Most people prefer partners like themselves – and this is especially true when it comes to drinking habits. Previous studies have shown that heavy alcohol use increases the risk of divorce and represents the third most important reason for a break-up, after infidelity and personality differences. However, there have been few studies with data on the drinking habits of both spouses over time. It has therefore been unknown what role differences in alcohol consumption plays for divorce.
In this study, researchers studied alcohol consumption and the risk of divorce in 19 977 married couples over a period of 15 years.
The study finds that:
- In general, the more you drink, the higher the risk of divorce.
- It is worst if the wife drinks most: Married couples where the wife drank a lot compared to her husband had the greatest risk of divorce – about 3 times higher than married couples where both had low consumption.
- Similarity in alcohol consumption is associated with lower divorce rate: Couples in which both husband and wife abstained, and couples in which both drank a lot, had lower divorce rate compared to partners with different drinking patterns.
- Two spouses with high consumption still had a higher risk of divorce than two spouses with low consumption.
- Marriage with two abstainers had the lowest risk of divorce.
Birds of a feather flock together
“The interesting thing about this study is that it shows that both the level and the similarity in alcohol use is important for the relationship”, says Fartein Ask Torvik at the Division of Mental Health, who is first author of the study.
“One might think that relationship problems increase when both drink a lot, and that the risk of divorce would therefore be highest in that group. However, it appears to be protective if both partners drink about the same amount, probably because it makes them more compatible together. It is possible that two people who both drink a lot have a greater understanding of each other’s situation and drinking habits”, says Torvik.
Unusual for women to drink excessively
“The divorce rate was highest among couples in which the woman drank a lot compared to the man. There are several possible explanations for this. In general, women are more affected by drinking than men are. In addition, it is probably less socially acceptable for women to drink a lot, because it interferes with female roles in family life. It is also more noticeable when women drink, because we are more used to men drinking more”, says Torvik.
More about the study
All residents over 20 years old of the Nord Trøndelag County were invited to participate in the Health Survey of Nord-Trøndelag (1984-1986). Participants gave information about their alcohol use and were followed over time. Time-to-event analysis (Cox regression) was used to study the divorce risk. Analyses were controlled for demographic factors and psychological distress. A weakness of the study is that it was not possible to see which partner initiated the breakup. The results are not controlled for personality. Nevertheless, the study indicates that in future research, and when trying to treat alcohol-related problems, it is important to consider the habits of both partners.
Fartein Ask Torvik, Espen Røysamb, Kristin Gustavson, Mariann Idstad, & Kristian Tambs (2013). “Discordant and Concordant Alcohol Use in Spouses as Predictor of Marital Dissolution in the General Population: Results from the Hunt Study” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, DOI: 10.1111/acer.12029
- Norwegian Institute of Public Health, PO Box 4404 Nydalen, N-0403 Oslo