I once had a student comment in class that “It’s not a real relationship until the two of you get drunk in the bar and one of you ends up in the corner crying.” Although many people would scoff at her words, her commentary taps into many common themes of modern courtship. Consider that:
*a couple’s first big fight is a relational turning point, and most couples do not make it past that first big fight (e.g., Seigert & Stamp, 1994),
*alcohol consumption is normative for many people, and
*alcohol lowers one’s inhibitions, which can result in bringing up difficult conversational topics.
Considering the above factors collectively and ignoring common sense, it is not rare for couples to engage in a serious conversation about a relational problem while intoxicated. Although common sense and anecdotal evidence caution against such a choice, recent research by Samp and Monahan provides empirical evidence of the effects of alcohol consumption on communication during these interactions.
In their experimental work, they brought members of a cross-sex romantic relationship into the lab. Upon entering the lab, male and female participants were separated. Half of the men were assigned to a drinking condition (the experimental group) and half were sober (the control group). In the drinking group, men were provided with vodka and soda drinks until they were considered legally intoxicated. Following this intoxication, male and female participants were brought together to discuss a relational problem. Utilizing this method allowed Samp and Monahan to compare the communication of men in the intoxicated and sober groups [Side note: I cannot wait to replicate this method. So, if anyone knows of a grant to buy a lot of vodka, soda, and a Breathalyzer, let me know]. The relational problem that was discussed was a hypothetical infidelity wherein the male participant cheated on his girlfriend with his girlfriend’s friend.
While discussing the hypothetical infidelity, intoxicated men utilized more gestures than sober men; yet, sober men were more facially expressive. Facially, over time, intoxicated men smiled less than sober participants, and maintained less facial pleasantness. These findings are important given that the face is our richest nonverbal channel and that nonverbal communication is how we convey emotion. Vocal differences were also apparent. Throughout the 7-minute conversation, intoxicated men spoke faster than sober men and they exhibited a decrease in their tempo variability over time. Moreover, intoxicated men exhibited more generalized anxiety throughout the interaction compared to sober men. This paints a combination of problematic nonverbal behaviors for intoxicated men that, outside of the lab when discussing an actual relational problem, would likely serve to exacerbate conflict communication.
I think it is important to note that these results were found in a lab setting when discussing a hypothetical infidelity. I would imagine that one would observe more dramatic communication differences outside of the lab, at a bar or restaurant, with an actual issue that was not hypothetical.
Essentially, if it was this serious with a fake relationship problem, imagine how intense it might be with an actual relationship problem—and when both people are drinking. I conclude this research summary with the same advice I give in my Dating and Communication course: exercise caution when drinking and dating.
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*Samp, J. A., & Monahan, J. L. (2009). Alcohol-influenced nonverbal behaviors during discussions about a relationship problem. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 33, 193-211.
*Seigert, J. R., & Stamp, G. H. (1994). Our first big fight as a milestone in the development of close relationships. Communication Monographs, 61, 345-360.