Reefer romance: Marijuana users more likely to misperceive how well their relationships are going

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — If you toke up on a regular basis, it just may lead to a breakup. New research from Rutgers University and Mount Holyoke College finds marijuana users are slower to pick up on potentially problematic dynamics in their romantic relationships. Similarly, cannabis users may perceive their approaches to resolving fights and conflicts in their relationships as being far more effective than they are in reality.

There’s no shortage of scientific research focusing on marijuana, but this is among the first initiatives to examine the influence of cannabis on romantic relationships specifically. Study authors are optimistic that this work may help couples that include at least one member using marijuana.

“We looked at different indicators of relationship functioning: how satisfied and committed people felt about their relationship, their behavior and physiology during a laboratory-based conflict interaction and their perceptions about their conflict discussion and relationship afterward,” says study author Jessica Salvatore, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, in a statement.

Analyzing relationship tension

In all, 145 couples (featuring at least one cannabis user) took part in the study. Each subject was asked how often they use marijuana, and how satisfied they were in their relationship. Each couple was video recorded for a full 10 minutes while discussing a topic they had admitted to researchers was a real source of tension in their relationship. During those chats, the research team measured subjects’ physiological stress responses via both heart rate and respiration.

Next, the couples chatted for five minutes about topics they saw eye to eye on. After those conversations, researcher followed up by asking how they thought the conversations had went and how satisfied they were with their conflict resolution.

The videos were then watched by two sets of trained raters. The clips helped the rating team analyze and assess each relationship partner’s conflict behavior tendencies, such as avoidance (deflecting uncomfortable topics or ignoring areas of disagreement) and negative engagement (demanding changes, criticizing, blaming) according to separate five-point scales.

The next phase of the study entailed bringing in a new set of raters. This team was tasked with assessing how well each couple transitioned out of conflict – regardless of whether a resolution had been reached or not – and move on to discuss more amicable topics and positive relationship aspects. Low scores were doled out when subjects seemed to make no effort to highlight positive aspects of their relationship. Conversely, subjects earned a high score if they actively worked to steer the chats toward more positive relationship topics and/or engaged with their partner’s suggestions and concerns.

Marijuana users more critical of their significant others

Ultimately, those scenarios revealed that subjects using cannabis more often tended to display less parasympathetic withdrawal while talking with their partner. This indicates a reduced ability to respond to stress in a flexible manner. More frequent marijuana users were also more critical and demanding of their partners, tried harder to avoid full-on conflict during chats, and appeared less equipped to let things go and move on to more positive matters.

Interestingly, however, cannabis users seemed largely oblivious to these troubling tendencies. When asked, most marijuana users didn’t think their conflict conversations had gone all that badly, and didn’t perceive themselves as having been demanding or avoidant.

“The assessments by the cannabis users were almost the exact opposite of what independent raters found,” Prof. Salvatore concludes. “However, it is important to note that this study’s findings do not mean that cannabis use is wholesale good or bad for relationships. Rather, it gives insight into how couples can better navigate conflict and come to a resolution. When you don’t see problems, you can’t solve them.”

The study is published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.