Under the Hood

When Love Is In The Air A Teen's Drinking Habits Change To Match Their Partner's

Teens in love
A recent study finds that as teenagers find love, their rate of alcohol abuse shifts to better match their partner over their old friends. Gustavo Gomes, CC BY 2.0

Being drunk in love can really change how drunk you choose to become with alcohol, at least if you’re a teenager.

That’s the finding reached by a team of researchers in Developmental Psychology this past November. The study authors analyzed over a thousand teenagers’ drinking habits, finding that rates of alcohol abuse were more similar between friends without any current romantic relationships than between friendships in which one had a partner. In fact, for teens with a romantic attachment, their level of alcohol abuse was more likely to match their partner’s drinking habits than those of their friend’s. A smaller analysis of teen friendships over a two-year period found a similar pattern, with friends who were initially partnerless becoming less matched on their patterns of alcohol use once one of them began dating. Overall, the authors believe their findings prove one of life’s adages: that people really do change in not-so-subtle ways once they find love.

"The results confirm what most friends complain about — romantic partners are a distraction from friendships," said study author Dr. Brett Laursen, a professor and graduate studies coordinator in the Department of Psychology at Florida Atlantic University, in a statement. "It also is a stark reminder how the peer social world changes during adolescence. Same-sex friends become less important and romantic affiliations become more important."

A Romantic Entanglement

For the first part of their study, Laursen and his team pored over the responses given to them by 662 girls and 574 boys ranging in age from 12 to 19 on the degree of alcohol abuse they engaged in. The researchers specifically chose to focus on alcohol use because it’s a risky behavior that’s known to be especially malleable to the societal expectations of those close to us, particularly as teens (it's estimated that around one-seventh of teens have engaged in binge drinking over the past month).

"Much attention is given to the role that friends play in the acquisition and reinforcement of health-risk behaviors," Laursen said. "Adolescents rarely drink alone, so concerns over peer pressure to experiment with and abuse alcohol are well placed. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that initial involvement in romantic relationships tend to coincide with initial exposure to alcohol."

Because the teens were asked to nominate other people within the sample as their close friends or a romantic partner if able, the researchers were able to track the similarities between their reported rates of abuse. While friends with romantic partners were generally less similar in their alcoholic tendencies than their dateless counterparts, these differences were especially apparent in those older or who were less popular. A secondary analysis of 266 boys and 374 girls who maintained friendships for at least two years led the team to observe the same pattern occurring over time among friendships that began without either friend dating someone.

Thankfully, at least if you’re a parent worried about the disastrous side effects of your child’s dating life, the introduction of a new relationship didn’t necessarily worsen a teenager’s drinking habits. On average, teens with a partner fared no better or worse at avoiding alcohol abuse than those without. "The findings suggest that participation in a romantic relationship does not elevate the risk of alcohol abuse beyond that involved in participation in friendships," Laursen said. "Instead, it is the source of the risk that changes. Friends no longer shape drinking habits the way they used to. Romantic partners now dictate terms. Your friends were right: You aren't the same person you were when you were single."

In other words, it seems the best way to ensure your child (and/or possibly adult friend) doesn’t get into too much trouble out there is play matchmaker and find a particularly cute, if wholesome, romantic prospect for them.

Source: DeLay D, Laursen B, Bukowski W, et al. Adolescent Friend Similarity on Alcohol Abuse as a Function of Participation in Romantic Relationships: Sometimes a New Love Comes Between Old Friends. Developmental Psychology. 2015.

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