If you drink too much, your spouse probably does, too

David Heitz

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If you’re an alcoholic you probably are married to one, too, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association hints.

And if you’re not an alcoholic but your spouse is, you have a good chance of becoming one eventually.

And if you’re not having a good time while you drink with your spouse, chances are your marriage will end in divorce.

I guess that’s co-dependence in its most negative form. If you can’t be happy being codependent, the marriage suffers, the research found.

Or put another way, if you’re both not on the same level when it comes to your drinking, problems are sure to ensue.

In a first of its kind study on Swedes, researchers analyzed more than 8,500 husband-wife pairs. They discovered that upon a spouse’s diagnosis of alcoholic use disorder, or AUD, the other spouse’s chances of developing AUD skyrocketed before leveling back off after a couple of years.

“The increase in risk for AUD registration in a married individual following a first AUD registration in the spouse is large and rapid,” the researchers concluded.

The findings appeared in JAMA Psychiatry.

“When an individual with serial spouses is married, in either order, to partners with vs. without an AUD registration, the risk for AUD registration is substantially increased when the partner has an AUD registration and decreased when the partner does not have an AUD registration,” the researchers found.

In other words, if your spouse doesn’t have a drinking problem your chances of developing one, if you haven’t already, are less.

The study included nuptials born between 1960 and 1990. Women were more likely to slide into AUD after their husbands did, rather than the other way around.

Unhappy drinking partners make for strange bedfellows

Nuptials became most vulnerable to alcoholism within the first year of their spouse developing it, the researchers found.

What else happens when one spouse drinks heavily and the other doesn’t, according to the research?

“The chances that this problem produces biases in our findings is reduced by our showing that controlling for AUD registration between marriages had little effect on the predisposing effect of moving from a first spouse without AUD to a second spouse with AUD.”

Translated: The spouse who wants a divorce moves from one drinking spouse to another.

If you’re the non-drinking spouse and want to see your ex-husband fail in his new marriage, he probably will. The “hazard ratio” when he marries another drinker explodes nine-fold. Bad things are bound to happen.

I was hired as a writer once by a chain of rehab centers that caters to couples. I was excited to take on that project because “couples rehab” has been frowned upon by the behavioral health establishment for years.

Heaven forbid we meet the alcoholic or the addict where they are and help them get sober on their own terms.

Don’t misunderstand. Not everyone who is married to an alcoholic becomes one. Alcoholism is driven by genetics and other factors, too.

Concluded the Swedish authors:

“Although genetic and biological factors contribute strongly to the predisposition to alcohol dependence, these findings complement our prior work on marriage and divorce in showing how close social bonds such as marriage can also powerfully influence, for better or worse, the risk for AUD.”

Tips for saving a marriage ravaged by alcohol

You can only save a marriage ravaged by alcohol if one or both partners admits they have a drinking problem. It's true that admitting you are powerless over alcohol is the first step.

Couples counseling can be effective, but only if both partners agree that alcohol is the issue. Lopsided counseling is a waste of money.

If you never see your wife or husband anymore because they're out with their drinking pals, they're married to the bar. Ask yourself if you deserve better.

In the event a marriage becomes so miserable and so distant it's like you're not even married anyway, consider a divorce. Both of you likely will be much happier.

If drinking has only become a minor issue in your relationship, don't let it become a bigger one. Replace nights out drinking with new tradititions that you create with your spouse. Try going to a movie at the cinema instead of dollar beer night at the tavern.

If your partner behaves in ways that embarass or upset you when they're drinking, tell them right away. If they become belligerent, always put the safety of yourself and your children first.

Leave situations at the first sign of violence or uncontrolled anger. Don't let the relationship become abusive beyond language. If it's gone there, that's bad enough.

It's fine for couples to drink together in moderation. Remember, it becomes a problem when it begins to adversely affect your life, be it your spouse's drinking or your own.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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