Drinking to Deal with Relationship Stress: How to Break the Cycle

Medically reviewed by John Mendelson, M.D. on

Table of Contents

Do you use alcohol to cope with relationship problems? If so, you’re not alone. Research shows that people with high levels of stress can be more vulnerable to alcohol abuse—and relationship stress is no exception. Drinking to deal with relationship challenges can become a vicious cycle, however, and often make underlying problems more severe.

If you’re concerned that alcohol is making it harder to work through things with your partner, there are new solutions and other ways to move things forward. Below, we’ll look at how stress can develop between couples, why people may turn to alcohol to cope, and how to deal with these challenges in an effective way.

Alcohol and Relationship Problems

couple fighting in the ocean
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Relationships often start out as fun, exciting, and rewarding. You meet someone who is like you, gets you, and accepts you as you are. You feel the same way about them.

As time goes by, however, relationships often become more complicated. Life may throw challenges and changes your way. You may not feel as connected as you once were, or begin to feel stressed, judged, or uncertain about how to handle things.

One way that some people manage this stress is by drinking alcohol. For some, this can be a way to lower their inhibitions and connect with their partner. For others, it may be a way to avoid facing their disagreements with their significant other.

It’s important to emphasize that a person’s drinking is never their partner’s fault. Even if the other partner is behaving abusively, the solution or coping mechanism a person chooses is their responsibility.

It’s also true that many partners who struggle with alcohol already did so before entering that relationship. The pattern of drinking itself is often an underlying cause of relationship problems. The two tend to co-occur, and it can often be a “chicken vs the egg” phenomenon.

However, if you find that relationship stress is a major drinking trigger for you, you are not alone. And fortunately, there are other ways to deal with the problem, work on your relationship dynamic, or get yourself into a better situation. Here are some alternatives to using alcohol to cope, and how you can overcome drinking to deal with relationship stress.

Why Do Some Relationships Become Stressful?

There are many reasons why relationships can get more difficult over time. These might include:

  • Significant differences in priorities and values
  • Normal compatibility conflicts that haven’t been worked through
  • Attachment triggers and difficulties with connection
  • Childhood and/or later trauma that interferes in the relationship
  • Daily life stressors, such as job and financial problems

Attachment triggers and trauma, although rarely spoken about openly, are among the most common of these issues. Childhood trauma can be triggered in a relationship, because the closeness can resemble what we experienced with our initial families.

If a person experienced abuse during childhood, or grew up with an alcoholic family member, they may be more likely to turn to substances to manage emotional stress.

People may also begin drinking more in the face of relationship stress because it helps them to avoid the problem. However, not working through important issues can often make them worse. This is especially true if a couple begins to grow apart from avoiding confrontation.

To make matters worse, although alcohol can seem to ease stress at first, long-term it can increase both stress and anxiety. This may make a person even more likely to feel triggered by relationship problems, leading to a vicious cycle.

How to Deal with Stress in a Relationship

couple talking by the window
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

Dealing with relationship stress can be challenging, but there are many healthy ways to manage it. Here are a few recommended strategies to cope and heal without alcohol:

Lean Towards Your Spouse

If you tend to try to deal with problems on your own, you may actually be shutting out your spouse. Talking through things keeps you connected, and may even offer you some relief so that you don’t need to de-stress as much. Experts call this “leaning towards” your partner.

Develop Other Calming Skills

If you tend to lean on alcohol to manage difficult emotions, try some alternative calming techniques. You might try meditation practices, journaling, or a new hobby. If you have the urge to drink, you can also try one of these alternatives to drinking alcohol.

If you and your partner tend to get into heated or overwhelming arguments, try developing a calming practice you can do together. You might practice mindfulness, go for a walk, or watch a favorite show together. Finding a good meditation app can also be a quick way to get yourself out of emotional hot water on your own.

Talk Regularly with Your Partner

Close relationships often include daily connection, with both partners making a point of showing support for one another. You can practice taking turns listening and expressing empathy for each other. These steps from the Gottman “stress reducing conversation” method can be a good starting point.

Are You Just in an Unhealthy Relationship?

couple drinking beer back to back
Photo by Sherise VD on Unsplash

It can be tricky to decide whether to leave a long-term relationship. Are you cutting and running too soon, or have you stayed when you shouldn’t have?

These are common questions people have in difficult relationships. No one can answer these questions but you and your partner. However, there are some important factors to consider, especially if you’re in a situation that is stressful enough that you feel the need to self-medicate.

Safety Concerns

There are some cases where you may need to consider your own physical and emotional safety over maintaining your relationship. Here are some signs you are in such a situation:

  • Your partner practices or threatens physical violence
  • There’s a pattern of control in the relationship
  • One partner is constantly demeaning, criticizing, and humiliating towards the other
  • Ongoing behaviors are dangerous to your or your children

If this is the case, you might consider reaching out to supportive family, neutral friends, or a professional who can help. The national Domestic Abuse Hotline can also connect you to resources in your own area.

Should You Stay or Go?

If your relationship isn’t in dangerous territory, there are some other questions you might ask yourself as you’re considering whether to stay or go:

  • Which decision will you feel better about in a year, or five years from now?
  • Is your life better or worse with your partner in it?
  • Do you believe you and/or your partner can improve your relationship dynamics?
  • Do you believe you can grow to forgive, trust, or accept your partner in the future?
  • Are you and your partner willing to put in the work to grow, heal, and move forward?
  • Are you and your partner willing to work on addictive and codependent behaviors?

There’s no right or wrong answers to these questions. However, they can help you think through and consider the choices ahead.

Consider Couple’s Therapy

If you and your partner aren’t sure what to do, or have decided to make it work, couple’s therapy can help. Some experts recommend that treatment be concurrent: In other words, it can help to work on relationship issues at the same time as cutting back on drinking (and vice versa).

Not all couple’s therapy works the same way, so it’s important to find an approach that works for you. Among the most proven interventions are Gottman Therapy and Emotionally-Focused Therapy, which have many similarities. Both are shown to help people make renewed, new, and healthy connections with their partners.

Changing Your Relationship, Without Drinking to Cope

The bottom line is, it’s possible to manage stress, improve relationships, and deal with whatever life throws at you without alcohol. However, this doesn’t mean it’s always easy to do so. If you have a habit of drinking to cope with relationship stress, it may be very hard to “just stop.”

This is where an online program can help. Telemedicine for alcohol treatment can give you the flexibility you need to make a change in your drinking habits, without having to put your life or relationships on hold. Getting help through a smartphone app means you can take your treatment plan wherever you go, and get support tailored to your individual needs.

If you’re looking for a way to stop drinking to deal with relationship stress, consider getting in touch with a member of our team. All calls are no-obligation, and 100 percent confidential.


Have questions about online alcohol treatment?

or call (800) 504-5360

Written By:
Jennie Lannette, LCSW
Licensed therapist, writer, and published author, with a focus on trauma recovery.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
Medically reviewed by John Mendelson, M.D. on

Table of Contents

More Topics to Read
Have questions about online alcohol treatment?

or call (800) 504-5360

Is My Drinking Normal?

Take our short alcohol quiz to learn where you fall on the drinking spectrum and if you might benefit from quitting or cutting back on alcohol.