"Confirming our prediction, we found that marriage not only led to reductions in heavy drinking in general, this effect was much stronger for those who were severe problem drinkers before getting married,"says Matthew Lee. (Credit: iStockphoto)

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Drinking problems dry up when couples say ‘I do’

Marriage can lead to a dramatic decrease in drinking among young adults—even those who have a severe drinking problem.

Researchers have known that alcohol-use disorders tend to decrease as we age. Also called, “maturing out,” these changes generally begin during young adulthood and are partially caused by the roles we take on as we become adults.

The new findings may improve clinical efforts to help young people, inform public health policy changes, and lead to more targeted interventions for problem drinkers.

The ‘marriage effect’

“A key conceptual framework psychologists use to explain maturing out and the ‘marriage effect’ is role-incompatibility theory,” says Matthew Lee, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychological sciences department at University of Missouri.

“The theory suggests that if a person’s existing behavioral pattern is conflicting with the demands of a new role, such as marriage, one way to resolve the incompatibility is to change behavior. We hypothesized that this incompatibility may be greater for more severe drinkers, so they’ll need to make greater changes to their drinking to meet the role demands of marriage.”

For the study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers used previously collected data from a long-term, ongoing study of familial alcohol disorders.
They examined how the drinking rates of the participants changed as they aged from age 18 to 40, and how this change was affected by whether or not participants became married. About 50 percent of the participants included in the study of familial alcoholism were children of alcoholics.

Role incompatibility theory

“Confirming our prediction, we found that marriage not only led to reductions in heavy drinking in general, this effect was much stronger for those who were severe problem drinkers before getting married,” Lee says.

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“This seems consistent with role incompatibility theory. We believe that greater problem drinking likely conflicts more with the demands of roles like marriage; thus, more severe problem drinkers are likely required to more substantially alter their drinking habits to adapt to the marital role.”

Further studies are needed to better understanding how these role-driven drinking reductions occur. Researchers say this could uncover key insights into the nature of clinically significant forms of problem drinking and inform public policy and clinical efforts to help severe problem drinkers.

Researchers from Arizona State University are coauthors of the study. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute of Mental Health funded the work.

Source: University of Missouri

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