In the U.S. and throughout much of the world, significant numbers of both married and unmarried people consume alcohol regularly. Most of these individuals drink in light or moderate amounts that don’t generally lead to problems; however, some individuals increase their risks for a range of problems by drinking heavily. In a study published in July 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham assessed the level of impact that a husband or wife has on his or her spouse’s habitual level of alcohol intake.
Moderate Drinking vs. Heavy Drinking
Moderate drinkers keep their habitual alcohol intake within established public health guidelines designed to minimize the risks for exposure to both the short- and long-term dangers of drinking. For men, the upper limit on this type of fairly benign drinking is four standard drinks on a single day and 14 drinks in a single week. Since women are disproportionately affected by alcohol, their upper limit for moderate drinking is three standard drinks on a single day or seven standard drinks in a week. The size of a standard serving of alcohol depends upon the type of alcohol you consume. In contrast to moderate drinkers, heavy drinkers exceed the limits on safe alcohol consumption with some regularity. In doing so, they expose themselves to the short-term dangers associated with legal drunkenness and/or the long-term dangers associated with developing diagnosable symptoms of alcohol abuse or alcoholism (jointly referred to as alcohol use disorder). The odds of being diagnosed with alcohol abuse/alcoholism increase steadily as participation in heavy drinking rises from a low of once a month to a maximum of twice or more per week. Once-monthly episodes of excessive consumption create a roughly one-in-five chance of developing alcohol use disorder, while once-weekly episodes create a roughly one-in-three chance. Heavy drinking episodes that occur at least twice a week create a one-in-two chance for an eventual alcohol use disorder diagnosis.
Alcohol and Relationships
Habitual, excessive alcohol consumption is linked to a number of serious problems within relationships between married individuals, as well as between partners who are not married. Specific problems linked to heavy drinking by one or both partners in a relationship include intimate partner violence (also known as domestic violence), nonviolent forms of marital discord, loss of a firm financial base, acts of marital infidelity, strained or jealous interactions between wives or partners and increasing risks for divorce. While heavy drinking can function as the source of these and other issues, it can also make issues stemming from other sources considerably worse. Dysfunctional alcohol use commonly plays a role in marital problems severe enough to require outside intervention from medical professionals or law enforcement authorities.
How Much Influence?
In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers used information gathered over a 10-year timeframe from 489 sets of middle-aged spouses to help determine the amount of influence that a husband or wife has on an individual’s chances of participating in heavy drinking (including the drunkenness-inducing practice of rapid consumption called binge drinking). All of the study participants were originally just the parents of a group of teenagers enrolled in another project. In this spinoff project, the researchers measured each marital partner’s habitual level of drinking at the beginning of the 10-year study period, then again at intervals of five years. Among other things, the researchers looked at the amount of alcohol each person habitually consumed every day, as well as how often each person consumed enough alcohol in one session to qualify as a binge drinker. The researchers found that most of the study participants habitually consumed alcohol at or below a moderate level of intake, while a small but sizable subgroup drank heavily. In addition they found that, over time, the patterns of alcohol consumption remained fairly stable within these groups. However, the researchers also found that spouses do have a statistically meaningful impact on how much alcohol their partners consume, even if that impact is relatively minor. While the influence runs both ways, wives typically have a greater impact on raising or lowering their husbands’ level of intake than husbands have over their wives’ level of intake.