How jealousy in a relationship can lead to alcohol problems

Jealous people in low-quality relationships are at higher risk of alcohol problems, suggests new study

Her heart races as she scrolls through the messages on his phone. She’s so sure he is cheating on her, and just the thought of it makes her feel worthless. She reaches for her glass and takes a big gulp. For a moment her heart rate slows.

Will jealousy drive a person to drown their sorrows in alcohol? Researchers say one key factor can help answer this question. (Photo by umberlla via Perhaps, but it could well be based on reality, according to the results of a new study. 

Jealousy is a powerful emotion that can tear relationships apart, and research has already shown that it can drive people to drink. But what role does it play in people who rely on their relationship to feel good about themselves?

New research suggests that in people who depend on their relationship for self-esteem, jealousy determines whether they will drown their sorrows. The study, published in Elsevier’s Addictive Behaviors journal, links romantic jealousy, relationship-dependent self-esteem and alcohol problems.

As the lead author, psychologist Dr. Angelo DiBello of the University of Houston in Texas, explains:

We all experience feelings of jealousy to some degree; many people are in relationships that are less than ideal, and use alcohol for different reasons. Romantic jealousy is a shared human experience, but very little work has looked at how it is related to alcohol use, misuse and associated problems. This research helps to highlight the associations between these factors and show how our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are related in potentially harmful ways.

Identifying jealousy to predict alcohol use

Understanding the link between these three factors could help identify people at risk of alcohol-related problems more quickly, say the authors of the study. This could save lives: excessive alcohol use is the third leading cause of preventable death in the US, accounting for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults. There are around 88,000 alcohol-related deaths per year in the US, and roughly 2.5 million deaths per year globally.

Previous research has focused on the link between jealousy and alcohol use, and the link between jealousy and the quality of a relationship. Researchers say this is the first study to look at three factors together – relationship-dependent self-esteem, jealousy and drinking – and provides an insight into how these factors affect the risk of alcohol problems.

The researchers investigated how different types of jealousy affect the link between depending on a romantic relationship for self-esteem and having alcohol-related problems. For the study, 277 people (87 percent female) at a large southern university answered questions about how dependent their self-esteem is on their romantic relationship, the satisfaction, commitment and closeness in their relationship, their jealousy and their alcohol use.

The results revealed that people whose self-esteem relies on their relationship are more likely to turn to alcohol to cope because of jealousy. These findings were especially true for people who are less satisfied, less committed, and report feeling more disconnected from their partners.

“I think it is important to understand the role romantic jealousy plays in the larger context of problem behaviors,” Dr. DiBello said. “Ultimately, I hope to use findings like these to support the development of prevention and intervention efforts among individuals who may struggle with alcohol, self-esteem and relationship issues.”

Using alcohol to cope with negative emotions

When a person’s self-worth is tied to their romantic relationship, the effect of negative events or emotions is magnified. The new study shows that when this happens, believing their partner is cheating can lead people to use alcohol to cope.

“Given how common experiencing jealousy and being in romantic relationships are, this work helps to explain different associations that may negatively impact an individual’s drinking,” Dr. DiBello said.

The idea that we use alcohol to cope with negative emotions does not only apply to jealousy. Research has shown that people use alcohol as a coping mechanism for many different negative emotions and events, from stress to abuse, and also suggests that using alcohol in this way can increase the risk of it becoming a problem.

One way to tackle the use of alcohol in coping with negative emotions could be to help people understand the emotions they are experiencing. Research published in Personality and Individual Differences investigated the use of alcohol to cope in a group of 566 college students and 104 non-college-student adults. Results showed that people who cannot clearly identify their emotions are more likely to drink alcohol to cope.

In the paper, the authors say the results suggests that “treatment and prevention efforts focused on teaching emotional clarity and/or learning multiple regulation strategies may be important in reducing coping-motivated drinking.”

How researchers measure jealousy

Researchers can measure jealousy using the Multidimensional Jealousy scale, developed by Pfeiffer and Wong in 1989. The scale looks at three kinds of jealousy: emotional, cognitive and behavioral. Each subscale has eight items, asking study participants how they would react to certain situations. Below are some examples of the questions included in the scale.

  • Emotional: “(My partner) works very closely with a member of the opposite sex (in school or the office).” The participant rates their response from very pleased (1) to very upset (7).
  • Cognitive: “I suspect that (my partner) is secretly seeing someone of the opposite sex.” The participant rates their response from never (1) to always (7).
  • Behavioral: “I look through (my partner)'s drawers, handbag, or pockets.” The participant rates their response from never (1) to always (7).

Read the studies in this story:

Elsevier has made the following articles freely available until August 14, 2015:

Dr. Angelo DiBello is a psychologist at the University of Houston. Dr. DiBello’s research interest focuses on the intersection of alcohol use and romantic relationships. Specifically, his work focuses on alcohol use, related problems, and romantic jealousy among those in committed romantic relationships. Going forward, he aims to extend his program of research by designing brief, theoretically guided, brief interventions.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Lucy Goodchild-van
  HiltenAfter a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of   Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.

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