Alcohol use and marital satisfaction


What effect does alcohol intake have on a marriage when people have different drinking patterns?

Homish, Gregory G.; Leonard, Kenneth E. The Drinking Partnership and Marital Satisfaction: The Longitudinal Influence of Discrepant Drinking. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 75(1), Feb 2007. pp. 43-51. [Original Journal Article]

FalsStewart, WilliaQuick summary – I did some brief research (based on two scientific articles) on what the effect of alcohol use has on marital satisfaction. I am including my more thorough investigation below, but I will describe some of the finding here. One study accented the importance of commonality… this means that marital satisfaction was correlated with the degree to which partners engaged in substance use at relatively equal amounts (both drink a lot = more satisfaction than only one drinking a lot ). Divergence in substance intake was associated with decreased marital satisfaction… this does suggest that offering rehabilitation counseling to only one partner in a relationship could have negative effects on the marital satisfaction (so offering counseling to both would be more ideal and arguably more ethical). Moderate substance use (couples who did not abuse substances) was correlated to higher levels of marital satisfaction. In short the research found that marital satisfaction was highest when the couple’s intake was both moderate and relatively the same for each partner.m; Birchler, Gary R.; O’Farrell, Timothy J. Drug-abusing patients and their intimate partners: Dyadic adjustment, relationship stability, and substance use..; Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 108(1), Feb 1999. pp. 11-23.

General idea of Homish and Leonard study: “In accordance with compatibility theory, similarity of substance use between husbands and wives may be associated with better overall marital functioning compared with couples whose substance use is dissimilar.”

Homish and Leonard study Abstract: “The objective was to determine whether discrepancies between husbands’ and wives’ past-year heavy drinking predicted decreased marital satisfaction over time. Participants (N = 634) were recruited at the time they applied for their marriage licenses. Couples completed questionnaires about their alcohol use and marital satisfaction at the time of marriage and again at their 1st and 2nd anniversaries. Generalized estimating equation models were used to evaluate the association between discrepancies in husbands’ and wives’ heavy drinking in the year prior to marriage and marital satisfaction at the 1st wedding anniversary and the association between discrepancies in heavy alcohol use in the 1st year of marriage and marital satisfaction at the 2nd wedding anniversary. In these prospective time-lagged analyses, discrepancies in husbands’ and wives’ heavy drinking predicted decreased marital satisfaction over time while controlling for heavy drinking. Over time, these couples may be at greater risk for decreased marital functioning that may lead to relationship dissolution.”

The Start:

  • Initially, the study explained compatibility theory and offered a slue of articles which substantiated the theory. The theory states that marital satisfaction is positively correlated with commonality.


  • From this finding this study set out to find out whether or not the compatibility theory also pertained to substance intake.


Findings (the nifty statistics):

1.)      Heavy drinking by the husband was correlated with decreased marital satisfaction for the wife (despite discrepancy).

2.)      Heavy drinking by the wife was correlated with decreased marital satisfaction for the husband (despite discrepancy).

3.)      Marital satisfaction was found to be lowest in couples with discrepant drinking habits.

What this all means: though heavy drinking was bad for a marriage regardless, discrepancy in drinking patterns were worse in relation to marital satisfaction. So there is more marital satisfaction with two heavy drinkers than with one, and most satisfaction when both drink moderately.


            Questions – possible further study: Isn’t there a degree of commonality in the motivation involved in intoxicating oneself?  Perhaps they are stressed or simply not happy? If such is true, being that an unhappy partner is more likely to drink, then is it really that surprising that a person reporting less satisfaction in general might report less satisfaction in their marriage?

            Thought for your mind: Given that discrepancies of drinking pattern are correlated with lower lever of marital satisfaction, should therapists be more careful in our assignments of rehabilitation counseling? If helping only one member of a marriage (in which both members drink in excess) is likely to lead to an increased chance of divorce, should we withhold substance abuse counseling until we can get both members into a program? I believe that a possible repercussion to remaining steadfast in our assertion that substance abuse must be treated before true work can be done in other areas might lead to further damaging a marriage. Is it so important for a person to get off a substance that we are willing to state unconditionally that they must stop even at the expense of their marriage, of their support group, of their community, of their religion etc.? I believe that there is another alternative… social support for change is a key variable in achieving therapeutic change… I believe this study very much calls for an increase in systemic interventions surrounding substance abuse.

In short perhaps it is better for the therapist to treat the substance abuse that inhabits the family system as a whole as opposed to treating the concern in one individual alone. This would create a win win in relation to marital satisfaction, as the couple would not have divergent intake patterns and they would both have more moderate intake… of course this is easier said than done.

Fals-stewart and Birchler abstract: “The dyadic adjustment and substance use of couples with a drug-abusing husband 36), couples in which both = 94), couples with a drug-abusing wife (n = (n 87), and non-substance-abusing conflicted couples = partners abused drugs (n 70) were examined. For couples with 1 drug-abusing partner, a higher = (n percentage of days abstinent during the year before treatment for drug abuse was associated with a higher level of relationship satisfaction. When both partners abused drugs, the relationship between percentage of days abstinent and relationship satisfaction became stronger and more negative as the time partners spent together using drugs increased. A higher percentage of days abstinent was associated with relationship stability for couples with 1 drug-abusing partner during and 1 year after treatment; for couples in which both partners abused drugs, a higher percentage of days abstinent was associated with relationship instability.”


1.)      This study found that in couples with one abuser the more days that one partner was abstinent from drugs or alcohol the more marital satisfaction there was in the relationship.

2.)      This study also found that increasing abstinence in one partner increased marital satisfaction in couples with one abuser.

3.)      Not surprisingly the non-user in the relationship reported less satisfaction.

4.)      Interestingly there is higher marital satisfaction with dual abusers than with a single user.

5.)      Reducing substance intake with dual abusers actually decreased marital satisfaction.


William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

5 thoughts on “Alcohol use and marital satisfaction

  1. Can you remove my post that I put on the oher night? or at least my name to annonymous? Iwouls appreciate it. It’s not in this category though but I’m sure you can find it. thank you

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