This story was originally published on February 27, 2017.
Waking up and realizing you got in a drunken fight with your partner can feel worse than the physical wrath of taking dozens of tequila shots. There's the reminders that you said something really out of line, the feeble attempts to take back what you said, and the guilt of knowing that you really didn't mean to sob and yell at your loved one on the sidewalk in front of all your friends.
Not familiar with this? Bless you. Perhaps you've heard of "Tequila Katie," the drunken doppelganger of Katie Maloney-Schwartz on Vanderpump Rules? Many blowout fights have stemmed from Tequila Katie doing something dark — like sending angry texts to her then-fiancé or rubbing frosting in her frenemy's face — while she was lit up from drinking tequila.
Why do we do this? "When a lot of alcohol is consumed, your brain is flooded with dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our emotional response," says Kristin Wilson, a licensed professional counselor and National Director of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy, a teen treatment center. And if there's too much dopamine, your stress, fear, and anxiety responses become blocked and you do whatever you damn want, like get into fights with your loved ones. "Oftentimes, we use alcohol as an excuse for bad behavior, but this provides little comfort when a partner feels hurt by your drunk actions," she says.
This gets dangerous if it becomes a pattern: "If you need alcohol to speak your truth, there may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed," she says. If these sort of intoxicated battles become a theme in your relationship, Wilson says you might want to seek professional help. Here are a few ways to deal with the aftermath of one drunken fight.
Figure out what actually happened.
Don't put too much weight in your fragmented memory or subtle clues when piecing together what happened, Wilson says. "The best thing you can do is be honest with your partner, and talk with them about how you feel about not being able to remember what happened," she says. One study found that most people rely on their friends to fill in the blanks after blacking out, which ends up leaving them with unreliable sources and false memories. It's also important to listen to how your partner feels about the argument you had, not just what they say happened.
Strip the fight down to its actual content.
The adage, "drunken words are sober thoughts," is really only half true. "Studies have emerged to show that alcohol doesn't keep us blind to what we're doing or saying, but it rather inhibits our ability to care about the impact of our behaviors on others," Wilson says. And underlying issues that you have as a couple can be exacerbated when you're intoxicated, she says. In other words, even though you spiraled after seeing your partner talk to someone else at the bar (and you wouldn't have brought it up sober), you shouldn't ignore the fact that it made you upset. "Blaming alcohol for the cause of your fights is an oversimplification of the problem," she says. Notice if there's an underlying theme to your arguments, and talk to your partner when you're sober about how you can tackle those issues.
Resist the temptation to roll over in bed and spew out apologies when you're still drunk, because oftentimes you're not fully prepared to take the blame for your actions yet, so this can backfire into an even more emotional dispute. "Apologize to your partner when you're both sober and you feel ready to take accountability for your actions," Wilson says. Alcohol breeds guilty feelings, too, so that can screw with how you view what actually happened and whether or not it warrants an apology. "If you apologize sincerely for your actions, and your partner isn’t ready to accept it, don’t insist on immediate forgiveness," she says. Your partner might need some time and space to cool off, so the best you can do is offer up a listening ear, be patient, and respect your partner's feelings when they are ready to talk, she says.
Ultimately, what you said and the way you said it was probably a mistake. But beating yourself up about it won't help you take steps to remedy the situation so you and your partner can forgive each other. After apologizing and making peace with your significant other, try your best to let the incident go and move on.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.