What’s the Cure for Marriage?
It’s not just an old joke – alcohol often gets the blame as a cause for failed romances and ugly divorces. But does it deserve the rap?
As a rocket fuel for stepping out and wild sexy times, alcohol would seem to have it all: It makes you horny, it has you thinking more people are hot (enough), makes you reckless while at the same time giving you courage.
Though it affects everyone differently, alcohol can:
- encourage impulsiveness and risk-taking
- reduce inhibitions
- make you more relaxed
- Impair decision-making and judgment
- raise the expectation of sex, especially when both parties are drinking
- give you beer goggles (this is real, apparently1)
- increase desire and arousal, depending on how much you drink2
Sex: It’s All in the Brain
Cultures and traditions the world over have long considered alcohol to be an aphrodisiac. Is it true?
Let’s break it down:
After you’ve had a few drinks, alcohol slows down your thought processes and cognition. It does this by depressing the command central of your brain, AKA the cerebral cortex, where memory, attention, perception, thought, language, and awareness happens. The sex part comes from a group of brain parts working together – the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and pituitary which control intrinsic sexual impulses and aren’t affected by alcohol; but, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which plays an important part in sexual arousal, is. This OFC is where your decision making and mate preference functions happen. When this brain part is lit, you can see the problem: Desire up, discretion down – you’re a jacked up, dumbed down sex machine. There is truth in the expression “beer goggles.”
Also, as a drug alcohol has a genius that other drugs don’t – it affects the brain’s neurons in many ways. It alters their very membranes as well as ion channels, enzymes, and receptors. It binds directly to receptors for acetycholine, serotonin, GABA, and the NDMA receptors for glutamate.4 Alcohol also increases the release of dopamine – the hormone that makes our desire for sex so imperative.
What this all means is that alcohol has a global effect on the brain and behavior. And as your brain is also your biggest sex organ, you can see how alcohol can have a huge impact on your sex life: It can also be a powerful a motivator for infidelity.
Whiskey Penis, Dry as a Nun, & Post-sex Blues
There is such a thing as “whiskey dick” and it can happen even if whiskey isn’t your drink. For men, alcohol can often interfere with their erection. It can make the penis less responsive, less sensitive, and more difficult to get and maintain an erection. Drinking can also make the erection you get less full (still workable, but less than it should be).
For women, alcohol can also have the effect of making their genitals less responsive. Sensations that may normally feel awesome can be dulled and the brain becomes less receptive. Because alcohol depresses the central nervous system, it in turn decreases arousal and sexual response to stimulation. The awesome drops a few notches.
Alcohol also causes dehydration. This can affect the ability to lubricate and result in vaginal dryness (hence the “dry as a nun” quip). Though it can happen to anyone, it tends to be more of an issue for women experiencing hormonal changes in the perimenopausal or menopausal stages.
Alcohol can also slow orgasms: It can delay ejaculation and make clitoral and vaginal orgasms harder to come by and less exciting when they do happen.
And then there’s postcoital dysphoria AKA post-sex blues: Some woman can experience sadness after sex. About half have felt it at least once in their lives.4 This condition can manifest as tearfulness, melancholy or depression, anxiety or aggression after sex. While not caused by alcohol, we know that alcohol can, especially in its aftermath, amplify feelings of depression and anxiety.
Chugging and Cheating
Is there a scientific link between alcohol and infidelity?
We know that alcohol makes us into sex machines of a sort – desirous and indiscreet, impulsive and short sighted – and blur the lines of judgment and moral and immoral behavior. People often use alcohol as an excuse for all sorts of unbecoming behaviors. But was that potential always in them or did alcohol just provide a bit of apprehension removal? This is harder to know and extremely difficult to measure.
We know that alcohol can relieve the psychological barriers to infidelity. We know that sex undertaken with alcohol tends to be less safe. But so is cheating in general – it turns out there is a link between cheating and an increased likelihood of not using protection.5 It also turns out that there may be a thrill-seeking gene that leads people to promiscuity and cheating.6 For those having such a gene, alcohol would seem to be the perfect enabler. Overall, alcohol impairs thinking and in some cases even wipe away memories, as happens with black-outs. People will often use alcohol to reduce the fears and anxiety of doing something they know will hurt another person. For them, alcohol provides the courage, the moral disconnection, and the impetus to do what they might not do otherwise.
Still, proving a causal link between alcohol and infidelity rather than just a correlational one – i.e., cheaters may also drink but is that the reason they cheat? – is difficult and debatable. The consensus seems to be that there is at least a psychological link to infidelity and alcohol – as explained for all the reasons above – if not a biological one.
So, Why Then?
People can cheat for a slew of reasons: Maybe sex in their primary relationship has left them wanting; maybe the emotional intimacy and intensity has faded; maybe they want validation from someone else; maybe they just don’t feel the same love for their partner as they once did and think they’ll have better luck elsewhere; or, maybe the just want a new experience. Not that any of these reasons will guarantee a stress-less or conflict-free new liaison.
Cheating, like chemical addictions, can also be a sign of underlying or co-occurring disorders. Maybe they have a sex or romantic addiction, or maybe cheating is in their genes (see above) or was a part of their environment growing up. Maybe their parents were cheaters. Maybe they have a need for control or have performance anxiety issues at home. Also, people with more resources – especially men – are more likely to cheat7: Besides money, those with affluence tend to have more opportunity and a more inflated sense of self which can embolden them to act out on their desires. If one is self-absorbed, a narcissist, arrogant, and/or has less empathy, these also tend to increase the likelihood.
It’s a Choice
The reasons people cheat, even with alcohol or drugs, are complicated. Ultimately, cheating, like substance abuse, is a choice. Being a cheater doesn’t make one evil necessarily. What it does mean is that in facing the challenge of conflicting desires, they choose immediate pleasure over consequence. If one is in a losing battle with alcohol or substance abuse, there may be a better chance they will also lose the battle of staying faithful.
As has been said, the heart wants what it wants. And in allowing the heart to get what it wants, alcohol can help keep the brain out of it.
If you or a loved one have an addiction to alcohol, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery within 30 days.