More than 14 million American adults suffer from some form of alcohol use disorder (AUD), a chronic inability to stop or control alcohol use despite the negative consequences.
This is according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a part of the National Institutes of Health.
The causes of AUD are complex and can include a mix of genetic, environmental, and social factors, including a family history of alcoholism. This familial effect, however, may be more complicated than first assumed.
In a new study, researchers have uncovered a previously unrecognized family connection to AUD: the drinking habits of a person’s in-laws.
This finding suggests that marriage to a spouse who as a child was exposed to parental alcohol misuse increases that person’s likelihood of developing AUD, even if the spouse does not have a drinking disorder.
The research was conducted by a team at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In the study, the team analyzed marital information on more than 300,000 couples in Swedish national population registries, finding that marriage to a spouse with a predisposition toward alcohol use disorder increased risk for developing AUD.
This increased risk was not explained by socioeconomic status, the spouse’s AUD status, nor contact with the spouse’s parents.
Instead, the researchers found that, rather than genetics, this increased risk reflected the psychological consequences of the spouse having grown up with an AUD-affected parent.
The team says growing up with an AUD-affected parent might teach people to act in ways that reinforce a spouse’s drinking problem. For example, taking care of a spouse when they have a hangover.
The study’s findings underscore the pernicious and long-lasting impact of growing up with a parent with AUD, extending even to the spouses of their adult children.
The findings are consistent with evidence from other research labs, which suggests that those who grow up with a parent with an alcohol use disorder may be at a particularly high risk of using alcohol as a “tool” to improve their marital interactions.
One author of the study is Jessica Salvatore, an assistant professor of psychology.
The study is published in Psychological Science.
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