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Can Romantic Relationships in College Lessen Trauma-Related Alcohol Abuse?

Heavy drinking by students at universities is considered a problem in many countries across the globe, with a survey of undergraduates in seven universities in the UK showing that they have a very high rate of dangerous drinking (some 41% are considered ‘hazardous drinkers’).

Heavy alcohol use can be worsened by interpersonal trauma occurring before a student commences college. A recent (April, 2021) study, published in the journal Addiction, has found that involvement in a committed relationship can buffer the effects that trauma can have on alcohol misuse or abuse. However, if one’s partner is a heavy drinker, this fact tends to worsen the link between trauma and alcohol consumption.

Relationships Protect College Students against Stress

In the Addiction study, researcher J. Salvatore stated that one of the reasons why relationships can help reduce the heavy drinking problem in college, is because it can protect a partner from stress. The study involved almost 9,000 students, who answered questions about relationships, stress, and drinking, over a three-year period.

The findings lead research to suggest that in the future, romantic partners can be included in treatment planning and aftercare to help loved ones who have been subjected to trauma in their past. Partners can additionally help reduce their loved one’s engagement in risky drinking behaviors.

Tackling Stress Proactively

Greater awareness of relationship dynamics and conflict resolution is necessary among university students, since unhealthy relationships can increase the risk of taking part in risky behaviours.

Students who are feeling lonely because of a recent breakup, for instance, should be encouraged to engage in healthy behaviours (including group exercise, daytime social interaction, and holistic activities such as yoga).

Otherwise, they could indulge in potentially harmful behaviours such as jumping into another relationship too soon, in search of the ‘rush’ that the honeymoon or ‘velcro’ stage of a new relationship can bring. When one has not property grieved the demise of an old relationship, conflicts and insecurities can surface.

On the other hand, filling one’s daily life with healthy activities and taking time to fall in love again can help students find someone with whom to enjoy a healthy, unconditional relationship. 

Focusing on the Future

University students who are in supportive relationships can take care to reduce conflicts over finances, jealousy, and other interpersonal issues by focusing on the future – as found in a study by researchers from the University of Waterloo. Lead researcher, Alex Huynh stated that when people argue, they tend to focus on their current feelings – which only fuels tension. Instead, he argues, they should focus on the future, so as to shift the focus away from the present and mitigate conflict. “Adopting a future-oriented perspective in the context of a relationship conflict reflecting on how one might feel a year from now may be a valuable coping tool for one’s psychological happiness and relationship well-being,” stated Huynh.

Heavy drinking can be considered a health concern in countries like the U.S. and England, where a large percentage of students are considered ‘heavy drinkers’. Trauma can worsen alcohol abuse, while healthy relationships can help buffer the effects of trauma.

Colleges should work to raise awareness of heavy conflict resolution skills (including looking to the future instead of focusing on current tension) so that relationships remain healthy and continue to be a source of long-term support.

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