Current research on why marriages fail finds a powerful link between alcoholism and divorce. This probably doesn’t surprise you. Living with an alcoholic can be hard. Alcoholism can wreak havoc on even the strongest marriage. Let’s look at some hard facts.
Alison Clarke-Stewart, a professor of psychology at the University of California, and Cornelia Brentano, an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University, authored a book titled Divorce: Causes and Consequences, published by Yale University Press in 2006. In it, they analyzed numerous studies that confirmed that people who drink more are more likely to get divorced.
The authors note that people who are divorced consume the greatest amounts of alcohol and the lowest levels of alcohol consumption are found in those who are married. They add that while alcoholics are just as likely to get married as non-alcoholics, their divorce or separation rate is at least four times that of the general population.
To further emphasize the connection between alcoholism in marriage and divorce, Clarke-Stewart and Brentano also cited a study involving eight different countries where those with the highest alcohol consumption rate also had the highest rates of divorce. Clearly alcoholism does not only affect marriages in the United States. We are left to wonder about the effect of alcoholism on marriage in countries in which divorce is much more difficult to obtain, in which people may find themselves trapped in a marriage with an alcoholic, but we can imagine the stress of living under such circumstances
Finally, Clarke-Stewart and Brentano wrote that while heavy drinking tends to decline overall as people they get older, substance abuse in alcoholics actually increases with age. The problem only gets worse with time, unless, of course, an alcoholic gets treatment.
Other research backs up the link between alcoholism and divorce. For instance, a 2007 study by researchers at the non-profit Rand Corporation looked at the impact of divorce rates in young adults and found that more than any other factor, a high frequency of heavy drinking in marriages when partners are in their early 20s is the primary cause of divorce occurring by age 29.
The study noted a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and domestic violence, legal and financial problems, job loss, and sexual dysfunction. All of these issues can lead to divorce, of course.
The toll alcoholism takes on a marriage is immense. While alcoholism and divorce may appear to go hand-in-hand, ending the marriage is not necessarily the only option in dealing effectively and appropriately with an alcoholic spouse – if that individual is truly willing to seek help. Unfortunately, many alcoholics deny they have a drinking problem and resist getting help for a long time, usually until their situation becomes so severe that they “hit rock bottom.”
Family members of alcoholics often deny there is a problem for a long time, too, and often make excuses for the alcoholic’s behavior and minimize the impact of alcoholism on their marriage and family life. By doing so, they often enable the alcoholic to keep drinking by protecting them from experiencing the full consequences of their behavior. Unfortunately, this only prolongs the problem and often leads to delays in both the alcoholic and their family members seeking help.
And make no mistake about it, family members need help as much as the alcoholic needs help. It’s important to realize that family members can get help whether or not the alcoholic agrees to seek treatment. Organizations such as Al-Anon and Ala-teen have been providing support to family members of alcoholics for more than 50 years. Most treatment programs for alcoholics also have a family component of the program and some will provide counseling and other services to family members even if the alcoholic chooses not to get treatment. Family counselors can also provide help and support for family members of alcoholics.
If the alcoholic refuses to seek help and is creating a home environment where an abusive situation exists or has the potential to occur, it is important for the alcoholic’s partner and children to get out of that atmosphere as soon as possible. Domestic violence shelters offer assistance and counseling for those in abusive situations.
Even if the alcoholic is not abusive, sometimes the damage done to a marriage by drinking simply cannot be repaired. Even then, spouses of alcoholics may wish to attend Al-Anon meetings or seek counseling for support as they cope with divorce.