Drawing the Line: Can One Drink Destroy a Date?

alcohol bottle and cigarette being smoked.

Ask any married couple, and they’ll tell you that the key to a lasting romantic relationship isn’t always compatibility, but compromise. Even so, are there some differences that just can’t be reconciled?

A few months ago, we explored whether opposing political views can justify calling it quits. (Spoiler: they can). This week, we return to the topic of dealbreakers by investigating another potential source of relationship conflict: substance use.

With a few exceptions, substance use is pretty much ubiquitous across American college campuses. On a given weekend (in normal conditions), you’re bound to stumble across a handful of party-goers at almost any school you visit. Of course, not every college student is a frequent user, and some may even opt to abstain completely. But if you’re a patron of the party scene with a significant other who values sobriety, chances are you’ll encounter a few roadblocks.

However, not all substances are created equal. So where do college students draw the line? To see how opinions differ from school to school, we looked at the average responses to Marriage Pact survey questions about substance use across 4 campuses: Stanford, NYU, UCSB, and Tulane. Tulane took the lead on every question (no big surprises there), but all four schools had relatively similar results.

First up: alcohol, the college crowd favorite. The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 52.5 percent of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 reported drinking in the past month. And when it comes to alcohol use in romantic partners, college students were equally tolerant, if not more so.

substance use_drinks

Responses to the 2020–2021 Marriage Pact from Stanford, NYU, UCSB, and Tulane when polled for preference toward alcohol consumption in a significant other.

Nonetheless, some students say they typically prefer an alcohol-free relationship.

“I don’t usually drink, so I prefer a significant other who also isn’t regularly drinking. My current girlfriend and I don’t really use any substances. It’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, but a value I look for in potential partners.”

— Class of ’23, California State University, Northridge

Smoking was a different story entirely. Students were markedly more wary of cigarettes than alcohol — and at two schools, even more so than hard drugs (which we’ll take a look at shortly).

substance use_smokes

Responses to the 2020–2021 Marriage Pact from Stanford, NYU, UCSB, and Tulane when polled for preference toward cigarette consumption in a significant other.

So what accounts for this disparity? It could be that students are just averse to the smell of tobacco, or are worried about second-hand exposure. But smoking might also carry a moral stigma that drinking doesn’t. Dr. Windy McNerney, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine, weighed in:

“In the 90s and the 2000s, the government launched this massive anti-smoking campaign that I think, surprisingly, may have actually worked. They have yet to do so with alcohol. So for some interesting reason alcohol is completely normalized. But it’s so bad for your brain…and I don’t think that message is as clearly stated as it has been with cigarettes.”

McNerney also noted that many students enjoy alcohol’s social benefits. While smoking is typically a solitary or small-group activity that helps you wind down, alcohol’s ability to ramp you up and rid you of your inhibitions makes it the perfect centerpiece for any college party.

When it came to soft drugs (which many interpret as marijuana), students fell somewhere in the middle. Surprisingly, students were notably more tolerant of soft drugs than cigarettes, despite the fact that smoking is the most popular way to consume THC.

substance use_soft drugs

Responses to the 2020–2021 Marriage Pact from Stanford, NYU, UCSB, and Tulane when polled for preference toward soft drug consumption in a significant other.

To better understand students’ differences in opinion on soft drugs and cigarettes, we polled our Instagram following on a couple of questions. 74 percent of ~1,000 respondents indicated that smoking cigarettes would be a relationship dealbreaker, while only 39 percent felt similarly about weed.

Given this poll, it seems it’s not the substance students are wary of, but the way it’s consumed.

“I don’t really have any issue with weed itself. But I’d be a little worried about my partner smoking or vaping excessively just because I don’t know what that does to your lungs.”

— Earth Systems Major, Stanford University

Last but not least: hard drugs. This is where most college students draw the line.

substance use_hard drugs

Responses to the 2020–2021 Marriage Pact from Stanford, NYU, UCSB, and Tulane when polled for preference toward hard drug consumption in a significant other.

Students tended to cite two main reasons why they wouldn’t maintain a relationship with a frequent hard drug user. First, hard drugs bear a greater risk of addiction, especially for young adults below the age of 25. McNerney emphasized that our brains are still in a state of semi-heightened plasticity as we leave adolescence and enter young adulthood.

“When you are 14 or 15, your brain is in a heightened state of plasticity, meaning that it’s looking to learn and change, to make new synaptic connections. If you’re 12 and you try a substance, your brain is going to implant very, very strongly that this is a substance that gives you pleasure, more so than if you try it for 30, because you have less plasticity. The young adult brain is halfway between heightened plasticity… So if you try something when you’re 18, that’s still in the danger zone.”

Student opinion tended to echo McNerney’s concerns.

My partner using marijuana or alcohol really wouldn’t bother me unless it became a serious physical or mental health issue. Hard substances would probably be a dealbreaker though, because it feels too risky to get involved with someone who might become seriously addicted.

— Electrical Engineering Major, Stanford University

I think drug use certainly can be a dealbreaker if one person is very dependent on substance use when the other doesn’t care for it. That could cause a lot of conflict if one person doesn’t want to — or isn’t able to — compromise.

— Art Major, UCSB

Second, a few students expressed that family history with substance abuse could affect someone’s dating decisions. “There’s a very, very strong genetic component to substance use,” McNerney explained. If a student is cognizant of their family history with addiction, or has a loved one who’s battled with substance use in the past, it makes sense that they’d choose not to involve themselves with a person who spends a lot of time around drugs. The same can certainly be said about alcohol, despite students’ nonchalant attitudes towards drinking as a whole.

I could totally see people’s family histories playing into it, which might bring up something challenging for them. But it also makes sense if that’s not the crowd someone wants to be in, and would make somebody feel uncomfortable.

— Class of 22’, Tufts University

In the end, students seemed to agree that most substances only become dealbreakers when they start to take precedence over your relationship.

You’re both your own individuals, but there has to be a balance between spending time doing what you enjoy doing versus spending quality time with your partner. Each relationship is gonna be different, but it’s important for your partner to know that you’re genuinely listening to their concerns and that you care about them.

— Computer Science Major, De Anza College

Have a relationship dealbreaker you’d like us to discuss? DM us on Instagram or Twitter, @marriagepact.