Sci-fly: From single to married life in one step? How romantic relationship progression affects alcohol use in young adults

Navigating the 20s can be quite demanding. Emerging adults engage in new responsibilities, such as beginning a career path, establishing romantic relationships and building a family. More duties will most likely imply settling down and reducing “party animal” moments. Research has shown that these prototypical role transitions may be incompatible with (problem) alcohol use. One challenging transition, and the focus of this sci-fly, is establishing a romantic relationship. Traditionally, research focused on the presence or absence of certain relationship milestones, such as marriage, as an important influence for reducing alcohol use. But, is this really capturing the rapid changes and evolution of the romantic relationships of young adults? Also, are romantic relationships affecting alcohol use, or are alcohol problems affecting the progression of these relationships? Two scientist from the US came up with a new way to look into a classic topic – providing interesting insights!

Most research about normative decline in alcohol use and romantic relationship role changes focused on big transitions (from single to married) happening over several years. This study included more subtle, year-to-year, changes in romantic relationships progression (i.e. from single, dating, committed, to long-term relationships) to examine associations with problematic drinking in the transition out of university. The researchers provided a more detailed picture, as it was found that getting into a deeper commitment, and not necessarily getting married, was related to less problematic alcohol use. The findings did not depend on being graduated. In addition, the opposite relation was not found: alcohol problems did not seem to affect relationship progression. Future studies should also consider the partners’ report as well as include a population with more problematic alcohol use, and different educational backgrounds. Finally, this study did not ask about the composition of the couples (e.g. same or other-sex couples). This may limit generalization of the findings. 


What has been researched?

  • Does progressing in romantic relationship roles (e.g. going from single to dating and from dating to seriously committed – but not yet marriage) predict less problematic alcohol involvement?
  • Does problematic alcohol use predict less progress in the above mentioned romantic relationship transitions? 
  • How does leaving college affect these associations? (exploratory question)

Who participated in the research?

  • 404 students from a public northeastern university in the USA. 
  • The students were in their fourth, fifth and sixth year since university enrollment and the majority were female (63%). 
  • Participants started the study with a mean age of 21.10.

How was the research conducted?

  • This study was part of a bigger research on post-traumatic stress and substance use in college students. Only the last two years of data collection were included.
  • Problem alcohol use was measured at three time points by using several self-report measures, including alcohol-related consequences, alcohol abuse symptoms and alcohol dependence symptoms. 
  • For relationship transitions, participants were asked about their romantic relationship involvement: (1) not involved in a romantic relationship, (2) in a casual romantic relationship, (3) in a serious/committed relationship, (4) engaged or married or in a long-term committed monogamous relationship. Relationship changes were compared from Year 1 to 2, and from year 2 to 3, and collapsed into three transitions: increased romantic involvement, stable involvement, decreased involvement.  
  • Graduation status was measured using a single item with several response categories regarding education status. Participants were considered graduated if they picked the “graduated” subcategory or if they were “graduate students or other post-bachelor’s students”.


  1. Most individuals progressed in their relationship “step-by-step” (e.g. from a more casual to committed relationship). Only 19% of the transitions reflected big changes (e.g. married or divorced). Those who got more involved in their relationship had fewer alcohol problems by the next year than those who were less romantically involved than before in this period. This was true from the first to the second year of the study, as well as from the second to the third year.
  2. Alcohol problems did not predict whether individuals increased or decreased in their romantic involvement. The relationship was absent for each year comparison. 
  3. Being graduated (or not) did not influence the findings.

Egerton, G. A., & Read, J. P. (2019). Relationship role transitions and problem alcohol use in emerging adulthood. Emerging Adulthood7(4), 291-303.

This sci-fly was written by Milagros Rubio (Radboud University) for RAD-blog, the blog about smoking, alcohol, drugs and diet.

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