Alcohol Abuse Linked to Higher Divorce Rate

People who abuse alcohol have a tendency to experience problems with their intimate relationships. Among married individuals, these disruptions may lead to divorce.

In a study published in May 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the University of Michigan used information from a nationwide endeavor called the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) to compare the divorce rates for people with diagnosable alcohol use disorder to the divorce rates for people unaffected by this condition. The researchers also looked at some of the underlying factors that can increase or decrease the odds of going through a divorce.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Under terms established by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use disorder is defined by the presence of at least two out of 11 potential symptoms that indicate a damaging, non-addicted relationship to alcohol consumption and/or physical alcohol dependence and alcoholism. Creation of this definition represents a fundamental alteration of the long-held belief that the symptoms of non-addicted abuse constitute a separate issue from the symptoms of alcoholism.

Findings strongly indicate that no such distinct division exists, and any given person affected by alcohol dependence can easily have other symptoms usually linked to alcohol abuse (or vice versa).

Instead of focusing their attention solely on the specific types of alcohol-related issues present, doctors group abuse and addiction symptoms together and use a total count of these symptoms to determine the severity of each case of alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol and its Effects on Relationships

Most people who drink alcohol keep their consumption levels in a low or moderate range on most occasions.

However, even people who drink moderately most of the time may sometimes drink heavily; in addition, some individuals regularly consume alcohol in heavy or excessive amounts.

Generally speaking, the more alcohol you regularly consume, the greater your chances for experiencing problems related to your intake pattern. Some people who have alcohol-related problems don’t have alcohol dependence, while others do.

In either case, the consequences of periodic or ongoing excessive drinking can easily include a deterioration of intimate relationships between married or unmarried individuals. Specific manifestations of such deterioration may include arguments, serious financial problems, acts of infidelity and acts of violence.

Alcohol’s Impact on Divorce Rates

In the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs study mentioned earlier, the University of Michigan researchers used information from 17,192 participants in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) to compare the divorce rates of people affected by alcohol use disorder to the divorce rates of people unaffected by serious alcohol-related issues. The NESARC involved two separate phases or waves conducted three years apart.

Overall, the researchers concluded, nearly half (48.3%) of the study participants with a past or present case of alcohol use disorder got divorced at some point in their lives. Between the first and second waves of the survey, the divorce rate for these individuals was 15.5%. By comparison, only 30% of the participants unaffected by alcohol use disorder had gone through a divorce. Between the first and second waves of NESARC, these individuals had a divorce rate of just 4.8%.

In addition to receiving an alcohol use disorder diagnosis in the year prior to the first wave of the survey, the researchers identified a number of risk factors for getting divorced by the time of the survey’s second wave. These factors included:

  • Getting married at a relatively advanced age
  • having a life marked by significantly stressful experiences
  • Being in a marriage with someone affected by serious alcohol problems
  • Having some other diagnosable problem with substance use (including tobacco use)
  • And having a previous history of marriage

The study’s authors concluded that alcohol use disorder and the presence of disruptive life stress act as indicators for increased odds of later going through a divorce. This holds true even when other potential divorce factors — including additional problems with substance abuse/addiction and mental illnesses called personality disorders, anxiety disorders and mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder) — are taken into account. In addition, they concluded that the gender of a person with an alcohol use disorder diagnosis has no bearing on his or her chance of getting a divorce.

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