How do the people we love shape our drinking? Researchers know that both genetic and environmental factors – the latter including relationships with other people – influence alcohol outcomes such as abuse or dependence. Interdisciplinary research indicates that romantic relationships can even alter the impact of genetic influences on alcohol outcomes. These results and others will be shared at the 42ndannual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) in Minneapolis June 22-26.
Romantic relationships are known to be important correlates of alcohol problems. For example, individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are less likely to get married and more likely to experience divorce compared to those without AUDs. Likewise, individuals with AUDs often find their romantic relationships to be less satisfying and more conflictual compared to individuals without AUDs."
Jessica Salvatore, assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University
Salvatore will discuss her research at the RSA meeting on Wednesday, June 26.
"I am a developmental psychologist by training, and have long been interested in the idea that positive romantic relationship experiences can serve as 'turning points' in individuals' lives," Salvatore said. "I tackle questions like, "Does risk for alcohol problems influence the likelihood of having a 'bad' relationship?" and "Who benefits most from involvement in a 'good' relationship?' My goal is to understand the complex pathways through which genes and romantic relationship experiences influence alcohol misuse."
Salvatore's work has led to several notable discoveries. "People who are genetically predisposed to alcohol problems tend to elect into or create romantic relationship environments that in turn increase their risk of developing significant alcohol problems," she said. "However, genes are not destiny. Just because someone has a genetic predisposition for alcohol problems does not mean that they are destined to drink to excess. Genetics interact with the environment. And the environment – including whether and with whom one is romantically involved – plays an influential role. In fact, those who are genetically predisposed to alcohol problems actually benefit the most from involvement in a romantic relationship with a partner without an alcohol problem."
Salvatore noted that excessive alcohol use has huge public health costs – more $240 billion per year – and personal costs for affected individuals and their families. "One of the big take-aways from my work is that investing in relationships is probably one of the highest impact ways that we can reduce risk for alcohol problems," she said. "This is no small task. Yet, teeing people up to be able to form stable and satisfying romantic relationships can have a huge payoff in terms of reduced public health costs, not to mention a happier population."