Alcoholism and Marriage

What You Should Know About Alcoholism and Marriage

More than one-half of adults in the U.S. have a close family member who has abused alcohol or is addicted to the drug. When the drinker is a husband or wife, the effect of alcoholism and marriage can be dramatic and damaging.
Not only is the mental and physical well-being of the drinker at risk; the marriage relationship and family unit can be significantly affected.

The psychological and other health-related ramifications to each affected family member can be traumatic and long-lasting.

According to psychologist Neill Neill, Ph.D., if a spouse or partner shifts from enjoying a drink to compulsively needing alcohol to feel okay, the non-alcoholic spouse may also shifted from being giving and caring to being addicted to the partner’s care.

In other words, with alcoholism in marriage, compulsive caretaking often grows alongside the deteriorating self-care of the compulsive drinker. An alcoholic spouse may neglect or abuse his or her family, deplete financial resources, and create legal problems for the family.

Dr. Neill emphasizes that alcoholics, like all abusers and addicts, lie (bold faced lies, lies of omission, cover-ups, minimization), make excuses, blame others for their drinking, and continue to use alcohol regardless of consequences.

If there are children present, they copy the behavior they see modeled by the drinker and learn how to grow up and be alcoholics themselves.

The non-profit National Healthy Marriage Resource Center(NHMRC) offers answers to some frequently-asked questions about alcoholism and marriage. A sampling of these questions are below.

What are the effects of alcohol abuse on marital satisfaction and quality?

  • Marital distress. Alcohol abuse increases the feelings of marital distress. Individuals in marriages in which one or both spouses is an alcoholic report higher levels of marital distress or trouble than do married individuals who are not married to alcoholics.
  • Anger. Marital satisfaction is related strongly to a couple's ability to communicate effectively. But heavy alcohol use is associated with more negative and hostile communication, more expressions of anger, and less warmth and unity in the relationship. These factors decrease a couple's satisfaction in their marriage and create greater tension.


  • Everyday family responsibilities. Alcohol abuse decreases marital satisfaction because it decreases the drinking spouse's ability to participate in everyday household tasks and responsibilities. This inability leads to greater stress on the non-drinking spouse and decreases satisfaction in the marriage.


  • Psychological distress. Alcohol abuse increases the psychological distress of the non-drinking spouse. An adult's alcohol abuse also is related to children's increased social, emotional,behavioral, and academic problems, which, in turn, leads to more stress in the family and less marital satisfaction.

Does alcohol abuse increase the risk of divorce?

Yes. Some evidence for this is that divorced or separated men and women are three times more likely to be alcoholics or to have an alcohol problem than are married men and women.

  • With alcoholism and marriage, alcohol problems are related to increased rates of marital violence, poor communication, and feelings of marital distress that lead to a greater risk of divorce.


  • Differences between spouses in their drinking behaviors decrease marital quality and increase the likelihood of divorce. One reason for this increased likelihood is that drinking has an impact on the amount of time that partners spend together, especially if the alcoholic frequently drinks away from home. The more time spent apart, the less satisfied the nonalcoholic spouse becomes and the greater the potential for divorce.

How does alcohol abuse affect communication in marriage?

  • Damaging communication. With alcoholism and marriage, alcoholic spouses tend to use more negative and damaging communication (e.g., criticizing, blaming, contempt), express more anger, and show lower levels of warmth when trying to solve a problem than do nonalcoholic spouses. This kind of negative communication discourages the use of positive problem solving skills such as open discussion and encouragement.

    Less problem solving. Couples in which one partner is alcoholic engage in problem solving less often than do other couples. Partners in such marriages may lose the desire to engage in problem solving and give up when alcohol is involved because they anticipate that the conversation will soon become negative.

    As this pattern continues with alcoholism and marriage, important issues such as family finances, sexual intimacy, and childrearing decisions go unresolved because it is easier to avoid communicating than it is to deal with the stress and negative emotions that are associated with alcohol-related communication problems.


  • Personality characteristics. Personality characteristics common among alcoholics also can affect communication. Alcoholics tend to be less conscientious, less agreeable, and more anxious and hypersensitive than are nondrinkers. These personality characteristics make effective communication and problem solving more difficult.


  • Effects on the brain. Researchers believe that alcohol's effect on the brain may contribute to the increase in the negative communication. Alcohol appears to impair a person's ability to understand and properly interpret what a spouse is saying. Alcoholics tend to interpret things their partners say in a very negative way and this leads them to respond with greater anger and negative emotions.

Is alcohol abuse related to violence in marriage?

Alcohol abuse is frequently related to marital violence:

  • Among battered women, 40-60 percent reported that their husbands were heavy or problem drinkers. Among married men admitted to alcohol treatment centers, 50-70 percent reported participating in partner violence, with 20-30 percent of these men reporting having engaged in severe violence towards their spouses.


  • The more frequently men are intoxicated, the more likely they are to be verbally and physically violent toward their spouses. Alcohol abuse is connected to increased aggression and marital violence that tends to be more severe and more likely to result in injury.


  • Spouses under the influence of alcohol tend to act more aggressively, perhaps because their ability to think rationally is reduced. Alcohol tends to make individuals more impulsive and to decrease their ability to restrain their aggression. This pattern is especially noticeable among spouses who are more aggressive even without alcohol.

How does alcohol abuse influence sexual intimacy in marriage?

  • Alcohol abuse is related to sexual problems, such as lower sexual satisfaction and erectile dysfunction among men. For women, alcohol abuse may slow down orgasm.

How can therapy help couples struggling with alcoholism and marriage?

  • Alcoholism is not simply an individual problem. Families often play a significant role in the "cause" and "cure" of alcohol abuse. For this reason, research shows that therapy that involves the spouse and possibly other family members is more helpful to overcoming alcoholism than is only treating the individual who has the alcohol problem.