Marriage May Protect From Drinking Too Much

Megan Brooks

August 18, 2016

People who are single drink alcohol more often and in larger quantities than people who are married or are living with someone else, a new study finds. However, once a relationship is over, people may be more apt to drink more heavily but not necessarily more often.

"It seems that intimate relationships may provide a real benefit in terms of drinking behavior, maybe through mechanisms such as a monitoring effect that partners have on each other," lead investigator Diana Dinescu, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said in a statement.

"There has been a rise in marriage promotion and advocacy in recent years, and our findings that committed relationships may make a causal contribution to protecting against potentially harmful behaviors highlight the critical public health implications of these efforts," Dinescu told Medscape Medical News.

"Clinically, treatment interventions already consist of screening and treating based on people's known risk factors, and our findings are a potential first step toward individualizing interventions based on the availability of a committed relationship," she said.

Novel Twin Study

Prior studies using random samples of adults have shown that married people drink less than single or divorced people. Dinescu and her colleagues used a sample of 2425 same-sex twin pairs to see whether these findings held up among people who shared genetic and familial backgrounds.

Using twin data "allows us to eliminate entire classes of alternate explanations for our findings," Dinescu explained. "We can rule out factors such as genetic influences, upbringing, parental, childhood SES [socioeconomic status], and others and come closer to a causal interpretation of the data than correlational studies.

"Additionally, we are differentiating between drinking frequency and quantity, which has not been done before in this context/design. Lastly, we are including a group of cohabiting individuals, which is very important in the current social context, where cohabitation is at least a very common step towards marriage, if not an alternative to it," said Dinescu.

The sample included 1618 female pairs and 807 male pairs from the Washington State Twin Registry, a database of twins who participate in health and behavior research. For the current study, the participants stated whether they were married, divorced, widowed, separated, never married, or living with a partner, and they provided information on how much and how often they drank.

The results, published online in the Journal of Family Psychology, suggest that married co-twins consume less alcohol than their single or divorced co-twins and drink less often than their single co-twins. Cohabiting twins, like their married peers, also drink less alcohol than single or divorced twins.

The data also show that cohabiting twins generally drink more often than married men and women but less often than their single, widowed, or divorced counterparts. Cohabiting men have fewer drinks per sitting than married men. Cohabiting women drink about the same in one sitting as their married counterparts.

Once a steady relationship is over, both men and women tend to increase the amount they drink, but not how often, the study suggests.

"As for quantifying the measures, unfortunately, the way the data were coded makes it very hard to figure out exact numbers of drinks or occasions," Dinescu said. "I'd say a reasonable assumption would be that married/cohabiting individuals drink on average one less drink per occasion and one less night per week than their single/divorced counterparts. But again, it's impossible to tell from the data because the measures were not coded in that manner."

This study is "interesting," Kenneth Leonard, PhD, director, Research Institute on Addictions, State University of New York at Buffalo, told Medscape Medical News.

"Although the evidence that marriage, and engagement as well, initiate changes in heavy drinking is quite strong and consistent, this paper rules out differences in the drinking of married and single individuals is due to some set of genetic characteristics that cause some people to both remain single and drink heavily," said Dr Leonard, who was not involved in the study.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute on Aging. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

J Fam Psychol. Published online June 23, 2016. Abstract

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