Heavy drinking is bad for a marriage if one spouse drinks, but not both, according to a new long-term study.
Researchers followed 634 couples from the time of their weddings through the first nine years of marriage and found that couples where only one spouse was a heavy drinker had a much higher divorce rate than other couples.
But if both spouses were heavy drinkers, the divorce rate was the same as for couples where neither were heavy drinkers. “Heavy drinking” was defined as drinking six or more drinks at one time or drinking to intoxication.
“Our results indicate that it is the difference between the couple’s drinking habits, rather than the drinking itself, that leads to marital dissatisfaction, separation, and divorce,” says Kenneth Leonard, director of the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions and lead author of the study.
Over the course of the nine-year study, which will appear in the December issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, nearly 50 percent of couples where only one partner drank more heavily wound up divorcing, while the divorce rates for other couples was only 30 percent.
“This research provides solid evidence to bolster the commonplace notion that heavy drinking by one partner can lead to divorce,” Leonard says. “Although some people might think that’s a likely outcome, there was surprisingly little data to back up that claim until now.”
The surprising outcome was that the divorce rate for two heavy drinkers was no worse than for two non-heavy drinkers. “Heavy drinking spouses may be more tolerant of negative experiences related to alcohol due to their own drinking habits,” Leonard says. But he cautioned that this does not mean other aspects of family life are unimpaired. “While two heavy drinkers may not divorce, they may create a particularly bad climate for their children.”
The researchers also found a slightly higher divorce rate in cases when the heavy drinker was the wife, rather than the husband. Leonard cautions that this difference is based on only a few couples in which the wife was a heavy drinker, but the husband was not, and that the finding was not statistically significant. He suggests that if this difference is supported by further research, it might be because men view heavy drinking by their wives as going against proper gender roles for women, leading to more conflict.
The study controlled for factors such as marijuana and tobacco use, depression, and socioeconomic status, which can also be related to marital dissatisfaction, separation, and divorce.
“Ultimately, we hope our findings will be helpful to marriage therapists and mental health practitioners who can explore whether a difference in drinking habits is causing conflicts between couples seeking help,” Leonard says.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism supported the study.
Source: University at Buffalo