Is Marriage a Protective Factor Against Alcoholism?

The protective effect is greater for those at high risk

Couple Holding Hands
Married People Less Likely to Be Alcoholics. © Getty Images

If you are at a high risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, there may be an interesting step you can take that will protect you from future alcoholism—get married to a non-drinker and stay married. 

There have been many studies that indicate that single people generally consume more alcohol compared with people of the same age who are married. Other studies that found that getting married usually decreases the alcohol consumption of heavy drinkers.

And, if you have a family history of alcoholism or you are at a greater risk for becoming an alcoholic due to environmental factors, the protective effect of being married, compared to being single, may be even greater, according to researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

On the other hand, if you marry a person with a lifetime alcohol use disorder, your risk of becoming an alcoholic yourself is greater than it would be if you had remained single, the scientists say.

Single People Drink More Alcohol

There are other research findings that being married has a significant effect, for both men and women, in relation to:

  • Total alcohol consumption
  • Problem drinking
  • Risk of alcohol use disorders

There is also research that demonstrates a relationship between alcohol consumption and the transitions between being single and getting married, and between being married and then getting divorced.

Single people, both men and women, drink less when they are married.

Marriage Reduces the Risk of Alcoholism

The Virginia study, a longitudinal examination of 3.2 million individuals, found that marriage is associated with a significant reduction in the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder in both men and women.

The researchers examined Swedish registry data on 3,220,628 individuals born between 1960 and 1990 and evaluated the risk for first registration for alcohol use disorders in medical, criminal, and pharmacy registries.  Of those individuals, 72,252 met the criteria for alcohol use disorders, including 3.3 percent of the men and 1.1 percent of the women.

For those with an alcohol use disorder, less than half had close relatives who also met the criteria for alcoholism.

The researchers found that, compared with being single, marriage was associated with a 60 percent reduction in risk for alcohol use disorders in men and a 70 percent reduction of risk for women.

Marriage to an Alcoholic Increases Risk

On the other hand, the study indicated that those individuals who were married to a spouse with an alcohol use disorder were more likely to develop alcoholism compared with those who were single.

Men married to alcoholics were about 29 percent more likely than single men to develop alcohol use disorders and women married to alcoholics were about 18 percent more likely to develop alcohol problems themselves.

Greater Benefit for Those More Vulnerable

Significantly, the research revealed that the protective effect of marriage against a risk of alcohol use disorders was even greater for those with a strong family history of alcoholism.

"It is really the people with the greatest vulnerability to the problem that have the greatest benefit from this kind of spousal interaction," said Dr Kendler, lead author of the study, speaking at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2016 Annual Meeting.

Causal Properties Implicated by Evidence

"We don't prove causality because, in the absence of double-blind trials, you can't, but this is very strong evidence that causal properties are actually going on, and that our finding has a whole range of social implications," Dr Kendler said.

"Understanding the causal processes underlying this robust association could provide important insights into the etiology of alcohol use disorder and elucidate potential avenues for prevention," he said.

Cultural and Social Influences at Play

The researchers said the cultural and social influences at work in the association between marriage and alcoholism may be as potent as the underlying neurobiological factors.

"When we are thinking about the causes of alcohol problems, yes, we want to know a lot about the biology and what's going on in the GABA system and all these other features, but these social influences are very potent." Kendler said.

Marriage Reduces Loneliness, Adds Support

"As we develop treatment and prevention mechanisms and funding patterns, we really have to balance [and recognize] that these disorders have quite strong social components that are very profound aspects of human life. Having long-term, enduring, loving relationships also can be very important for the risks of these conditions," he said.

Why does being married affect the risk of alcohol use disorders? Previous studies have found that loneliness can be a factor in developing substance abuse disorders. The researchers speculate that marriage eliminates the loneliness factor and provides a system of social support and accountability.

Remember, Marriage Is Not a Guaranteed Fix

If you have a close relative—parent, uncle, aunt, or sibling—who is an alcoholic, you are at a much greater risk of becoming an alcoholic yourself. But, you can take steps that will reduce that risk, which according to the Kendler study, includes getting and staying married to someone who does not have a drinking problem.

Is being married a guarantee that you will not develop an alcohol use disorder? Of course not. Al-Anon Family Groups meetings are full of people dealing with a spouse's alcohol problems. But, if you are determined not to become a problem drinker in spite of your risk factors, a strong, loving marriage might help.


Kendler, KS, et al. "Effect of Marriage on Risk for Onset of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Longitudinal and Co-Relative Analysis in a Swedish National Sample." The American Journal of Psychiatry May 2016

Lee, MR, et al. "Role transitions and young adult maturing out of heavy drinking: evidence for larger effects of marriage among more severe premarriage problem drinkers." Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research June 2015

Reczek, C, et al. "Marital Histories and Heavy Alcohol Use among Older Adults." Journal of Health and Social Behavior March 2016

Rodriquz, LM, et al. "Regulation strategies mediate associations between heavy drinking and relationship outcomes in married couples." Addictive Behaviors March 2016

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