May 30, 2014 9:00 am

Does your partner affect your drinking habits? Researcher wants to find out

Jeremy Kelly and his girlfriend Alanah Higgins say they have noticed their drinking styles have changed since they started dating.

Julia Wong/Global News

HALIFAX – Jeremy Kelly takes a sip of his cold beer on a May afternoon. The biggest influence on how he drinks could be sitting right beside him: his girlfriend.

“When you have someone else in your life, you have to watch what you’re doing,” he said with a smile.

Now the impact of significant others on how we drink is the focus of a study being led by a Dalhousie researcher.

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Dr. Sean MacKinnon, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of psychology, is looking at alcohol consumption, motives and personality in romantic couples.

“We look at the social dynamics as well as the personality and motivational dynamics that determine whether or not a person drinks and potentially drinks to excess,” he said.

The researcher said there are many different reasons why we drink — for example, social reasons, peer pressure and sometimes to cope.

But he wants to see how a relationship can influence that.

“What happens if one partner is an anxious drinker and the other member is an impulsive drinker? How do they interact?”

“How does their relationship functioning work? Who is more likely to get into trouble? Those are the things we really don’t know and why we need to study [it] more in depth,” MacKinnon said.

He said romantic partners can be incredibly influential, especially for people between 18 and 25 years old.

“When you get into this stage of the life cycle, romantic relationships start to take primacy,” he said. “The way they behave has a direct influence on how we behave.”

“Understanding how these processes develop early on in young and emerging adulthood, we get to learn more about the processes that occur downstream.”

MacKinnon is collecting data from 100 couples, and so far the preliminary results have been promising.

“We’re interested in seeing the different dynamics in relationship conflicts,” he said. “We can look at things like, does relationship conflict lead to more drinking to cope?”

“The similarity in drinking is important. If one partner is a heavy drinker and the other partner doesn’t drink very much that can result in conflict. It’s not necessarily [that] conflict can lead to drinking — sometimes drinking can lead to conflict.”

Kelly and his girlfriend Alanah Higgins say they have noticed their drinking styles have changed since they started dating.

“When you’re together, you drink about the same pace. You guys want to stay on the same level. But when you’re apart, I find that can get out of hand. You’re drinking more than you would without her,” he said.

“If I was just going out with the girls every weekend, my goal would be to drink a lot more and try to have more fun,” Higgins said.

“I definitely think we’re both calmed down. When you’re actually together, it’s like ‘OK, he’s having one drink. I’ll have one.’ I’m not going to have six in the time he’s having one,” she said.

But Chelsea Innes said she has adapted her drinking habits to her partner.

“My significant other drinks quite a lot more than I do. I drink a lot trying to keep up with them and their friends. I drink a lot more basically,” she said.

MacKinnon hopes to submit his research for publication in the fall.

More information can be obtained by emailing cstudy@dal.ca.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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