Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Women Going Beyond Social Drinking: Three Overlooked Factors

glass of wineIt is hard to deny that a group of women gathered for a shower, a book club, a planning session or just a Thursday night over good food and drinks isn’t one of life’s pleasures.

Experts would even weigh in with the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Studies have found that a glass of wine a day is heart healthy and a study in The New England Journal of medicine evaluating 12,000 women aged 70-81 found the moderate drinkers had 23% reduced mental decline compared with nondrinkers.

It is just as difficult, however, to deny the reality that women are increasingly doing more than social drinking.

  • The majority of drunk driving arrests involve males, but the number of females arrested for DWI has dramatically increased in the last three decades. In the 1980s nine percent of those arrested for DWI were women. Today, they account for nearly one-quarter of those arrested (186,459 females in 2011).
  • In California, the number of young women responsible for alcohol-related accidents jumped 116% between 1998 and 2007. It only rose 39% among young men.
  • A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of binge drinking–defined as having four or more drinks for women or five or more for men within two hours–revealed that whereas 24% of binge-drinking women are college-age, 10% of women between 45 and 64 say they binge drink and so do 3% of women older than 65.
  • Comparing two national surveys on drinking, epidemiologist, Richard Grucza found that whereas between 1992 and 2002 there was a flattening in consumption among younger and older men, there was the opposite for women. More women were drinking and more women were becoming dependent.

What is happening?

In her recent book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—And How They Can Regain Control, Gabrielle Glaser tries to answer that question.  With reference to statistics like those above, Glaser draws from many sources in highlighting what could be considered three overlooked and interrelated factors that move women beyond social drinking.

They are factors that warrant consideration and invite self-reflection, moderation and if needed, a call for help.

A Social Culture that Condones Drinking

  • In this culture, and even more so for educated, middle and upper middle class women in this culture, drinking is not frowned upon – it is flaunted.
  • Sharon Wilsnack, Harvard professor, know for her longitudinal studies on women and alcohol, reports a startling shift in women’s attitude toward alcohol in 2002—The stigma of drinking for women has faded and they openly talk about pre-drinking before parties or doing shots to maximize effect.
  • In the last ten years women and wine have had a love affair. Women love wine and the wine industry loves their biggest consumers. Given its branding as a “ healthy choice,” it is consumed in public or private, while making dinner, with dinner and after dinner.
  • A Kate Spade necklace spells out “ Pop The Cork.”
  • It is reported that 650,000 women follow “ Moms Who Need Wine” on Facebook.
  • Another 131,000 women are fans of “ OMG I so Need a Glass of Wine or I’m Gonna Sell My Kids.”
  • Drinking is so much a part of the women of “Real Housewives,” some of the reality stars have introduced their own brand.

A necessary ingredient in any addiction is denial. When the culture condones and colludes with the denial, self-reflection and judgment about moderation becomes skewed. Overdrinking becomes a problem hiding in plain sight!

Women are More Vulnerable To Alcohol’s Toxic Effects

  • Gabrielle Glaser notes that whereas most women are warned of the negative impact of alcohol on the fetus during pregnancy, women are not informed that they are much more vulnerable than men to adverse consequences of alcohol use.
  • Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently than men. In general, women have less body water than men of similar body weight, so that women achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol.
  • Women have smaller quantities of the enzyme dehydrogenase that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. A woman will absorb about 30% more alcohol into her bloodstream than a man of the same weight who has consumed an equal amount. As a result she is more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced liver, heart damage and brain damage from alcohol.
  • Given men and women are usually of different weights and sizes, consider this difference–After three drinks within an hour a man of 185 lbs. has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .045. A woman of 130 lbs. has a BAC of .088. He will feel relaxed and gregarious—She is legally intoxicated with impaired judgment, impairment of balance, speech, vision, reaction time, and hearing. Her information processing is altered. She has increased her driving risk for a fatal crash by 10 times that when driving sober.

For women, alcohol absolutely works to relax, reduce stress, increase social comfort etc. Paradoxically because of its quick and seemingly positive impact, it can become the “fix” for dealing with emotional pain and become the drug of choice.   At that point, as Glaser suggests, it is no longer just sipping wine at dinner to relax—it is building days around drinking time. It is spending time buying bottles and discretely discarding empty ones. It is the work of denying increasing gaps in functioning.

Having It All vs. Doing It All

  • A number of studies have shown that although life has greatly improved for American women, these gains have not translated into improvement in happiness or a personal sense of well-being.
  • Gabrielle Glaser reports on the Wharton study, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”, that found that regardless of whether they work or stay at home, are single or married, have graduate degrees or high-school diplomas, women as compared to men report “being bleak about the state of their lives.”
  • Mothers had the gloomiest outlooks.
  • Although women of all education groups have become less happy over time, declines in happiness have been steepest among those with some college.

What is proposed by Gabrielle Glaser and resonates with Anne-Marie Slaughter in her article,” Why Women Can’t Have it All” in Atlantic, and Debra Spar in her new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, is that whereas women have successfully won the right to seemingly have it all in terms of college degrees, corporate jobs, increasingly higher salaries, planning and postponing motherhood—they just can’t do it all.

  • Yes, many work to balance their work world, their mothering, most of the home chores and much more.
  • Many have spouses who are juggling time, commuting, and car pools side-by-side with them—and are just as stressed.
  • Many are single moms running as fast as they can.
  • A few have husbands who decide to stay at home to make their wife’s higher salary possible—They worry if their husbands are happy.
  • Some give up the job and take on the traditional role of mother and homemaker—They too often feel they have to explain their choice.
  • Some put down career competition and compete through the lives of their children—They don’t report more happiness.

The reality is that for women in this culture there is stress, exhaustion, and a backdrop of expectation that overshadows the lives they are trying to manage and the success they believed they could have in all the spheres of their lives.

Where Does the Drinking Come In?

If the same culture that fuels expectations and stress, invites women to “pop the cork” for an occasional stress reliever–that may be fine.

If as a result, however, women drink to the point where they can’t keep to any limits they set; they have the desire to cut down but can’t; they risk drunk driving and alcohol related symptoms–they need to consider that they have moved beyond social drinking to a drinking problem, one that warrants help, one that ultimately will take it all.