BUFFALO, N.Y. – Do drinking and marriage mix? That depends
on who’s doing the drinking — and how much —
according to a recent study by the University at Buffalo Research
Institute on Addictions (RIA).
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.
“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,” said Kenneth Leonard, PhD, RIA director and lead
author of the study.
A video interview with Leonard about the research is available
The study’s co-authors were Gregory Homish, PhD, and
Philip Smith, PhD, of UB’s Department of Community Health and
Over the course of the nine-year study, 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. (“Heavy drinking” was defined as drinking six
or more drinks at one time or drinking to intoxication.)
“This research provides solid evidence to bolster the
commonplace notion that heavy drinking by one partner can lead to
divorce,” Leonard said. “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
said. 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
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
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 said.
The study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol
Abuse and Alcoholism and the findings will appear in the December
issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
RIA is a research center of the University at Buffalo and a
national leader in the study of alcohol and substance abuse issues.
RIA’s research programs, most of which have multiple year
funding, are supported by federal, state and private foundation
grants. Located on UB’s Downtown Campus, RIA is a member of
the dynamic Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and helps promote
UB’s strategic focus on research initiatives.