In Brief

A new study finds that heavy drinking, in itself, doesn't predict a greater chance of dissatisfaction developing in a marriage.

Rather, it's whether there's a discrepancy between how much each spouse drinks, such that if one member of a couple drinks heavily and the other doesn't, dissatisfaction will more likely develop over time.

That's according to a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology(Vol. 75, No.1, pages 43-51).

Lead researcher Gregory Homish, PhD, at the Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, is following the progress of 634 couples who married between 1996 and 1999.

Couples filled out questionnaires detailing their individual drinking habits in the year prior to marriage, followed by follow-up questionnaires at their first and second wedding anniversaries. On the questionnaire, heavy drinking was defined as the maximum of two responses--frequency of consuming six or more drinks on one occasion, or the frequency of intoxication in the past year.

In addition to questions about drinking, couples completed the Marital Adjustment Test (MAT) to assess how happy they were with their marriage at their first and second anniversary. Comparing measures of drinking with the results of the MAT, Homish found the greater the discrepancy in drinking, the greater the decline in marriage satisfaction. Differences in drinking might indicate larger disagreements within a marriage, he says.

That finding has implications for how best to treat people for alcoholism, says Homish. For instance, helping only one person in a marriage stop drinking, when both husband and wife have been drinking heavily, might end up putting the marriage in peril. The better approach might be treating both husband and wife concurrently, he says.

"Treating only one isn't going to help the overall relationship, so it's important to draw both into the treatment process," Homish says.

In continuing research funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health and awarded to Kenneth Leonard, PhD, Homish and Leonard plan to look at how discrepancies in drinking patterns relate to separation, divorce and domestic violence among the study's remaining participants.

-C. Munsey