The Romance of a Good Smoke
The stories Rohrbaugh's team has heard so far from couples (whose names have been changed here) in the university-funded pilot study bear out their hunches.
There's Mary, a long-term smoker, who says she heads to the back porch, cigarettes in hand, when she wants to be alone. Her solo smoking is a clear signal to her partner that she needs her space.
There's Joe and Evelyn, who light up every morning, sitting in the garage on their favorite lawn chairs. It's their time to talk, Evelyn says, adding, "If we didn't smoke in the garage, I doubt we'd talk much -- and he wouldn't even miss me."
And there's Ann, who says she talks better when she has a cigarette in her hand. She always smokes when she and her husband, Harry, argue. When Rohrbaugh's team observed this couple in the lab, using one-way mirrors, the couple spoke more softly to each other, and more intimately, when they were smoking.
How the program begins
In the first of 10 counseling sessions, spread over three to six months, the team assesses how, and to what extent, smoking fits into a couple's relationship. Is smoking seen as an ally, an invader, or both?
Drawing on medical literature that has studied problem drinkers and how they interact in an intimate relationship, Rohrbaugh's team notes that researchers find drinking can be "a kind of lubricant that promotes positive relationship stability, at least in the short run." Smoking, he says, sometimes serves the same function.
The relationship dynamics are different, the Arizona researchers have found, if only one partner smokes. With two smokers, they have found, smoking serves functions not just for the individual (stress reduction, boredom relief) but can be "the glue that holds the relationship together."
When both partners smoke, Rohrbaugh has found, they can have a mentality of "It's us against the world," especially as fewer Americans smoke. About 28% of the U.S. population, age 12 and older, smoked in 1998, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
On the other hand, when just one partner smokes, the habit can become a source of tension, with the nonsmoker nagging the other to quit, and the smoker defiantly refusing.