By DR. SHARI BARNETT and DR. SWATI SHROFF
"Honey, get me a beer," might be said more by women than previously thought.
A study presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association on Saturday found that married women drink more than previously married women, but married men drink less than previously married men.
Additionally, several women in the study said they did not drink alcohol at all until they met or married their husbands.
Lead researcher Corinne Reczek, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Cincinnati, and her team looked at data collected from surveys of a random sample of 5,000 Wisconsin high school graduates of the class of 1957. Researchers conducting the study contacted each of the subjects four times over a 47-year period. Reczek and her team examined survey responses from this group, after which they conducted in-depth interviews with 120 of the to determine why their drinking habits changed.
Given the long time frame of the study, there were too few people who remained single for that entire time period to compare them directly to those who were married. Instead, the researchers examined the drinking habits of those whose marriages had ended.
Sociological and psychological experts not involved with the research said the findings illustrate how individual behaviors tend to adjust in order to match those of people with whom they spend a great deal of time.
"People tend to do what others in the same flock do, if you spend more time with individuals that have a higher incidence of using drugs or alcohol you will develop similar habits," said Richard Ager, associate professor at the Tulane School of Social Work in New Orleans. "People tend to engage in the behaviors of people they surround themselves with."
Since single men tend to drink more than their single female counterparts, the idea that both sides converge toward an average level of drinking seems understandable.
"It appears that amongst couples, males and females gravitate toward a mutual midpoint with respect to alcohol use," said Scott M. Bea, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, who also was not involved with the study. "That is, husbands drink a bit less and wives drink a bit more than their unmarried counterparts."
But others said the findings could hint at something more deeply entwined with the marital relationship.
"The study findings appear to suggest that everyone's alcohol use is, to some degree, related to the extent of stress in their lives," Don R. Catherall, professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University. "Long-term married women may have some additional stressors that [previously married] women do not and apparently derive less stress relief from their marital relationships than do men."
For men, however, having a wife may serve as a stress-relieving substitute for that extra beer or scotch.
"Married males may experience their wives as sources of tension reduction," Bea said. "There are studies that suggest that married males are happier than their unmarried counterparts."
Despite the couples approaching a common drinking ground, on average men still drank more than women in every relationship category.
The study also looked into how drinking habits are affected when marriages end. The researchers found that while divorce causes men to drink more, women actually tend to go back to drinking less. Possible explanations for this, according to the researchers, could be that a husband's heavy drinking may put couples at a higher risk of divorce. Another possibility is that, for men at least, the stress of the divorce may have prompted increased drinking.
Meanwhile, in the study participant interviews, an overwhelming majority of women said that either divorce depressed and turned them away from alcohol, or they drank less because they were no longer around their husbands drinking.
Despite this, women that were long-term divorced and recently divorced reported significantly more drinking-related problems than long-term married women. And while the research thus far is not sufficient to draw a direct cause-and-effect relationship between drinking-related problems and rates of divorce, it may help physicians better recognize risk factors for problem drinking that lurk within our social lives.
"As a culture, we might work toward educating individuals that are feeling isolated about their relative proneness to alcohol-related problems or overuse," Bea said. "Helping these individuals develop support networks and other methods of coping might be useful interventions that may reduce the overuse of alcohol and, ultimately, alcohol-related difficulties."