14 Ways Alcohol Abuse Harms Marriage

Medically reviewed by Dr. Paul R. Linde, MD on February 13, 2021

Table of Contents

Alcohol can be a poisonous substance, especially in large amounts. Not only can drinking to excess be toxic to the body and the mind, it can also be poisonous to your relationships. Below, we’ll discuss some of the most common negative impacts of alcohol on marriage, what to look out for, and how you can reestablish harmony in your family or partnership.

Does Alcohol Addiction Affect Your Relationships?

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Alcohol abuse or addiction is a significant factor in how long a marriage lasts. A 2014 study compared the divorce rates of couples in which one or both were diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), to couples without this condition. Results showed that divorce rates were significantly higher among respondents with AUD: 48.3% vs. 30.1%.

Not only does alcohol affect the durability of a marriage, but it may affect who and when we marry.

One 2018 study found that children of parents with alcohol problems are more likely to get married under age 25. Meanwhile, a 2011 study suggested that alcohol dependence might delay marriage for women during their 20s. Similarly, dependence delayed marriage for men starting around age 30. On top of marrying later, it also seemed these individuals separated or divorced sooner.

Struggling with alcohol addiction might also make you more likely to marry someone similar. A 2003 study found that alcoholics tend to marry other alcoholics.

How Alcohol Abuse and Addiction Can Affect Marriage

When many couples first get together, their dates and social interactions happen around events and places involving alcohol.

In American culture, alcohol is so deeply ingrained that this often taken for granted. And, in fact, in many situations this doesn’t pose a major issue. But for those who may already struggle with alcohol, this can impact their dating life, or their choice of partners. And later, after marriage, work, and family life begin to be more demanding, this foundation of casual alcohol use may gradually increase as a way to manage daily stress.

So, when does alcohol become destructive to a marriage? The line can be different depending on your partnership, but generally alcohol use becomes a problem when it begins to affect someone’s responsibilities, or when one or both partners develops AUD from drinking too much. This can sometimes happen subtly: tolerance ramps up, and the quantity consumed follows suit, until overuse or addiction emerges. Here are some clear ways in which alcohol abuse can disrupt, and eventually even end, a marriage.

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14 Negative Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Marriage

1. Less Fulfilling Sex Life

While intoxication can sometimes increase sexual desire in the moment, it can also decrease vaginal lubrication, and increase chances of erectile dysfunction. Long-term, alcohol dependence can also decrease libido, make it harder for women to achieve orgasm, and reduce satisfaction with orgasm for all genders. In fact, a 2016 study found that alcohol negatively affected the quality of sex for both men and women.

Read More: Alcohol and Your Sex Life

2. Detachment and Emotional Unavailability

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We often think of alcohol as a social lubricant. However, heavy alcohol use may also cause detachment from relationships. One small study found that men with AUD had difficulty recognizing emotions in verbal language. They also had a decreased ability to show empathy. Not to mention that the shame some people feel around their drinking may cause them to withdraw.

3. Irresponsibility and Unreliability

As a person becomes more dependent on alcohol, they can become increasingly irresponsible and unreliable. They may fail to follow through with family obligations, or complete tasks sporadically. The feeling that you can depend on your partner is crucial to a long-term relationship. If it erodes, this can have an impact on your connection.

4. Problems at Work

If alcohol starts to make a person unreliable, this can also bleed into their work. They may frequently call in sick because of hangovers, show up late, or not at all. And if they are impaired on the job, they may even put coworkers in danger. If a partner loses their job or makes less money because of a drinking problem, this affects the family finances, which puts additional strain on the relationship.

5. Physical Health Problems

It probably comes as no surprise that heavy alcohol use can impact your health. Alcohol abuse can affect the brain, digestion, weight, and increase your risk of several types of cancer. This can affect quality of life for both partners, and the family unit as a whole.

Read More: How Alcohol Affects Your Health

6. Reduced Interest in Personal Maintenance

A person who is drinking heavily may begin to care less about their physical appearance. This may mean a decline in their personal hygiene, not caring about how they dress, not exercising and maintaining their body, and a slew of other consequences.

7. Loss of Interest in Activities

Excess alcohol use can deplete energy and vitality. And, as discussed below, it can contribute to depression. This might make a couple less inclined to do activities they once enjoyed together.

8. Changes in Attitude

Heavy alcohol use can make one or both partners more negative or difficult to be around. Intoxication may lower a person’s “filter,” leading to a ruder, less considerate communication style. Not only can this be irritating, at the more extreme end this can bleed into verbal abuse, threatening the other partner’s self-esteem. And even if such comments aren’t directed at one’s partner, it can become burdensome to be paired with an “angry drunk.”

9. Mental Health Problems

Beneath changes in attitude there may be deeper issues at play. Evidence shows that, even though some people may drink to reduce depression and anxiety, alcohol often makes these conditions worse. In fact, a pattern of excessive drinking may even cause anxiety and depression where there wasn’t any before, by altering brain chemistry. If one or both partners struggles with alcohol, this can have a dramatic effect on their interpersonal dynamic.

