Study led by School of Education professor links alcoholism to delay and survival of marriage

Mary Waldron

Mary WaldronWaldron said the study is one of the first to examine relationships between alcoholism and both marital onset and survival.

“There hasn’t been a great deal of research looking at the effects of alcohol involvement on timing of various marital transitions — getting married or separating from marriage,” she said. Waldron said the existing research suggests alcohol and other substance use are linked to couples marrying early or couples living together at an early age, but rarely has examined adults over age 29. “We believe that our study is one of the first to examine marital timing across the lifespan as a function of alcohol dependence.”

Waldron and her partners in the study used data from 5,000 Australian twins between ages 28 and 92, first assessed in the 1980s and later interviewed in the early 90s. The researchers assessed physical and psychological manifestations of alcohol use, including when alcohol dependence began, ages when each first got married and if he or she separated from marriage. Waldron said the dataset of twins also allowed for “genetically-informed” analyses, to examine genetic influences underlying alcoholism-marital timing associations.

The study found that alcoholism may have a profound impact on marriages for both men and women. Alcohol dependence was associated with a 36 percent decreased likelihood of first marriage for men, and a 23 percent decrease for women. And when alcoholics married, they were more than twice as likely to experience separation, compared with nonalcoholics.

“It’s just another striking example of the social consequences of alcoholism, that alcoholism impacts not only the alcoholic,” Waldron said. Waldron has written about alcohol and substance abuse and its impact on children and adolescents. She said this study provides a larger context for how it impacts families and society. “I’m interested in consequences for offspring of alcoholics,” she said. “And so when you look at children of alcoholics, you really need to pay attention to marital variables — not only separation, which we know is highly correlated with alcoholism, but also when their parents are getting married.”

Another message of the finding, Waldron said, is the potential impact on young adults who hope to one day to marry. She said this suggests that if problem drinking continues, the likelihood of having a lasting marriage or marriage at all is greatly reduced.

“Really, the consequences of alcoholism for relationships begin even before the relationship starts,” Waldron said.

The complete study is available online at

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. Co-authors of the ACER paper, “Alcoholic Marriage: Later Start, Sooner End,” were Andrew C. Heath, Michael T. Lynskey, Kathleen K. Bucholz and Pamela A. F. Madden from the Midwest Alcoholism Research Center in the Department of Psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine, along with Nicholas G. Martin from the Genetic Epidemiology Unit at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).