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Study looks at relationship between marriage, alcohol

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21 2012 6:13 p.m. MDT

Long-term marriage appears to curb men's drinking. But men are more likely to turn to alcohol than women if they get divorced, according to new research being presented this week at the American Sociological Association annual meeting.

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DENVER — Marriage and divorce impact alcohol consumption for men and women, who influence each other's drinking patterns or decision not to drink in different ways, according to research presented this week at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting. Long-term marriage appears to curb men's drinking, but it is associated with slightly higher levels of alcohol use by women, compared with women who are divorced.

Those are among the findings of a longitudinal study on alcohol and relationships by researchers at the University of Cincinnati, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers and University of Texas at Austin.

One of the most interesting questions is why marriage and divorce impact men's alcohol consumption differently than they do women's, said lead researcher Corinne Reczek, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati and lead author.

Using a combination of surveys and in-depth interviews, researchers found that men who are married consume less alcohol than single, divorced and widowed men. The researchers note that the men's wives' lower levels of drinking tend to curb the men's consumption. But men were much more likely to turn to alcohol after a divorce.

In what Reczek called a surprise, the married women surveyed consumed more drinks than long-term divorced or recently widowed women, possibly because they lived with men who drank.

It is not that married women drink at high levels, she explained, but that alcohol consumption declines when women divorce. Reczek said women in the study talked about husbands who introduced them to alcohol when they got married. "They do not drink as much if they are not with a husband who likes to drink. And divorced, they lost the influence of a husband who drank."

In background information for the study, the researchers wrote that "studies consistently show that the married report lower levels of alcohol use than the nonmarried." But those studies never noted differences within marriage status, such as duration or whether a partner was previously married. And none have explained the underpinnings of a connection between marriage and alcohol.

Quantifying the difference

To try to fill those gaps, Reczek said she and colleagues looked at more than 5,000 records from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study to clarify how marital status relates to alcohol use. Then they conducted in-depth interviews with 120 married, divorced, widowed and never-married men and women to look at the social underpinnings of the survey trends.

"Our survey results show that continuously divorced and recently widowed women consume fewer drinks that continuously married women," they wrote. "Our qualitative results suggest this occurs because men introduce and prompt women's drinking and because divorced women lose the influence of men's alcohol use" when the marriage fails.

The researchers counted the number of drinks each subject consumed in a month. And while they did not point to alcohol use as "good" or "bad," the background information noted that its use "significantly contributes to morbidity and mortality across the life course." The link between alcohol and health, they noted, has prompted public health officials to try to reduce overall levels of alcohol consumption and disparities in use across populations. "A significant body of research shows that marriage is one key social factor that promotes lower levels of alcohol use, especially for men."

Men drink more

Researchers found that men consume more drinks than women and a higher percentage of men reported having at least one drinking-related problem. Divorced women were more likely to report having at least one drinking-related problem than women who had long marriages.

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