Mismatched Drinking Habits In A Relationship Don’t Have To Be A Dealbreaker, Experts Say
When it comes to relationships, opposites attract. Or at least that’s what they say. From the little stuff like which way is the “right” way to put the toilet paper on the TP roll, to the bigger stuff like drinking habits, partners aren't exact replicas of each other. Nor should we want them to be.
"When one member of a couple drinks more than the other, it really comes down to whether their levels of alcohol use create friction between them or not," Dr. Natalie Feinblatt, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in addiction in trauma therapy, tells Bustle. "If they are both OK with the others level of drinking, [then] great!"
But, as Dr. Feinblatt explains, if that's not the case, then it's time to talk about it. "There needs to be healthy and clear communication between [the couple] about this issue," Dr. Feinblatt says. "Just like there would need to be around any other thing causing discord in the relationship."
Because drinking is such a big part of our culture, and one that can be dangerous, it’s not something of which to make light. This is even more so the case if one partner is in recovery and the other isn’t. For those who are sober and in recovery, alcohol can be a trigger far bigger than those who aren't sober may understand.
“If you are sober because you are in recovery, alcohol can be a trigger, especially in early recovery,” MJ Gottlieb, co-founder and CEO of Loosid, a dating app for sober people, tells Bustle. “In this case, it is extremely important for your partner to understand the challenges you have in order that [they] take the necessary steps to help avoid those triggers.”
For those couples where drinking habits don't align, here are seven tips to help remedy the situation.
1. Talk About It
Like anything in a relationship that isn’t in sync, you need to talk about the issue. Gottlieb has found that for people who are sober, but not in recovery, their partner's idea of fun can differ greatly when it comes to drinking.
"[It can be] an annoyance if your partner’s idea of a good time is to go to the bar for all-you-can-drink margaritas,” Gottlieb says. “This is where it’s best to exercise some common sense and compromise.”
Relationships are, after all, about compromise. Gottlieb suggests that if the partner who drinks more, really needs to go out and drink all those margaritas, then let them go out on their own. You can do other things together.
2. But Choose Your Words Carefully
When it comes to any type of communication, especially in a relationship, the last thing you want to be is accusatory. But you also want to be direct. Dr. Feinblatt suggests using "I" statements to communicate effectively about this topic.
"[The couple] would need to practice stating their needs and wants with 'I' statements, and making sure that they understand the other before responding," Dr. Feinblatt says.
Although our society embraces drinking with open arms, sometimes even laughing off drunken situations that should be cause for alarm, no one want to be accused of having an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. That's why it's necessary to tread lightly.
"When it comes to alcohol it can be tricky because people can get defensive if they think they are being labeled as a problem drinker," Dr. Feinblatt says. "So it's good to go into these sorts of discussions without name calling or labeling things."
The more neutral the conversation is kept, the more productive it will be.
3. Have A Plan For Social Events
If the drinking habits of you and your partner are really not aligned, having a game plan for social events can be a good idea.
"If excessive drinking is ever an issue, one way to deal with that challenge is for the couple to create a plan ahead of time and cap the number of drinks planned for the night," Zainy Pirbhai, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Los Angeles Family Therapy, tells Bustle. "If excessive drinking is not an issue, a strategy a couple can use when their drinking habits aren’t aligned is an alternative beverage."
As Pirbhai explains, sometimes people drink decaf or tea, when cutting down on caffeine intake. Those who drink alcohol can cut down too, in their own way.
"You can find an alternative that you enjoy drinking when your partner drinks alcohol," Pirbhai says. Because who doesn't love a Shirley Temple?
4. Understand Each Other's Choices
No matter how different you and your partner's drinking habits are, there has to be respect and understanding from both sides. People drink, don't drink, drink a lot, or drink very little, for so many different reasons.
"There may be important underlying causes for different beliefs and behaviors about alcohol consumption," Beth Irias, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in addiction, and the president and founder of Clearly Clinical, tells Bustle.
