How Your Drug Taking Will Affect Your Relationships

We spoke to an academic who studied the effects of two people with different "drug personalities" hooking up.
city boys cocaine
Photo: LightField Studios Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

The first thing I did when I met Tom at a warehouse party was a big line of coke. I was 20 years old, and soon hooked on him, even though he was openly dating other girls. I spent my weekends trekking to his, to sit and snort lines and then be ignored in favour of his friends. Because the thing Tom really loved wasn't me, it was cocaine.

Now I'm in my thirties and my partying days are pretty much behind me, I've started to question why I've repeatedly been drawn to dating men who were more interested in drugs than me. The government's drug use data for England and Wales shows men are on average twice as likely as women to use illegal drugs. Male drug users are also more likely to take them more frequently and at higher does than female drug users. So it follows that a straight woman such as myself is much more likely to end up with a male partner who takes more drugs than them.


But it's not that cut and dry, because the world is full of people with different drug-taking habits, from total abstainers to walking drugstores. So what happens when people with different "drug personalities" fall in love – and can it ever work out for a romance if one person is more into drugs than the other?

Lisa Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Manchester. In 2007 she completed a PhD that looked at how how a group of people's drug use changed over the course of 14 years. She told me that when people with different drug habits meet, it often leads to one partner "matching" the other.

"Some of the people in the study increased their use of alcohol or drugs to match a partner's, while others decreased their use to match a person who took, or drank, less than them," says Williams. "When someone increases their drug use or decreases it to match a loved one, my research inferred that it's because the relationship is the most important factor to them. It's all about preserving the relationship, even if that means taking more – or less – drugs to do so."

Looking back at that destructive cocaine-fuelled relationship with Tom, it makes sense that I was willing to up my coke usage, because I wanted to make the relationship work and be on a level with him.

Of course, drugs can bond. They can bring people together and be a lot of fun. Alesha, 29, met her ex David when they were high on ecstasy, and that's what they continued to do frequently for the five years they were together. They've now broken up, but have stayed friends, and occasionally still get high together on nights out. Alesha says this has never caused them any problems.


"David and I were both into partying when we met, and getting out of it together was always a fun thing for us," she says. "Drugs, especially ecstasy, brought us closer together. We would stay up all weekend talking and would go on adventures to party places like Berlin. We would also battle comedowns together with kisses and cuddles."

Alesha says the only time she encountered any problems with drugs in her relationship was when she decided to stop smoking but David wasn't ready to. "That was really annoying," she says. "But I was big into partying then and couldn't have dated someone sober at that point. I wouldn’t take back a second of it. We had the best times together."

Behavioural psychologist Emma Kenny explains that drugs really do bond people together in a relationship because of the chemicals in your brain. "Meeting someone when you’re high can be incredible. It can exacerbate sexual feelings and make you feel connected to one another," she explains. "If you’re on a comedown there's the added bonus of having all those love chemicals in your brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, that stop you from feeling as awful as you might otherwise – which is why it's nice to stay in bed and cuddle when you’re coming down."

While getting high with a partner can be fun if you're on the same drug wavelength as one another, it's not as simple if one partner has a different drug personality from the other. Alesha's girlfriend Kirsty is new to drugs, which can create tension in their relationship.


"I've slowed down as I've got towards 30 and my career has intensified, but my new girlfriend is only just starting with pills and coke," says Alesha. "I find it really tedious when she tells me how euphoric she feels on drugs – it makes me cringe a bit – because I've been doing it for the last ten years and am pretty bored of it all now. I'm really into her, so I'm putting up with it, but it would start to worry me if she went crazy with it all. Luckily, I think she's a lot more sensible than I ever was."

Part of Williams' research looked at the changes in people's drug habits as they grew older. She explains: "They generally reduced their drug taking. It's not just about age, but there is a big factor in that it's harder to recover from comedowns as you get older and have responsibilities, such as a full-time job, children and commitment to a relationship."

So can a relationship ever function if one partner is really into drugs or drink when the other isn't? Williams told me that, within her research, there were no couples that managed this successfully. "Having a long-term relationship where one person parties and the other doesn't could potentially happen, but it would lead to conflict," she says.

The bad news about drug mismatching is echoed by Emma Kenny. She says: "Of course there are couples where one person goes out and takes coke every weekend, while the other person doesn’t. Many people can function just fine in the week, but continue to go on benders each weekend. But eventually this will lead to one person – the one not taking drugs or drinking to excess – who assumes the role of caretaker. They’ll be looking after the home, the kids or just the other person while they're on a comedown, and that will lead to an imbalance and, in turn, an unhealthy, codependent relationship. While a relationship can function in this state, it probably won't ever be the best that it can be."

While there can be disparities in drug taking within relationships, it seems that, mostly, people will gravitate towards a similar level of drug-taking or drinking if a relationship is to work and be a happy one. That may include abstaining from drugs and booze completely, or developing a shared love of a Friday night gram of coke.

Looking back on my 20-year-old self, I now feel a certain amount of sympathy for the girl who let her boyfriend prioritise coke and put her in danger along the way. I was once willing to snort sympathy lines of cocaine or take too many pills to make my relationships work. They can be a fun sideline to a relationship, but if drugs dominate and define it, it's a sure sign to get out.