Alcohol and relationships: how to know if you’re drinking too much
In light of Alcohol Awareness Week, we share Alcohol Change UK’s top tips for healthier drinking habits and happier relationships.
We love a cheeky bev as much as the next gal. And we know as well as anyone how easy it is to get carried away on a great night out.
Waking up the next day to a banging head, nauseous stomach and the lethal combo of anxiety and dread is enough to sober anyone up. Temporarily, at least. But could your drinking habits be costing you more than a hellish hangover?
Although it sounds obvious, many of us overlook how drinking alcohol can impact our relationships as well as our health. Whether romantic or friendships, familial or at work, drinking too much or too often could be destroying trust, causing conflict and even putting a downer on our sex lives.
HOW TO KNOW IF YOU’RE DRINKING TOO MUCH ALCOHOL
So, the first question is: am I drinking too much?
Or, more importantly, how do I know if I’m drinking too much?
Is it all in the severity or the regularity of the hangovers? Can we be drinking too much without suffering the next day?
In 2016, the UK’s Chief Medical Officers (CMO) – aka, the best doctors in the biz – published new ‘low risk’ drinking guidelines, to help us minimise the risks associated with drinking and make healthier choices.
In a nutshell, these guidelines tell us that it’s safest:
- Not to drink more than 14 units per week
- To spread this over three or more days
- Having several alcohol-free days each week helps keep the risk low
Units always trip us up, which is why Alcohol Change UK’s Unit Calculator is a handy tool for working out the number of units in your tipple of choice.
But, as a general rule, 14 units adds up to roughly six pints of lager or one-and-a-half bottles of wine.
These guidelines also state that if you’re pregnant or are planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is to not drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby at a minimum.
Want to know how healthy your drinking is? Take this quiz
These guidelines are a framework, based on the latest science, to help us all make healthier choices.
Sticking to no more than 14 units a week isn’t a guarantee that our health won’t be negatively impacted by alcohol. Similarly, drinking more than 14 units a week won’t mean you’ll definitely have health problems, either.
But it’s interesting to remember that alcohol is linked to more than 60 medical conditions – including liver disease, at least six different forms of cancer, and depression.
So, while it’s not an exact science, as a general rule if we keep our drinking to these low levels, then we keep our risk of alcohol-induced harm to low levels, too.
ALCOHOL AND RELATIONSHIPS
While these guidelines have been created primarily for helping us protect our physical health, it’s important to remember the ways alcohol can impact our mental and emotional wellbeing, too – and, in turn, how this can affect our loved ones.
The risks of drinking too much alcohol aren’t confined to hospital rooms. Destroying trust, letting loved ones down, distorting our decision making and making things awkward in the bedroom are just some of the perils of a pint or two too many, or too often.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we all need to avoid alcohol completely, of course. But it’s important to recognise how alcohol can affect our relationships with those around us, as well as the benefits of cutting down or going alcohol-free.
As a psychoactive substance, alcohol can radically change the way we think and feel:
- It can alter our mood and inhibitions – this affects our decision making in the moment, meaning we’re more likely to make rash choices or instigate verbal or physical confrontations that we later regret.
- It can create tension or anxiety – if our partner is regularly drinking more than we are, it can impact upon our own feelings. For example, we may feel that we take second place to their drinking, or that they’re increasingly physically or emotionally absent.
- It can cause us to neglect the needs of our loved ones – if we’re the ones drinking too much, we may be ignoring the needs of those around us and not fulfilling our responsibilities as a romantic partner, friend or family member.
- It can negatively impact on our sex life – while alcohol may increase our confidence and sexual desire, drinking too much interferes with our ability to feel sexual stimulation, meaning we’re likely to find it more difficult to orgasm. Drinking heavily over a long period of time can also lower our sex drives.
Similarly, our relationships with others can also impact on our individual drinking habits:
- We’re more likely to drink more frequently or heavier if those around us are doing the same.
- Unhappy romantic situations can exacerbate our drinking as a means of coping with our feelings.
- Household tensions like financial worries or family crises can prompt us to drink more.
- When we experience a bereavement or a break-up, we can find ourselves drinking more heavily or more often to cope with the changes in our lives.
- Loneliness can also act as a trigger for increased drinking.
SIGNS THAT ALCOHOL MAY BE NEGATIVELY IMPACTING YOUR RELATIONSHIPS
Alcohol is playing a key role in your relationship.
Many people drink with people who are close to them. But if alcohol is at the centre of your romantic relationships, friendships or relationships with family members, this can become damaging over time, whereby you find yourself unable to have a good time together without alcohol.
You’re hiding or being dishonest about your drinking.
If you’re hiding how much and how often you drink from your loved ones, or pretending to drink less than the reality, this can cause trust problems in your relationships. It also suggests you know yourself that you’re drinking too much.
Your sex life is less fulfilling.
Alcohol can result in erectile dysfunction and limit or prevent ejaculation in men and can cause vaginal dryness in women. It can also reduce sensation and impact on the quality of your communication, leading to a less fulfilling sex life – putting strain on any intimate relationship.
Your drinking is causing conflict.
Alcohol can affect our mood and decision-making. Regular arguments about your own or your partner’s drinking is also a tell-tale sign that alcohol has become a significant factor in your relationship. Alcohol-fuelled arguments can be particularly upsetting for children in the household; some children will feel frightened by their parent’s drinking, others embarrassed or neglected.
Alcohol is never an excuse for domestic abuse.
MAKING SOME CHANGES
When alcohol has become a core part of our relationships, it can stand in the way of us taking action to change our drinking habits, even when they aren’t making us happy.
Similarly, we can be affected by the drinking of our partner, friends or loved ones, causing tension and disagreement, or leading us to drink more despite ourselves.
We can also find ourselves using alcohol as a coping mechanism that we have come to rely on, creating the need for us to establish alternative coping strategies.
Alcohol Change UK suggest the following tips for healthier drinking habits and happier relationships:
- Talk it over: If you’re having problems or something is playing on your mind, it’s good advice to talk things through when both of you are sober – don’t wait until one or both of you has started drinking.
- Commit to cutting down: Remember, official guidance recommends not drinking more than 14 units a week (six pints of lager or a bottle-and-a-half of wine).
- Keep track of your drinking: Recording what you drink for a few weeks will help you understand your drinking pattern so that you can decide if you want to make a change. Use a free app like Try Dry to keep track of your drinking and set goals to help you cut down.
- Go alcohol-free for a month: Take time off from drinking by having a Dry January or other alcohol-free break. It’s a great way to reassess your relationship with alcohol and have some sober fun with your loved ones.
- Ask for help: Ask for help if you feel you need it, or if you’re worried about someone else’s drinking. Lots of us struggle with alcohol at some point in our lives and need support to turn things around. Talk to your GP or your local alcohol service, or visit the Alcohol Change UK website to find out more about getting support.
- Get relationship support: If your drinking is negatively affecting you or your relationships, get support from Relate. You can access counselling on your own or as a couple.
This article briefly discusses domestic abuse. If you are affected in any way by domestic abuse, please seek help.
If you are in immediate danger, dial 999.
Refuge also provides the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
There are many other specialist organisations that can help you. Read the factsheet from Alcohol Change UK on Alcohol and domestic abuse to find out more.