As Irias explains, if one partner grew up in a home where alcohol use disorder was a problem for one or both parents, "it may be frightening for a partner to drink to the point of a visible buzz."
Pirbhai echoes a similar sentiment, in regards to the difference in alcohol consumption.
"I believe that the reason couples have differing drinking habits can also play a role in how they cope," Pirbhai says. "If one partner drinks less because of health or family history reasons, it can potentially cause strain if the other partner drinks heavily or even more than the other."
The behaviors we have today and the people we are today have everything to do with the past that formed us. Whether that past was early childhood or even something that happened just six months ago, we are affected. Understanding the why and how of your partner's behavior can, as Pirbhai tells Bustle, "avoid any misunderstandings or future resentments."
And if one partner wants to get sober, for whatever reason, then that's another aspect that's important to understand.
“Sit with your partner to try to understand why he or she wants to get sober,” Gottlieb says. “There is a saying, ‘those amongst us no explanation is necessary, those not amongst us no explanation is possible.’ That being said, I believe it is still very important to try to gain the best understanding you can, in order to help your partner along their journey.”
Despite what our culture tends to make us believe, not everyone likes to drink and not everyone is affected the same way by alcohol.
5. Realize Someone's Choice To Drink (Or Not) Has Nothing To Do With You
While you may think you're being affected by whether or not you and your partner drink the same amount, you really aren't. How much one person chooses to drink has nothing to do with you or anyone else — unless, of course, it's affecting your harmony as a couple.
"People tend put too much weight in why other people are not drinking," Gottlieb says. "The truth is, the other person is still drinking. You’re drinking your drink, they are drinking theirs. They just don’t have alcohol in their drink."
At the end of the day, your life choices and the decisions you make for yourself, are your own. You don't owe anyone an explanation for why you're not drinking as much as everyone else or even not drinking at all.
Drinking too much, on the other hand, that's something that should be examined as being a possible issue.
6. You Both Need To Be Mindful Of The Situation
If you're not a big drinker and new to a relationship, you first need to be honest. Then you need to be mindful of your differences — that is if you, the more sober one, is at point where you can date someone who drinks.
"If you are meeting them for the first time, like a date, being open is always the best," Gottlieb says. "If the person can’t respect your choice not to drink, then it’s a good sign they are not the right partner for you."
Our culture may be fine with drinking, but that doesn't mean everyone is into it, and, again, you don't owe anyone any explanations. Nor does anyone owe you an explanation about why they enjoy going out every weekend.
But if you do try to make a go of it with a drinker, let them know that certain things, like having alcohol lying around the apartment, can be triggering and tempting.
It's about being considerate and mindful of each other's differences. It's also this consideration and mindfulness that should be part of any equation where alcohol is involved.
7. Know The Boundaries
One of the questions I asked Gottlieb was if it's OK to cut off the person who drinks more if they're drinking gets out of hand. As he explains, that's tricky — and in more ways than one.
"If your partner needs to get cut off regularly, they most likely need to look into their relationship with drinking," Gottlieb says. "If it happens every now and then, OK, you share a couple of laughs about it."
But as Gottlieb points out "now and then" can sometimes become a pattern and that's a problem. It's not your job to babysit your partner and take away the alcohol; at that point, it's your job to step in and advocate for a person you love who just might have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and they're unable to see it.
Ultimately, you don't want to be exactly like your partner and you want to have your differences. But while some differences can be great, others can not only be dealbreakers, but dangerous. Although there are some people who can drink alcohol and never have an issues, others are not so lucky. Your drinking habits don't have to always align, but you do owe it to each other to be aware enough of whether it's a matter of misalignment or a problem.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357)
Dr. Natalie Feinblatt, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist
Zainy Pirbhai, MA, LMFT, ATR, PPS, founder of Los Angeles Family Therapy
MJ Gottlieb, co-founder and CEO of Loosid