People with a genetic predisposition to risky alcohol behavior are less likely to drink frequently, become intoxicated often, or suffer from alcohol dependence symptoms if they are in a romantic relationship, according to a new study led by a Virginia Commonwealth University researcher.
“We found that the effect of genetic risk for alcohol use was weaker among those who were currently in a relationship,” said lead author Peter Barr, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
However, romantic relationships’ “protective effect” against becoming intoxicated frequently was limited to men, bolstering previous research findings that men in romantic partnerships tend to experience greater health benefits than women.
The study found no differences between men and women when it came to drinking frequency or alcohol dependence symptoms.
The study, “Polygenic Risk for Alcohol Misuse is Moderated by Romantic Partnerships,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Addiction.
It was based on a sample of 1,201 twins born between 1983 and 1987 identified through Finland’s central population registry.
The study does not suggest causality between romantic relationships and reduced risk for problem drinking, but it did observe that relationships reduce the risk of the realization of underlying genetic predisposition to drinking.
“The big takeaway here is that [a] genetic predisposition [to alcohol consumption] was stronger in people not in a relationship compared to people in a relationship for all those different levels of severity in drinking – from how often you drink, how often you drink to intoxication, and problem drinking [or] alcohol dependence symptoms,” Barr said.
The study’s conclusions reinforce previous findings in sociological and epidemiological research that marriage and intimate partnerships have a positive influence on health and against risky behavior.
“There’s a consistent finding that people in a relationship – typically they look at marriage, but these people were too young for that – have better health and engage in fewer risky behaviors, on average, compared to people who are single or not in a relationship,” Barr said.
Relationships, he said, often result in “increased social control,” meaning the partners monitor one another’s behavior.
“There’s someone around who might say, ‘Oh, you’re drinking too much,'” he said.
“‘Maybe you should cut back on that.'”
Another explanation might be that relationships generally involve certain expectations.
“Such as: To be a good father, husband or boyfriend, maybe going out and drinking to the point of intoxication is not congruent with those expectations,” he said.
From a research perspective, Barr said, the study’s findings show the need to include external factors – such as a person’s relationship status or education level – when researchers seek to understand the interplay of genetics and health.
It also has implications for personalized medicine, in which an individual’s genetic data is used to better tailor prevention and intervention in health care.
“Things like genetic risks can’t be understood independent of social context,” he said.
“So in our push towards precision medicine, we need to think not just about your own personal predisposition, but your own personal predisposition embedded in different levels of context.”
This study examines the association among young adult drinking partnerships and adult alcohol-related consequences and relationship problems 6 years later.
Young adulthood is an important developmental period that not only involves the formation and maintenance of new romantic relationships but also is a time when many engage in risky behaviors, such as high amounts of alcohol use.
The experiences that arise during this period have the potential to influence later adult life decisions and behaviors, such as future alcohol use and misuse, as well as relationship quality.
Congruent (i.e., couple similar) and discrepant (i.e., couple dissimilar) dyadic drinking partnerships using cluster analysis were first described by Roberts and Leonard (1998) in adult married couples.
Drinking partnerships were based on couple patterns of typical quantity and frequency of alcohol intake, context in which drinking occurs, and similarities or differences between partners’ drinking levels.
Dating, cohabiting, and married young adult couples (ages 18–26) have displayed congruent and discrepant drinking partnerships as well (Wiersma and colleagues, 2009, 2010). With minor differences, these studies identified four to five groups of drinking partnerships.
Compatibility theory provides a useful framework for understanding how couples match on key characteristics. According to compatibility theory, similarity (i.e., the tendency for two individuals to be alike at one moment in time; Gonzaga et al., 2007) increases the likelihood that couples will establish a mutually satisfying partnership.
Compatibility theory has been supported in the areas of personality traits and mutual interests (Acitelli et al., 2001; Houts et al., 1996) on such qualities as satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, and relationship longevity.
Compatibility between romantic partners predicts positive relationship quality. By contrast, dissimilar couples experience more conflict, negativity, and ambivalence about the relationship (Houts et al., 1996). Crawford et al. (2002) suggested that similarity between couples results in a greater likelihood that couples will engage in activities and spend more time together, which leads to greater satisfaction.
Generalizing from compatibility theory, if frequent drinking is a principal and enjoyable part of social interaction, then couples will make positive evaluations of these relationships.
Couple drinking compatibility, compared with discrepancy, should increase the likelihood of continuing the relationship and reduce problematic outcomes such as alcohol-related problems and relationship dissatisfaction.
There is support for compatibility theory with respect to couples’ drinking. Research demonstrates that there are many consequences for couples who drink discrepantly (Fischer and Wiersma, 2012).
For example, couples who drink discrepantly in their relationships, compared with those who drink congruently, reported lower relationship quality (Mudar et al., 2001; Roberts and Leonard, 1998; Wiersma et al., 2009).
These studies examined drinking partnerships cross-sectionally.
