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A Closer Look: Q&A with Kenneth Leonard

Kenneth LeonardKenneth Leonard is the Director of the Research Institute on Addictions and Professor of Psychiatry at the University at Buffalo Medical School. Below, he discusses with us his recent study on the effects of drinking on marriage.

1.  What led to your interest in studying the effects of drinking on marriage?

Our early work focused on alcohol and violence, and given the prevalence of marital violence, we began to study whether husband and wife drinking predicted marital violence.  As part of that study, we also studied marital unhappiness.  We expected to find a strong relationship between drinking and marital unhappiness.  However, some of our early findings suggested that the link between drinking and marital unhappiness was more complex; in fact, some couples who seemed to have heavy drinking patterns were very happy with their marriage.  So, we began to study how, over the course of the marriage, the drinking patterns of husbands and wives influenced their marriage, and how their marriage influenced the couple’s drinking.

2. Did anything else about the findings surprise you?  

Our previous findings had suggested that concordant patterns of drinking, whether light or heavy, were associated with more satisfied marriages than discordant patterns of drinking.  We were surprised at the strength of this effect over the course of the nine years of the study.

3.  Although not statistically significant, you found there to be a slightly higher divorce rate when the heavier drinker was the wife, rather than the husband.  Can you speak more about this and its possible implication?

In interpreting the findings from any single study, it is important to consider these findings in the context of other available studies. Recent research in Finland by Torvik using a different methodology, and a much larger sample, found that couples with a heavy drinking wife and a light drinking husband were more likely to divorce than couples with a heavy drinking husband and a light drinking wife.  The findings in our study were not statistically significant, but they were in the same direction as Torvik’s findings.  This might occur because of gender roles that are more accepting of men’s drinking than of women’s drinking.   As a result, women’s drinking may be less accepted by their partners and society as a whole.

4. Please speak more about the results of your study and what this implies for families, especially the impact it has on young children.

While these findings suggest that concordant heavy drinking in couples does not lead to divorce, the impact on children is something that is, at present, less clear. We know that marital conflict and divorce have a very adverse impact on the children. On one hand, concordant drinking, by leading to less conflict and divorce, may be associated with less adverse outcomes than children in discordant drinking couples.  However, it is probable that concordant drinking may impair the parents’ abilities to set limits and monitor their children.  In contrast, a light drinking partner married to a heavy drinking partner may be able to both protect and guide the child, even in the face of marital conflict or divorce.

5. What further research on this topic do you hope to see in the future? 

Most importantly, future research needs to address the impact of these drinking patterns on children’s emotional functioning. It is also important to examine whether concordant heavy drinking patterns influence the likelihood of one member or the other entering treatment or remaining in treatment.   Understanding these processes may lead to innovative ways to motivate heavy drinking couples to seek treatment.

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