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Marriage, Alcohol and Violence

  • The exact relationship between alcohol use and marital aggression has been unclear
  • A recent study has found that alcohol can contribute to marital violence under certain circumstances
  • Alcohol seems to exacerbate marital problems when conflict already exists
  • Different drinking patterns by the husband and wife may be an additional source of conflict

As part of an ongoing examination of drinking and marital violence among newlywed couples, recent findings from the Buffalo Newlywed Study confirm that excessive alcohol use may indeed be involved in marital aggression. However, as the study notes in the July issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, alcohol does not simply lead to marital violence, but alcohol may contribute to marital violence within a certain context, for particular people, in particular kinds of relationships.

"It is not unusual to find that violence that occurs early in marriage is predictive of violence occurring later on in marriage," said Brian Quigley, research associate at the Research Institute on Addictions at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "What this study has found is that certain patterns of alcohol use by couples during the first year of marriage, plus marital conflict, are predictive of violence later in marriage. More specifically, when husbands tend to be heavy drinkers and wives tend to be light drinkers during the first year of marriage, these couples seem more likely to experience husband-to-wife violence in the second and third years of marriage."

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 33 percent of American women experience domestic violence. (The term "domestic" is used to refer to a relationship composed of partners, whereas "marital" refers to a husband-and-wife couple.) Domestic violence can be physical, sexual and/or psychological in nature. In all cultures, the perpetrators are most commonly the men of the family; women are most commonly the victims of violence. Rural and urban women of all religious, ethnic, economic, and educational backgrounds, of varying ages, physical abilities, and lifestyles can be affected by domestic violence.

Debate continues regarding the exact relationship between alcohol use and domestic violence. Some people believe that alcohol causes domestic violence; others believe that alcohol use may be a reaction to, a form of coping with, discord or violence that already exists in the relationship. Quigley’s study supports the view that alcohol can lead to marital violence, albeit not simply across the board, but under particular circumstances.

"Alcohol is not simply used as a way of coping with violence that already exists," Quigley noted. "Alcohol use does play some role in the development of marital violence, but patterns of alcohol use are an important part of that role. In addition," he added, "although alcohol use is definitely a risk factor for marital violence, we need to keep in mind that not all marital violence that occurs involves alcohol; maybe 50 percent of it is sober violence."

"There is a common public perception," concurred Julie Schumacher, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, "that alcohol is a direct cause of marital violence. This study reveals that the relationship between alcohol and aggression is more complicated than that. Eliminating domestic violence isn’t as simple as getting rid of alcohol, which the common public myth about alcohol and violence might lead you to believe. This study shows that marital violence is related to alcohol use in conjunction with other factors such as personality, certain demographics, and conflict in the relationship. Alcohol is an important factor, but it’s one of several."

The major finding of Quigley’s study was that alcohol seems to exacerbate problems when conflict already exists, and different patterns of drinking by the husband and wife may be an additional source of conflict. Quigley is not entirely sure why the most marital violence occurred when the husband was a heavy drinker and the wife was a light drinker, but he suspects that "discrepant drinking patterns may lead to disagreements about the drinking itself, about things associated with drinking like hangovers and legal difficulties, or perhaps the different drinking styles are indicative of two different types of personalities. In fact," he added, "other studies by co-author Kenneth Leonard have found that when husbands and wives have similar drinking patterns, there is higher intimacy and marital satisfaction than when they have discrepant drinking patterns."

Schumacher noted that although the finding about discrepant drinking patterns and associated violence may seem a little intuitively odd, Quigley’s speculative explanation seemed compelling. Schumacher also agreed with Quigley’s assertion that different factors may predict violence at different times in a couple’s relationship. "When you’re trying to initially predict whether or not a couple may become aggressive," she explained, "it’s really important to look at the characteristics of the people involved, including personality factors like hostility and demographics like employment status. But later, once a couple has become aggressive, it becomes more important to look at their relationship and the conflict that’s going on, because that will predict the continuation of the aggression more than personality or demographics."

The study also found that verbal aggression that occurred during the first year of marriage seemed to develop into physically aggressive behavior during later years. Quigley said both findings can be useful for professionals who work with couples.

"Couples who have not experienced violence," he said, " but are in marriages in which there are discrepant drinking patterns and high levels of verbal conflict have the potential to experience violence in later years. Counseling professionals need to be attuned to this potential for violence, and ready to intervene."

Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.

Articles were written based on the following published research:

Quigley, B.M., & Leonard, K.E. (2000, July). Alcohol and the continuation of early marital aggression. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 24(7), 1003-1010.

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