Alcohol use and relationships

Oct 12, 2018


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Alcohol can be an enjoyable component of social occasions and time spent with family and friends if consumed responsibly.  However, it is now commonly recognised that excessive drinking has the potential to negatively impact health and wellbeing, and family relationships.

According to the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol, for healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.  For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol related injury arising from that occasion.  About 1 in 4 people who regularly exceed alcohol guidelines already has an alcohol use disorder, and the remaining people exceeding these limits are at greater risk of developing alcohol-related problems.

Alcohol misuse can significantly increase the stress within a family, whether the person drinking is a parent, child or extended family member. Common family problems related to alcohol abuse include increased arguments about drinking or things related to drinking, such as not taking care of responsibilities in the home and neglecting family relationships, and increased family violence.  It is also well established that alcohol abuse can lead to serious financial problems, due to the actual money spent on alcohol, lost productivity at work and decreased inhibitions when spending money.

Recent critiques of alcohol consumption in Australia have emphasised the harms of an ‘excessive drinking culture’ that is embedded in Australian society.  The focus of Relationships Australia’s October 2018 online survey was to examine the alcohol use of visitors to our website and report on harms that survey respondents may have experienced in their own lives.

Previous research finds that…

  • 24 percent of Australian men exceeded the lifetime risk guidelines for alcohol intake in 2016‑17. One in three Australian females drink at levels harmful to their health.
  • Alcohol is a factor in close to half of all physical and sexual assaults against women.
  • Children whose parents abuse alcohol are more than four times more likely to be neglected, and almost three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than children of parents who do not abuse alcohol.
  • 82% of 12–17 year olds reported abstaining from alcohol in 2016; a significant increase from 72% in 2013.


More than 1300 people responded to the Relationships Australia online survey in July 2018. Three quarters (77%) of respondents identified as female, with more female than male respondents in every age group (see Figure 1 below).  More than 85 per cent of survey respondents were aged between 20-59 years, and more than 55 per cent of respondents comprised women aged between 30-49 years (inclusive).

As for previous surveys, the demographic profile of survey respondents remains consistent with our experience of the groups of people that would be accessing the Relationships Australia website.

Most survey respondents reported that they drink alcohol, at least occasionally.  Around one-quarter of men and one-sixth of women consume alcohol four or more days a week (figure 2).

Almost 40% of female survey respondent reported that their partners consumed alcohol four or more days per week, while fewer than 20% of male respondents reported their partners drank alcohol this frequently (figure 3).

Both men and women were most likely to report unwinding or relaxing as the main reason they consumed alcohol (figure 4), followed by ‘I liking drinking’.  One-fifth (18%) of women and 14% of men reported the main reason for consuming alcohol was because it is expected in a situation.


More than 20% of men and 25% of women reported that alcohol always or often increases the frequency of family arguments (figure 5).

Other harms caused by a partner’s drinking included emotional damage such as hurt, neglect or embarrassment; family breakdown; financial stress; and their partner failing to meet their obligations (table 1).


Table 1. Harms due to partner’s drinking, past 12 months


Women %


Been emotionally hurt, embarrassed or neglected



Stopped seeing your partner/broken up/separated

Failed to do something you were/your partner was being counted on to do


Felt threatened

Broke or damaged something important

Been negatively affected on a social occasion

Had a serious argument (excluding physical violence)



Experienced financial stress

Commonly reported sources of help for excessive drinking reported by survey respondents included family and friends (women – 34%; men – 26%); GPs (women – 18%; men – 19%) and counsellors/psychologists (women – 20%; men – 21%).


Australian Government (2017). National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) 2016—key findings. [online] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Available at: