role similarities in binge drinking between partners at the beginning of the relationship play. Additionally, our study was done in a sample of heterosexual romantic couples, so it remains unclear whether the same partner influence exists in same-sex romantic couples.

Several questions remain to be addressed. As we only examined romantic partners who remained together over the duration of the three-year study, it is not clear how the termination of relationship influences the binge drinking of each member of the former romantic couple. Moreover, it is unclear how the partner influence unfolds over time. In other words, we do not know how the baseline line level of binge drinking in one partner influences the rate of change in the other partner’s binge drinking.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Partners may form drinking partnerships for a number of reasons. Relationships are based on mutual acceptance. As a result, individuals might be motivated to binge drink with their partner in order to gain their partner’s approval and social acceptance. They might also engage in binge drinking behaviors in order to maintain their relationship and to spend more time with their partner. Additionally, they might develop a more positive view of their partner’s binge drinking over time and begin to take part in this behavior more frequently as a result of this positive view. In the end, partner might become caught in a cycle of maladaptive drinking.

Our research indicates that we should treat both members of the couple in order to end this cycle. If only one partner is treated, the treatment progress might be undermined by the other partner’s continued influence.

The study, “Do romantic partners influence each other’s heavy episodic drinking? Support for the partner influence hypothesis in a three-year longitudinal study“, was also co-authored by Simon B. Sherry, Danielle S. Molnar, Aislin R. Mushquash, Kenneth E. Leonard, Gordon L. Flett, and Sherry H. Stewart.