Couples that drink together, stay together

Couples where only one member drank heavily had a 50 per cent divorce rate; for couples where both drank heavily or neither did this rate fell to 30 per cent

Researchers from the University of Buffalo have studied 634 couples through their first nine years of marriage, finding that the divorce rate was significantly higher when only one person in each couple was a heavy drinker.

Surprisingly, if both partners drank equally heavy than their chances of splitting up were no higher than couples that didn’t drink at all.

“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.

The researchers found that during the nine year study, couples where only one member drank heavily got divorced 50 per cent of the time. By comparison, the rate of separation for all other couples (when both partners drank, or did not drink, equal amounts) was 30 per cent.  

“Heavy drinking spouses may be more tolerant of negative experiences related to alcohol due to their own drinking habits,” said Leonard.

 Although he also noted that whilst heavy drinkers stayed together, their drinking would certainly affect other aspects of family life: “While two heavy drinkers may not divorce, they may create a particularly bad climate for their children.”

For the purpose of the study “heavy drinking” was defined as drinking more than six drinks in a night or drinking until intoxicated. The study, which was co-authored by Gregory Homish and Philip Smith, two PhD students from the university, also took into account other factors that could have affected the marriages, including substance abuse and depression.

The researchers also found that divorce rates were slightly higher when the sole heavy drinker was a woman, but that there was not enough evidence to constitute a significant finding. Leonard suggested that this might be because heavy drinking by women goes against perceived gender roles, and therefore might lead to more conflict.

The findings will appear in the December issue of the Pscyhology journal and was supported by the US’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Leonard hopes that the study 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.”

“This research provides solid evidence to bolster the commonplace notion that heavy drinking by one partner can lead to divorce,” he said. “Although some people might think that’s a likely outcome, there was surprisingly little data to back up that claim until now.”

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