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updated 8/19/2012 7:47:36 AM ET 2012-08-19T11:47:36

Marriage may drive a woman to drink, not because she's unhappy but because she's influenced by her husband's alcohol consumption, new research suggests. And men, on average, drink more than women.

Men, on the other hand, spend less time with their drinking buddies and more with their wives after tying the knot. The result? Married men down fewer beers than their single counterparts.

The study, being presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver, Colo., also reveals divorced men are at particularly high risk of alcohol abuse.

Researchers have in the past investigated differences in drinking between single and married people, but the new study is the first to look at alcohol use among different types of unmarried people: the never-married, the divorced and the widowed. Sociologists from the University of Cincinnati, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University and the University of Texas at Austin looked at longitudinal data from 5,305 men and women from Wisconsin who answered questionnaires about alcohol use in 1993 and then again 2004. The participants reported how many drinks they consumed in a month and whether they had any history of drinking problems. The researchers combined this quantitative data with 120 qualitative in-depth interviews of never-married, married, divorced and widowed men and women conducted over the past decade. [ 6 Scientific Tips for a Happy Marriage ]

Previous studies have consistently shown that married people drink less than single people, with the anti-drinking association stronger in married men than women. The new study confirmed this relationship in men, but it showed that married women actually drink more on average than women who were never married, divorced or widowed. "Stable marriage curbs men's drinking yet is associated with a slightly higher level of alcohol use among women," the authors wrote in their paper on the study, which is not yet published.

Men and women also responded differently to divorce in terms of their drinking. Recently divorced men drank significantly more than men in long-term marriages, while women's alcohol consumption fell sharply after the dissolution of a marriage.  

Drinking and Marriage

The interviews shed light on these patterns: Drinking habits during marriage are influenced by those of spouses — for better or for worse — whereas how much a person imbibes after a marriage ends has to do with their coping mechanisms, as well as the shedding of marital influence.

Men on average drink more than women, and this statistic plays out during marriage and divorce. Although men in the study still drank more than women during every life stage, the majority of men who were interviewed described three main reasons why marriage curbed their drinking: They spent less time with their drinking buddies ; their wives drank less than they did; and their wives worked to limit how much they drank.

Most women reported starting to drink or drinking more during marriage because their husbands drank, and some of them said they enjoyed drinking together as a couple.  

"Our qualitative findings suggest that being married to a man who is more likely to drink creates a new social environment that may promote drinking among women," lead researcher Corinne Reczek, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, told LiveScience. The researchers added that this may, in some ways, bolster relationship quality. [ 10 Bad Things That Are Good For You ]

Drinking and Divorce

Men may drink more than women on average partly due to different coping mechanisms. "Some research suggests that men are more likely to cope with stressors in 'externalizing' ways (i.e., alcohol use), while women are more likely to cope in 'internalizing' ways (e.g., depression)," Reczek wrote in an email. These techniques become especially apparent during the trauma of divorce, when men drink significantly more and women drink significantly less than they did during marriage.

Three-quarters of divorced men in the study said the stress and pain of their marital dissolution drove them to drink. (Too much drinking can also cause marital strife, leading to divorce, and in turn leading to more drinking for men.)

On the flip side, three-quarters of divorced women said they drank less after their marriage because they coped through depression rather than alcohol, and because they were no longer influenced by their ex's drinking. For women, "the transition to divorce was discussed in relation to depression symptoms, which resulted in abstaining from both food and alcohol," the authors wrote. "For most, alcohol was absent from their discussions of divorce. Instead, weight loss and changes in diet were a large component of how women described transitioning to divorce."

Despite drinking less after their marriages dissolved, divorced women were more likely to report ever having had a drinking problem. “This was a fascinating finding,” Reczek said. Although seemingly contradictory, the result could be explained by having previously lived with a problem drinker. "The reason divorced women report ever (not currently) having a drinking problem is, perhaps, because they were previously married to men who also had drinking problems. With divorce, they may no longer drink alcohol."

Understanding the Transitions

The study suggests that marital status has important implications for alcohol use and misuse — and the potential health consequences, as heavy alcohol use is a significant contributor to morbidity and mortality across our lifespan. "Men's alcohol use and overall health benefits from women's influence in marriage, while women's alcohol use is increased with marriage, possibly resulting in lower rates of well-being for these women," the authors wrote. Therefore, ending a marriage to a heavy drinker may promote health in some women. [ 7 Ways Alcohol Affects Health ]

Reczek cautioned, however, that the although the finding that married women drink more than single women is surprising, it may not be cause for concern. The jury is still out on the health implications for women's increased drinking during marriage, in part because moderate drinking is linked to positive health outcomes. Men's drinking during divorce is of greater concern, Reczek said. "Divorced men are at higher risk for heavy alcohol use, and thus may require increased attention at this transitional stage."

There may also be a lesson here for married men, the authors wrote: “Men who fail to converge with their wives' drinking habits in marriage may set a trajectory towards divorce and continued heavy drinking, while men who converge with their wives' lesser drinking habits may set trajectories towards lower overall consumption and sustained marriage." One key to a successful marriage, therefore, may be for men to follow their lighter-drinking wives' lead on alcohol consumption.

Follow Jennifer Abbasi on Twitter @jenabbasi or LiveScience@livescience. We're also onFacebook &Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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