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On the Rocks: Study Says People in Bad Relationships Turn to Alcohol

A man at a bar about to have a drink.

It’s a punchline all by itself—the husband stops in at the bar (“Norm!!!”) where he pulls out a stool and complains about his wife. The throwaway gag has been seen countless times on stage and screen, and, as a bartender, I can tell you that I’ve seen it countless times in real life as well. However, the fact that people in rocky relationships tend to drink more is also supported by science.

According to a 2013 study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, people whose relationships are seen as going through a bad patch tend to drink more. Essentially, those who see themselves as “part of a couple” have a high level of what’s called Relationship Contingent Self-Esteem (RCSE). Put simply, a large amount of their self-worth is invested in their relationship. When the relationship is going through a tough time, it seems that people become a little more boozy than normal.

This is sort of expected—alcohol has long been viewed as an act of escapism, and ignoring your problems by stopping at the bar “just for one” on the way home is a time-honored tradition. Indeed, toward the end of a relationship, some couples may not be able to deal with each other at all without getting a buzz first.

As a bartender, I have a few insights on this study that may shed a little extra light on things:

Some People Turn to Alcohol More Than Others

Select people are more predisposed than others to have an affiliation with alcohol. Studies have suggested that alcoholism is hereditary—be it genetic or simply through exposure in formative years (the old “nature vs. nurture” debate). So, while the study does have merit, there ought to be some consideration for so-called addictive personalities and people who deal with all frustrations and issues in their lives by drinking.

Alcohol May Already Be an Issue in the Relationship

It may be a bad relationship because someone in the relationship is a drinker. If, when the relationship is first starting out, someone in a couple downplays their drinking, showing their true colors months later (when that Friday feeling is hitting him or her every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday) can become a real problem. By then, people have developed bonds that are tough to break, time has been invested, and resentment is sure to set in after spending too many late nights wondering when you can start making dinner.

Bars Often Become the Third Place in Someone’s Life
There’s a term that gets bounced around the hospitality industry, known as the “third place”. I first heard it years ago when I worked for a coffee shop. Home is the first place, work is the second. The third place refers to that spot where people can unwind between the two. It’s a fine and effective buffer to have, particularly when you don’t want the pressures of work spilling into your personal life. The problem arises when that third place starts taking over, and you spend more time there than at home.

I can’t pretend to be a font of knowledge on how to solve every individual relationship, but I do know how to resolve conflict: address the situation. Don’t run from the underlying problem. A stiff drink will help you forget a problem, for a while, but it won’t last forever and it won’t solve it for you. Much like a wound will only fester without antiseptic, this fight or disagreement will only rot what you’ve worked so hard to build with this other person. And let’s be real: not every relationship can be saved, and that’s sad. But if you can learn from your mistakes, you’ll become a better person.

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