Heavy drinking, ‘incompatible’ drinking tied to divorce, study says

Couples who drink about the same amount of alcohol were less likely to divorce in a study of nearly 20,000 Norwegian couples that was released Tuesday.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s something to ponder if and when you and your spouse make your Valentine’s Day toasts this year: when it comes to drinking — as in so many other facets of marriage — compatibility may be key to keeping couples together.

Researchers reviewing data collected from 19,977 married couples in one county in Norway reported that spouses who consume about the same amount of alcohol were less likely to divorce than pairs where one partner is a heavy drinker and the other is not — especially when the wife is the one doing the drinking.

By reviewing such a large data set, the team, which reported its findings (abstract here, subscription required for full text)Tuesday in the online edition of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, were able to tease out some of the alcohol-related dynamics within couples that lead to marriage dissolution.


They found that divorce was generally more common in couples with high rates of alcohol consumption, but that the highest divorce rates were found in couples where only the woman was a heavy drinker. Among couples where the wife reported being a heavy drinker (a measure that including admission of an indication of “hazardous drinking”) and the husband a light drinker, the divorce rate was 26.8%; when the positions were switched and the husband was the heavy drinker, the divorce rate was 13.1%.

In couples where both members were heavy drinkers, the divorce rate was 17.2%.

Norwegian Institute of Public Health researcher Fartein Ask Torvik, the lead author of the study, speculated that drinking in women upended marriages for a couple of reasons. One reason, he noted in a statement, is that women seem to be affected more strongly by alcohol than men are — so their drinking could impair them, and add risk in a marriage, more than a man’s heavy drinking might. The team also wrote that drinking “may be judged as incompatible with female roles,” and thus a particular threat to marital stability.

It was “of major interest” that a woman’s drinking more than her husband does seemed to strongly predict divorce, said his colleague Norwegian Institute of Public Health director Ellinor F. Major, who was not listed as a study co-author.

“Couples who intend to marry should be aware of the drinking pattern of their partner, since it may become a problem in the future,” she said in the statement.

The best approach might be for husbands and wives to strive for matching amounts of light or moderate drinking, she said.

Couples in the study who both reported being light drinkers divorced just 5.8% of the time.