The few longitudinal studies reported that discrepant levels of alcohol use among married couples were associated with more relationship problems (Homish and Leonard, 2005, 2007) and relationship dissolution (Leonard et al., 2013; Ostermann et al., 2005).
For example, incongruent drinking partnerships experienced steeper declines in martial satisfaction compared with couples in which both were heavy drinkers or neither were heavy drinkers. However, heavy congruent drinking did not impair relationship satisfaction (Homish and Leonard, 2005, 2007).
With most studies using cross-sectional methods on married couples, little is known about how dyadic drinking patterns affect young adults’ lives longitudinally or within nonmarried relationships.
Overall, dating and married couples exhibit different patterns of alcohol consumption because married couples tend to drink less (Bachman et al., 1996; Leonard and Mudar, 2003; Miller-Tutzauer et al., 1991; Temple et al., 1991).
In addition, major life events, such as parenthood, may set married couples apart from dating or cohabiting couples. Drinking compatibility should be an important issue for unmarried romantic partners as well as married couples.
These results may reflect a more general phenomenon whereby partner similarity both attracts couples and reinforces couple behaviors.
As well, drinking within a highly committed relationship may be inherently different compared with a less committed relationship.
Relationship type differences are important to examine both as main effects and as potential moderators.
But as Fleming et al. (2010) acknowledged, little research has examined whether alcohol use plays a role in the relationship quality and dissolution of dating or cohabiting relationships.
Despite the appeal and empirical evidence for compatibility theory, there are also results that are seemingly at odds with compatibility theory in that, when couples consume large quantities of alcohol, they have a higher risk of experiencing relationship problems (Roberts and Leonard, 1998; Wiersma et al., 2009).
Alcohol use has been cited as one of the major reasons for breaking up or divorcing (Amato and Previti, 2003; Halford and Osgarby, 1993; Leonard et al., 2013) among younger (Collins et al., 2007; Leonard et al., 2013) and older adults (Ostermann et al., 2005) and for interpersonal violence (Leadley et al., 2000; Wiersma et al., 2010).
However, even in these studies there is support for compatibility theory:
Drinking, especially discrepant drinking, may hinder the mutual development of intimacy and the skills needed for relationship growth (Baumrind and Moselle, 1985).
In sum, compared with congruent drinking, discrepant partner drinking appears to constitute a potential risk for greater partner dissatisfaction and even relationship dissolution than congruent drinking across relationship types.
Most studies examining the effects of drinking on couple outcomes have found significant gender differences.
A number of studies have shown that women’s drinking was strongly associated with their perceptions of their male partners’ drinking (Hammer and Vaglum, 1989; Wilsnack et al., 1984) as well as the actual drinking of husbands (Leonard and Eiden, 1999; Leonard and Mudar, 2003).
However, there have been reports of the opposite effect—where wives’ drinking influenced husbands’ drinking (Cronkite and Moos, 1984; Wilsnack and Cheloha, 1987) and where men were more influenced by their female partners’ drinking from adolescence to young adulthood (Wiersma et al., 2011).
The current study also addresses gender differences and gender as a possible moderator of associations between couple drinking patterns and outcomes, but the literature does not provide evidence for clear gender expectations.
In this study, alcohol-related consequences of concern include excessive alcohol use as well as a range of difficulties that stem from excessive alcohol use.
Heavy episodic drinking of individuals is connected to immediate and long-term consequences such as trouble with the police, injuries, academic difficulties, and driving under the influence of alcohol (Wechsler and Austin, 1998).
However, in research on couples, alcohol-related problems were found only within discrepantly drinking couples (Wiersma et al., 2009), underscoring again the importance of considering the dyadic context of drinking.
Although this study considers relationship dissolution as one of the outcomes of couple drinking patterns, there may be differences in associations between couple drinking patterns and other outcomes based on whether the participants’ relationships are continuing or new.
Therefore, relationship dissolution is also assessed for its role as a moderator. Because this is a new research direction, there are no expectations for relationship dissolution to affect or not affect the association between couple drinking patterns and outcomes.
Purpose and hypotheses
Although research has focused primarily on married couples, the current study extends prior research in a number of ways.
It is theory based and longitudinal, uses a national sample, includes couple data within three types of relationships (dating, cohabiting, and married), uses controls for possible third variables, and tests the generalizability of the findings across relationship type, gender, and relationship dissolution.
This study examines how young adult drinking partnerships (ages 18–26) are associated with later consequences in adulthood (ages 26–35) by focusing on one primary hypothesis rooted in compatibility theory:
Those in heavy and discrepant drinking partnerships will experience more alcohol-related and relationship problems compared with those in congruent drinking partnerships.
By contrast, if later consequences are based more on consumption of alcohol, then those in congruent heavy drinking partnerships would experience the most problems.
More information: Peter B. Barr et al. Polygenic Risk for Alcohol Misuse is Moderated by Romantic Partnerships, Addiction (2019). DOI: 10.1111/add.14712
Journal information: Addiction
Provided by Virginia Commonwealth University