Alcohol, Marriage Conflict, and Anger

Drinking Couple
Drinking Couple

Having taught hundreds of anger management classes and seminars since 2004, I have been impressed with the high number of people who confess that much conflict and rage often follows discussing marital issues while one or both partners is drinking. Not that drinking in itself is necessarily bad. And trying to resolve conflicts is a good thing. It is the combination that often become explosive. Let’s see why that is.

Human Brain

To overly simplify, your brain has a protective mechanism called the “blood brain barrier” which selects which molecules can enter the brain from the bloodstream. Guess what? Alcohol molecules can easily get through this barrier. This means that the brain is the first organ to be affected by alcohol intake. As you probably have noticed, alcohol immediately changes your mood, your thought processes, your impulse control, and your judgment. That little voice in your head that normally says “don’t do it,” now says “Do’s OK.”

Or, it says say something like: “I’m going to say it because he or she deserves it.” Or, ” I don’ t care how they feel, I’m going to get this off my chest.”

This attitude often leads to escalating arguing and anger which can quickly get out of hand, especially if one or both of you is particularly stressed that day.  Perhaps you even feel justified in getting so angry at the “outrageous” behavior of your partner, feeling like a victim instead of the aggressor.

Alcohol-induced Righteous Indignation seems so right at the time. It often isn’t until the next day that you say to yourself: “self: what was  I thinking?”

By then, the damage often is done and is difficult to undue. How do you “unring” a bell? Sometimes there are even legal consequences involving law enforcement. More often, the damage is emotional as the couple struggles to restore communication, heal hurt feelings, and re-build trust.

The advice I always give my local clients as well as my anger management students is to make a firm agreement not to drink while discussing serious or important marital issues, if this has been problematic in the past for you.

Often reducing marital conflict involves “doing something different” from what you normally do. So, for example, if you notice that you’ve gotten into a conflict the last 5 times you discussed parenting issues over Gin and Tonics, separate those two events and see if it helps!

But, what do you do if you see the sense of this, but your partner refuses to cooperate in such an agreement? Well, that depends on the circumstances, but you can still stick to your end of the bargain, avoid as much conflict as possible, and when he or she is sober and rational, firmly and assertively communicate how that made you feel, what you will expect in the future, and what the consequences may be  if it continues to happen.