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.

As for men and drinking, Reczek said studies show that marriage provides social control. "We know that women try to essentially shape their husband's health habits in general and their alcohol use. They may try to get them to stop drinking as heavily. And men who get married often stop hanging around single friends who drink." Divorce, she noted, is a "huge stressor, and one of the ways men cope with stress is through alcohol use."

After a divorce, men in the study talked about going back into social networks that were drinking networks, but divorced women did not report the same thing, Reczek said. "That's something for future research."

A number of studies have looked at different aspects of how alcohol and marriage intersect. Last year, research from the University of Indiana linked alcoholism (not just use) to delay in marrying and whether the marriage lasted. They found that when someone in a marriage was dependent on alcohol, the chance the marriage would endure dropped. Never-married males dependent on alcohol were 36 percent less likely to marry, while alcoholic women were 23 percent less likely to wed. Those who wed were twice as likely to separate, compared to nonalcoholics.

"Young adults who drink alcohol may want to consider the longer-term consequences for marriage," lead researcher Mary Waldron, assistant professor at Indiana University School of Education, told Fox News about that study. "If drinking continues or increases to levels of problem use, the likelihood of marriage, or of having a lasting marriage, may decrease."

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