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Spouses of Alcoholics May Complicate the Problem

BY SHERRY WASILOW

W
omen who marry alcoholics may have unique characteristics that influence their partner's drinking, according to new research.

An article in the September issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found that these spouses were less likely to be homemakers, more likely to meet criteria for alcoholism themselves, were more frequent users of illicit drugs and more likely to be smokers. However, the women had no higher risk for major psychiatric disorders and did not report a higher rate of alcohol problems or psychiatric conditions among their parents.

Researchers conducted interviews with 327 women who were the original spouses of 453 subjects of the 20-year-old San Diego Prospective Study (97 percent of the families continue to participate). Characteristics of the nearly 72 percent of the 235 women whose husbands had never developed alcoholism were compared with the 28 percent, or 92, women whose husbands had developed alcoholism.

"I'm in the business of trying to understand genetic and environmental contributors to alcoholism," says study author Marc A. Schuckit, director of the Alcohol Research Center at Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. "I can't interpret what happens to the offspring of male alcoholics -- I can't understand their childhood, environment or even their genetic background -- without understanding as much about the mother as I do about the father."

He adds, "There are women out there who marry alcoholic men, divorce them and then marry another alcoholic man. Why does that happen? Additionally, prior studies have shown that daughters of alcoholics are more likely to marry alcoholic men even if these women are not themselves alcoholic. Does this mean that some women have to take double care as to who they set up a relationship with, because they may be a little more vulnerable to pick somebody who has a problem?"

Schuckit says that clinicians, alcohol researchers, and children of alcoholics also have a vested interest in understanding potential spousal contributions to alcoholism.

Examining alcoholism within the broader context of family is key to understanding the disease, added Michael Windle, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Center for the Advancement of Youth Health and the Comprehensive Youth Violence Center.

"A broader conception of the family as a 'system' is important for understanding the dominant roles that alcoholism may play in structuring the daily activities and adjustments of families," he says. "All families have assets and liabilities; alcoholism among both parents often weighs the ledger very strongly toward the liability end of the spectrum."

Windle says the Schuckit study clearly places alcoholism within the family context of influences where spouses may not only select one another based on their patterns of alcohol abuse, but may also contribute to maintaining these patterns across time.

Results in this paper were collected 15 years after the San Diego Prospective Study began. Schuckit and his colleagues plan to duplicate their examination of this group in 20 years.

"We're interested in what happens to these women, how it relates to her family history or her prior diagnoses. We're as interested in that as we are in our original subjects," he said. They will also be closely following, and eventually interpreting, developments in the lives of the women's children.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Veterans Affairs Research Service and the University of California, San Francisco.

---Health Behavior News Service

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