So, for the past few months I have been dissertation writing and it’s been the first summer in years where I have had to do work. This has meant that, in stark contrast to last year where I was knee deep in mud at festivals, or sipping on mint tea in the Moroccan heat, I have been stuck in the library day in day out staring at a computer screen.
It has also meant that I have begun quite a serious love/hate relationship with evening television. For those of you in a similarly sad predicament you may have noticed Channel 4 has been putting on a “Mating Season”, my particular favourite programme being “First Dates”. A show that is pretty much what it says on the tin, an insight into the dating woes of desperately single individuals, involving a restaurant specifically used for first dates. It’s been funny, it’s been awkward, and at times l’ve had to look away. The dates I’ve found hardest to watch are those involving alcohol, where sentences become slurred, eyes become heavy and things are said that wouldn’t usually be said. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of watching any of these delightful moments, here is a little taster of Carl and Amanda’s very unsuccessful first date:
Now, I’m sure we have all been there, a few too many nerves = Dutch courage = disastrous date. Fortunately most of us who accidently have a little too much and want to forget the moment ever happened don’t have to watch the cringey moment back on television. But it did get me thinking: why (for many of us) is alcohol such an important part of these initial encounters? Is sober dating possible? And, does the amount you drink carve the way for the rest of your relationship?
When watching Carl and Amanda’s date back, it is clear he was out to get drunk, yet she politely turns back more drink and watches on amused as he continues. Would things have been different if she’d kept up? I know in the past I’ve tried to keep up with male friends, and slowly women have been closing the gender gap with alcohol consumption. This is worrying, as despite the equal roles we have in today’s society there are physiological differences that we cannot ignore, which make women more vulnerable to alcohol’s effects. For example women achieve higher blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) in less time than men, and have a greater risk of alcohol-related damage to the liver, heart and brain. Important reasons for a woman not to attempt to keep up with her slurring dating partner. But should we ignore these facts for the sake of love? After all, surely a man wants his woman to be able to keep up? Apparently not. A study by LaBrie and colleagues in the US found that female students overestimate how much males want their female friends, dates and sexual partners to drink, and that this overestimation leads to a higher drinking level in a woman. So we drink more because we think that’s what men want, but men actually want us to drink less. What a health damaging misunderstanding.
Although the embarrassing sinking feeling the next morning might be enough to encourage a more toned down approach to the next date, on an even more sobering note are the serious risks involved with a higher consumption of alcohol in these dating situations. Alcohol contributes significantly to situations involving risky and sexual behaviour. A recent study in the US found that a shocking 25% of students reported one occurrence of alcohol-related regretted sex in the past month, and women were more likely to report this. When participants were asked about these encounters, increased drinking was linked to the belief that the alcohol would give “liquid courage”. A review byRehm and colleagues found that an increase of 0.1 mg/ml of BAC led to a 2.9% increase in the likelihood that an individual would engage in unsafe sex, leading to a higher risk for the transmission of STIs and unplanned pregnancies. Showing there may be a danger of ending up with more than you bargained for after an alcohol-fuelled date.
However, if the first date hurdle is passed without a nasty STI, and a couple move on to a second date and eventually end up an item, then what role does drinking play? As one might expect, it has been found that heavier levels of drinking are associated with decreased intimacy and increased relationship problems. However, with lower levels of alcohol use there were beneficial outcomes, such as positive effects on intimacy and partner behaviours, reinforcing the stressed importance of alcohol in moderation. This study also reported that alcohol consumption is not always harmful to relationships, as long as partners are drinking similar amounts, and are drinking together. This shows that if alcohol is going to be the third member of your relationship, it is important that you both enjoy it equally. Personally, I think a bottle of wine shared with your partner is fine, until you get more attached to the wine than your other half.
So it is clear that alcohol is an important element of the dating scene, and is used to engender courage in these nerve-wracking situations. But, research is demonstrating that too much is definitely going to be detrimental in a singletons search for love (not to mention embarrassing when you are on a TV show), and that once you are in a relationship, heavy drinking could result in a broken heart and an application for the show. For those of you who are interested in the world of sober dating, what I did find in my hunt for answers was a dating site specifically for daters who want to stay sober, so apparently it is possible. I can’t say I’ve joined just yet…