People whose parents struggled with alcohol use disorder are more likely to marry a person with alcohol problems, according to a new large-scale study conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Lund University in Sweden. Children of problem drinkers are also more likely to get married before age 25 and less likely to marry later in life.

“We know from previous research that who you marry plays a big part in whether you develop an alcohol problem,” said the study’s lead author, Jessica E. Salvatore, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU.

“What we found in this study is that who you marry is not random — and, in fact, the people who are at greatest risk for developing an alcohol problem, because they have an affected parent, are most likely to end up with a spouse who is going to exacerbate this risk.”

The study is published in the journal Addiction. It is based on data from legal, medical and pharmacy registries with detailed information on 1.17 million people in Sweden who were born between 1965 and 1975.

“Although there have been many studies along these lines in the past, there were some key methodological limitations to these prior studies, including the reliance on small samples,” Salvatore said. “We were able to leverage the Swedish national registries to look at these questions in a large sample of over 1 million people.”

For the study, the researchers wanted to know whether alcohol use disorder (AUD) among parents would predict their adult offspring’s likelihood of marriage and marriage to a spouse with alcohol use disorder.

Researchers found that parental alcohol use disorder is linked to a higher probability of marriage at younger ages, a lower probability of marriage at older ages and a higher likelihood of marriage to an affected spouse compared with no parental alcohol use disorder.

“In this case, we found that you do marry someone who is like your parents,” Salvatore said.

The findings also reveal that most of these effects become stronger when the number of parents with alcohol use disorder increases from one to two. Most effects also held after statistically controlling for parents’ socioeconomic status, marital history, other externalizing disorders, and the offspring’s own alcohol use disorder status.

In addition, daughters of affected mothers are more likely to have an affected spouse, the researchers found.

The researchers were interested in these findings because previous research has shown that forming and maintaining romantic relationships with “prosocial” spouses reduces one’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder.

“And what we find here is that people who are at risk of developing AUD are less likely to find themselves in these types of protective marital environments,” Salvatore said.

Alcohol use disorder affects an estimated 16 million people in the United States. The findings of this study could be useful for clinicians and others who work with the offspring of AUD parents to raise awareness of how parental AUD can influence the types of social environments that can increase one’s risk for alcohol use disorder.

“There are many pathways through which a parent’s alcohol problems can influence our own risk for alcohol problems. One important pathway, of course, has to do with the genes that parents pass to their children,” said Salvatore. “But another important pathway, which we demonstrate here, is through the social environment.”

“I think that there is a role for findings like ours as part of these types of family education programs. Specifically, becoming aware of how a parent’s alcohol problem might shape one’s own likelihood of ending up in the kind of marriage that will increase risk for alcohol problems may help people choose differently,” she said.

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University