Here’s a tip for those of you looking for that special someone: Try to find somebody who drinks like you do. A survey of older adults has found that couples in which both partners drank—and those in which both abstained—reported less trouble in their marriages. The survey results were published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
Studies have suggested that couples can benefit from compatible drinking habits, but social scientist Kira Birditt noticed that most of those studies were conducted on young people and focused on positive measurements like satisfaction. Birditt, who studies relationships across adulthood, wondered how the same issues would play out in older couples in longer marriages, and what the negative effects might be.
So Birditt and her colleagues collected data from 4864 married participants in the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study. The participants were heterosexual, between the ages of 52 and 92, and had been married an average of 33 years when the study began. Couples answered questions both in the lab and at home via mail-in questionnaires about their alcohol preferences, including whether they drank, how often they drank, and how much they had to drink. They were also asked to rate their negative feelings about their spouses: Were they too needy? Too critical? Unreliable? Irritating?
When it came to drinking habits, the results were not terribly surprising; 45 percent of all the couples were made up of two regular drinkers. Non-drinking couples made up another 29 percent. In 17 percent of couples, just the husband drank, while 8 percent reported a non-drinking husband and a drinking wife.
So just 25 percent of couples were mismatched in their drinking habits. But those people—especially the female members of those partnerships—were significantly unhappier than people married to their drinking or non-drinking buddies.
The most negative responses came from women who drank and were married to men who did not. The researchers aren’t exactly sure why female participants found these mismatches more problematic. It could be, they write, that wives are, and are expected to be, more observant about their relationships, and therefore more sensitive. It’s also possible that because our culture considers drinking to be more of a “manly” act, women who drink feel more strongly judged when their husbands abstain.
To be clear: “We’re not suggesting that people should drink more or change the way they drink,” Birditt told Reuters. “The study shows that it’s not about how much they’re drinking, it’s about whether they drink at all.”
There was one other group with unsurprisingly low scores: the 20 percent of men and 6 percent of women with drinking problems—a demographic that may be on the rise. Although we tend to associate binge drinking and other forms of alcohol abuse with youth, Birditt says problem drinking is increasing “especially among baby boomers, who seem more accepting of alcohol use.” A 2014 study in the UK found that each year, more and more people over 65 were being admitted to hospitals for alcohol-related issues.
So: Young people, if you’re reading this, now’s a good time to take stock of your drinking habits, as well as your partner’s.
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