Read More: Alcohol and Mental Health

10. Intimate Partner Violence

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls alcohol consumption a major contributor to intimate partner violence—defined as physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. This is especially true when consumed at harmful levels. According to one U.S. study, 55% of victims believed their partners were drinking before a physical assault. Unfortunately, this may cause the survivor to drink too. According to a U.K. study, abuse survivors were twice as likely to consume alcohol as their abusive partners.

11. Reinforcing Each Other’s Problem Drinking

Research shows that partners can influence each other’s drinking behaviors. According to one study, if a wife started drinking heavily, her husband was three times more likely to increase his intake too. Similarly, women were twice as likely to drink more if their husbands did. This can make it harder to quit or cut back—although if both partners are committed, they may also be able to support each other.

12. Infidelity

Although cheating shouldn’t be blamed on alcohol, research shows that problem drinking predicts higher rates of sex outside of the relationship. Drinking can lead to poorer decision-making in the moment, and can also lead to lowered relationship satisfaction through each of the factors above. This may make infidelity seem more appealing, or harder to resist.

13. Legal Problems

Alcohol abuse can cause a partner to make poor decisions—including destruction of property, violence, driving while impaired, and other illegal behaviors. If a person is struggling to afford their addiction, they may even engage in criminal activities to pay for alcohol. These can all have legal consequences.

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14. Fertility Issues

For couples who want to have children, overdrinking can lower their chances of conceiving. A 2016 study found that women who had 14 or more drinks per week were 18% less likely to conceive. Alcohol is also known to affect sperm quality. Finally, one study found that miscarriage was 2-3 times more likely if the woman drank the week she conceived, and 2-4 times more likely if the man drank.

Read More: Alcohol and Fertility

Clearly, there are may ways excessive drinking can impact marriage. Alcohol use disorder exists on a spectrum, so you may only experience the mild version of a few of these. But over time, the problem can get worse. And the consequences can be especially severe if you have a family.

4 Impacts of Parents’ Alcohol Addiction on Children

Studies suggest that about 1 in 5 children grow up with parents who drink excessively. Here are four ways parental alcohol problems can adversely affect kids.

1. Emotional Impacts

Studies show that depression and anxiety are more common among those who grow up with a parent who has a drinking problem. Other research shows a connection between anger in children and parental problem drinking. One explanation for these outcomes could be that children of alcoholics are more likely to experience abuse or neglect.

2. Higher Likelihood of Developing AUD

According to research, children of alcoholics are 4 times more likely than other kids to become alcoholics themselves. Another study showed that, compared to females, male adult children of alcoholics are more likely to develop the disorder.

3. Greater Chances of Marrying Someone with AUD

Parents with alcohol dependence may hope that their children grow up to find healthier partners. However, according to research, this may not be the case.

A 2018 study found that children of parents with AUD are more likely to marry a person who also has AUD. Multiple studies suggest this is especially true for women, even if they aren’t affected by their own drinking problems.

4. Greater Likelihood of Parental Divorce

If one or both parents don’t seek help for their alcohol misuse, it could eventually lead to separation or divorce. Although this may be necessary in some situations, it’s also well-documented how divorce adversely affects children. And it may also impact their future drinking habits.

A 2016 study examined which factors determined when a child would start drinking. Researchers found the strongest predictor was divorce or separation. This was even truer for children of parents who drank at higher levels. Unfortunately, other research has shown that heavy drinking during adolescent years is also linked to antisocial behavior.

Read More: Children of Alcoholics: Common Patterns and Helpful Resources

How Cutting Back or Quitting Drinking Can Save a Marriage

If AUD has seriously disrupted a marriage to the point of a spouse potentially filing for divorce, there are options to get things back on track and repair the relationship. Not all alcohol use results in dependency—which makes it crucial to seek ways to control alcohol intake before dependency takes root. Learning how to moderate a drinking habit is a process that requires commitment, but it’s possible for many people.

One can start by setting personal goals and benchmarks. Having the support of counseling and anti-craving medication can also make a big difference.

If quitting completely is the best move for your partnership, there are also powerful new ways to make this happen. Rehabilitation programs have traditionally been expensive, and involved putting aside a lot of time. But with the development of telemedicine, treatment is becoming easier to reach, and more effective. While permanent change generally isn’t quick, many people gradually see a big improvement in their relationship as one or both partners get their drinking under control.

If both partners are struggling to cut back or stop drinking, you can seek help together. Treatment for AUD can also be combined with marital counseling.

Read More: How to Gradually Quit Drinking

Ria Health Can Help You Reduce or Stop Your Drinking

If you or your spouse is looking for support to drink less alcohol, Ria Health offers an especially convenient solution. We provide evidence-based treatment, customized to your needs, through an app on your phone. Members get expert medical advice, weekly coaching meetings, anti-craving medication, digital tools, and more. Best of all, the whole thing can be done from the comfort of home, on your own schedule. Learn more about how it works.

Summary of Marriage and Alcohol Abuse:

Left untreated, alcohol use disorder can negatively impact a marriage. Partners may experience problems ranging from emotional detachment and attitude changes to domestic abuse and legal troubles. Overdrinking can also affect children and make them more likely to experience similar issues. To prevent divorce and further consequences, partners can combine alcohol treatment with marital counseling.

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Written By:
Riannon Westall
Toronto-based health writer. Background in newsroom journalism, content marketing, and research.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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