Alcohol, friends and courtship

November 13, 2000

Research on drinking among adolescents usually focuses on two major influences on drinking behavior: peer drinking and alcohol expectancies. Research on drinking among adults has likewise focused on the influence of alcohol expectancies, but tends to assume the predominance of individual characteristics over peer influence. A study in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research questions the underlying assumption that adults are less influenced by their peers than adolescents are when it concerns their drinking behavior. Specifically, the study closely examines the influence of peer and partner drinking on adults during the year before marriage.

"Although we legally define adulthood as 18," said Kenneth E. Leonard, senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions, research professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and lead author of the study, "marriage is often viewed by individuals, friends and family as a turning point, an event that marks the change from adolescence to adulthood. At this point, many aspects of your life begin to change, including how you think about yourself, how friends and family interact with you, and how you interact with them. In the midst of all these changes, people often change their drinking behaviors, and it is important to understand who doesn't change, and why."

"The year before marriage presents an interesting and important opportunity to test theory," said John S. Baer, research associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington. "We are quite certain that drinking can be influenced by a host of factors, some more biological, some more psychological, and some more social. What we are just beginning to work out is how these many factors might combine, or not, at different points in time during life to increase or decrease the likelihood of alcohol-related problems."

Research on drinking among adults usually focuses on individual characteristics that may result in excessive drinking, such as whether the person is the child of an alcoholic or has certain personality tendencies. Prior research has rarely considered the possibility that one's friends may be an important influence on drinking, even though this is a well-known, important influence among adolescents. The very few studies on the influence of friends' drinking among adults have focused predominantly on college students. Studies of drinking during courtship have focused largely on alcohol's potential impact on unwanted sexual advances or "date rape." No studies have focused directly on alcohol use and peer influence during the transition to marriage. In an effort to fill this 'gap,' researchers recruited couples at the time of license application for their first marriage. Couples were asked to later complete self-administered questionnaires at home, separately.

"The influence of friends and companions on adult drinking just hasn't received nearly as much attention as that same kind of influence on adolescent drinking," noted Richard W. Wilsnack, a professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. "This is important to recognize because there may be an exaggerated assumption that adult drinkers are independent individuals whose drinking habits come from inside them rather than outside of them. There may also be an exaggerated assumption that adolescents are extremely vulnerable to peer pressure in ways that adults - particularly married and employed adults - are not. So in the end you have a situation where we may underestimate the importance of personal characteristics for adolescent alcohol use, and may underestimate the important of peer influences on adult alcohol use."

The study's key finding, according to Leonard, was that drinking was related to both individual characteristics and friends' drinking. The most influential individual characteristic involved was the extent to which the participant believed that alcohol had a positive social effect on their behavior. The surprising part of the findings, however, was not only the drinking influence of the individual's friends but also the influence of the spouse's friends.

"When partners get married," said Wilsnack, "his friends and her friends become friends of the couple. As with other things in marriage, his and hers become ours. This is one more demonstration of the importance of looking at drinking behavior - at least chronic drinking patterns - as social processes that are affected by characteristics of the individual drinker but cannot be described or understood by looking only at information about individual drinkers. You have got to know with whom they're drinking and where they're drinking. You cannot do much to reduce the risks of problem drinking unless you pay attention to the audience or the co-participants."

Wilsnack added that a large number of "average drinkers" - people who may not be diagnosed as alcohol dependent or abusive - will nonetheless become ill, have accidents, and/or contribute to damaging personal conflicts because of how they've consumed alcohol on particular occasions, in particular settings.

"Statistically," he said, "most of the alcohol-related problems that occur in this country, such as 'driving under the influence,' occur among people who have not developed pathological drinking habits. They're just ordinary or moderate drinkers who happen to have drunk inappropriately on one or more occasions, which has led to problems. It's not an internally compulsive pattern with these people, at least not yet. However, before it becomes a problem, it's very important to look at the social circumstances that led them to drink inappropriately in the first place."

Leonard, Baer and Wilsnack are enthusiastic about the long-term or longitudinal possibilities of continuing this study. Plans and suggestions include studying the impact that peer and spousal drinking may have on individual drinking habits as well as the marriage itself; looking at other samples of couples, for example, couples where one or both abstain from alcohol; looking at couples who don't have many friends outside of their marriage; and extending the examination of friends' influence on drinking prior to marriage to their influence when a marriage breaks apart.
The co-author of the Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research paper was Pamela Mudar of the Research Institute on Addictions at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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