When you’re married, single people exist in a parallel universe. They inhabit a magical wonderland full of late brunches, epic naps, day-long trips to movie theaters and doing whatever else they damn well please. It goes without saying that being married imposes a whole new set of responsibilities and demands on life. For alcoholics, this might be exactly what they need. A new study, conducted by clinical researchers at both Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Sweden’s Lund University, suggests that walking down the aisle might also be an alcoholic’s very first steps toward living a sober life. The survey findings indicate that married people are far less likely to have drinking problems than single people. If it’s true, the connection could ring more than wedding bells—it could ring in a brand-new era for addiction treatment.
Put a Ring on It
As Medical Daily notes, evidence already shows “people with a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to face troubles such as financial problems, drug abuse, and alcoholism that could impact their marriages.” Yet, according to the VCU study, it’s marriage itself that has a profound impact on those very same factors. In fact, researchers credit marriage for curbing potential drinking problems, as it demonstrates “how marriage can lead to safer drinking habits, similar to the protective effect the 12-step program and sponsors have in Alcoholics Anonymous.” Put another way: marriage can provide a protective bubble for alcoholics and addicts alike.
The study pored over demographic data from over 3 million people born in Sweden between 1960 and 1990. Among the three decades’ worth of data were “more than 70,000 [people]with drinking problems”—roughly, 2% of the population studied. According to Dr. Kenneth Kendler, the study’s head researcher, their findings simply confirmed what researchers suspected about the strong social influence of marriage on alcoholism. “While clinicians have long been aware of the potentially important protective effects of marriage on alcohol problems, our study puts this observation on a firm scientific footing,” Kendler was quoted in a recent HealthDay News article. Still, it’s one thing to put numbers around suspicions—it’s an altogether different challenge to make them tell a story.
The study doesn’t definitively prove that there’s a link between marriage and lower drinking rates, but it certainly makes a convincing case that one exists. “[The study’s findings] strongly suggest that marriage does indeed directly and substantially reduce risk for onset of alcohol use disorder,” Dr. Kendler said. “It is also especially intriguing that this effect is largest in those at highest risk.” If Kendler is right, it means that the people who need “rescuing” the most will find salvation in matrimony. The study found that married men were 60% less likely to have a drinking problem than single men, while 71% of married women were, too. While these are eye-opening statistics, marriage isn’t a cure-all for alcoholism. In other words, drinkers probably shouldn’t start racing to wedding chapels or booking gift registries at Bed Bath & Beyond. One of the first “protective effects” of marriage is that “married people tend to monitor their spouses’ health and influence their lifestyle habits,” according to the HealthDay News articles.
A separate study by Arizona State University and the University of Missouri did, however, reveal that married folks with severe drinking problems dramatically changed their behaviors. “Confirming our prediction, we found that marriage not only led to reductions in heavy drinking in general, this effect was much stronger for those who were severe problem drinkers before getting married,” said one of the study’s key researchers. “We believe that greater problem drinking likely conflicts more with the demands of roles like marriage; thus, more severe problem drinkers are likely required to more substantially alter their drinking habits to adapt to the marital role.” Marriage doesn’t flip a light switch on drinking behaviors—it just offers better conditions for a sober life.
The HealthDay News article, however, cautions that in some cases, marriage can have the complete opposite effect: “Men and women married to a spouse with a history of alcoholism were more likely to have drinking problems.” In some ways, it comes down to the power of a significant other—for better or for worse. Not all significant others are great. I mean, I dated someone who steered me away from REM and Radiohead, straight into the siren songs of Sarah McLachlan, which dashed me on the rocks of a Lilith Fair in 1997. It also explains a number of awkward dinner parties I’ve been to, hosted by married alcoholics, where actual food never gets served.
Can You “Grow Out” Of Alcoholism?
Marriage is just more than a padded room for alcoholics—it has an actual psychological impact on the two people in it. The ASU/UM study suggests that it’s not simply marriage, but adulthood, that might be responsible for sharp declines in drinking. Otherwise called “maturing out,” people tend to drop unhealthy behaviors, such as drug use and problem drinking, when adulthood kicks in. “A key conceptual framework psychologists use to explain maturing out and the ‘marriage effect’ is role-incompatibility theory,” said one scientist from the University of Missouri. “The theory suggests that if a person’s existing behavioral pattern is conflicting with the demands of a new role, such as marriage, one way to resolve the incompatibility is to change behavior. [This] may be greater for more severe drinkers, so they’ll need to make greater changes to their drinking to meet the role demands of marriage.” Not everyone succeeds here, though. I have to admit that my drinking really ramped up after getting married, which only proves that I’m generally incapable of growing up.
Studies like this go a long way of isolating the root causes of problem drinking. The researchers from the ASU/UM study believe their findings “…could help improve clinical efforts to help…people, inform public health policy changes and lead to more targeted interventions for young adult problem drinkers.” Rather than having physicians write prescriptions for wedded bliss, they could zero in on problem drinking before it even starts. Still, marriage seems to yield uncommonly strong results when it comes to drinking. For now, some people are clearly exchanging more than just wedding vows—they’re exchanging a bleak present for a far brighter future.