RIA expert Summary

RIA Reaching Others: Does Drinking Affect Marriage?

Published October 13, 2014

Alcohol use is common among married couples in the United States. Both husbands and wives regularly drink alcohol (i.e., at least once per month or more) in roughly half of all couples. 

Only a quarter of all couples do not drink regularly, while another quarter of those surveyed have a husband who drinks regularly while the wife does not. In a significant example of gender differences, only 5 percent of U.S. couples have a wife who drinks regularly and a husband who does not.

Heavy alcohol consumption—defined as 14 drinks per week or more for men and 10 for women—is less common among married couples. In 4 percent of married couples both partners drink heavily, while in 79 percent of couples neither partner is a heavy drinker. Again, there are gender differences, with 12 percent of couples having only a husband who drinks heavily, compared to just 5 percent where only the wife is a heavy drinker.

What are the consequences?

In many cases, people can drink moderate amounts of alcohol with relatively few negative consequences. However, heavier alcohol use can affect marriage in many adverse ways.

  • Heavy drinking, alcohol problems and alcohol use disorders are all associated with lower marital satisfaction. This association is somewhat stronger when the husband is the problem drinker but is still apparent when the wife is the problem drinker.
  • Alcohol use (by the perpetrator and/or the victim) is a contributing factor in domestic violence and aggression, both physical and psychological.
  • Alcohol and substance use are among the most common reasons given for a divorce—the third most common reason for women and eighth most common for men. It is also one of the most common reasons given for seeking marriage counseling.
  • Couples in which one spouse has an alcohol use disorder (usually alcohol dependence) experience more negative interactions and fewer positive interactions than couples in which neither spouse has an alcohol disorder.

The difference in drinking can make all the difference

When there is a large discrepancy in the amount of alcohol each spouse drinks, the consequences of heavy alcohol use can be at their most severe. On the other hand, some research indicates that spouses who drink together at similar amounts may not experience as many negative consequences. The findings show:

  • Couples in which both spouses use alcohol heavily report higher marital satisfaction than couples in which one spouse uses alcohol heavily and the other does not.
  • Couples in which both spouses have an alcohol use disorder experience more positive interactions and a greater ratio of positive to negative interactions than couples in which only one partner is an alcoholic.
  • Couples in which both spouses use alcohol heavily are less likely to divorce than those where one spouse uses alcohol heavily and the other does not.

It is likely that couples in which both spouses drink heavily may be more likely to drink together as a recreational activity, thus accounting for more positive interactions. Indeed, couples in which spouses drink similar amounts but do not drink together do not experience the same relationship benefits as couples in which spouses drink together.

But what about the kids?

It is important to note that these results speak to the consequences for alcohol use on the marriage. Although couples who drink heavily together experience fewer relationship problems than couples in which only one spouse drinks heavily, results are different for their children. Children experience worse outcomes when both their parents are heavy drinkers than when only one parent is.

Couples in which both spouses use alcohol heavily may experience greater rates of physical aggression, which can negatively affect children. When both spouses drink heavily or both spouses report greater alcohol dependence, couples report the most frequent husband-perpetrated physical aggression. Wife-perpetrated physical aggression is more frequent when either spouse is more dependent and is not reduced if both spouses are dependent.

Recent RIA research on marriage and drinking

The UB Research Institute on Addictions has conducted groundbreaking research on alcohol use and its consequences for more than 40 years. Recent findings include:

  • When people drink with their partner (vs. apart from their partner) on a particular day, they experience more positive and less negative relationship functioning the next day. This is particularly true in cases when men believe that alcohol enhances social functioning or when women believe that alcohol increases intimacy in their relationship.1
  • Verbal aggression is up to two times more likely to occur if alcohol has been consumed in the previous four hours by either the perpetrator or the victim than if it has not, and physical aggression is three to four times more likely if alcohol has been consumed by the perpetrator and twice as likely if alcohol has been consumed by the victim.2
  • Over the course of nine years, nearly 50 percent of couples with a discrepant drinking pattern (only one partner drinks heavily) divorced, whereas only 30 percent of couples who drank at similar amounts (neither or both partners were heavy drinkers) divorced in this time.3

1 Levitt, Derrick and Testa, 2014
2 Testa and Derrick, 2014
3 Leonard, Smith and Homish, 2013

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