Alcoholism is biggest factor in divorce in 75-year study

Long-term marirages were mostly free of alcoholism.
A lifelong study began with privileged people

This… is about how a group of men adapted themselves to life and adapted their lives to themselves. It is also about the Grant Study, now seventy-five years old, out of which this story came.

The first subjects were 64 carefully chosen sophomores from the all-male Harvard College classes of 1939, 1940, and 1941, who took part in an intensive battery of tests and interviews. That first group was joined by sophomores from the next three Harvard classes…

Marriages provided few clues at first

In 1977 I handed in the manuscript of Adaptation to Life. My editor at Little, Brown, Lewellen Howland, took issue with my contention that divorce was a serious indicator of poor mental health, and suggested gently, “George, it is not that divorce is bad; it is that loving people for a long time is good.” I liked his sentiment, but I didn’t believe him, despite the fact that I myself was in a happy second marriage at age forty. (We’re all the exceptions to our own rules.)

The numbers I’d been working with for the previous ten years didn’t look promising at all. By 1967, seventeen men had divorced. By 1973, fourteen of them had been remarried for longer than a year. Of those fourteen second marriages, eight had already ended in divorce again—you’ll hear about two of those in a little while—and four more showed weaknesses that kept them securely out of the good marriage category. In other words, of the fourteen remarriages, only two looked to be anything like happy, and they were still too new to be trusted. Louie’s a romantic, I thought. All I have to do is wait for thirty years and I’ll be able to show him his error.

Fifteen years later I was still right and Howland was still wrong. When I checked marital history against the best and worst Adult Adjustment Outcome determinations that I had established for that 1977 book, all of the fifty-five Best Outcomes had gotten married relatively early and stayed married for most of their adult lives. (And by the time those men were eighty-five, we learned later, only one marriage had ended in divorce.) In contrast, among the seventy-eight Worst Outcomes, five had never married, and by seventy-five years of age, thirty-five (45 percent) of the marriages had ended in divorce. Proportionately three times as many of the Best Adjusted men enjoyed lifelong happy marriages as the Worst Adjusted.

But as the first decade of the twenty-first century wound to a close, the men were well into their eighties and the Study was still going strong. And so were a bunch of second marriages. I could no longer get away with my flippant dismissal of Louie’s rebuke. I was also intrigued by a growing sense that as the men got older they talked about their marriages differently. So in 2010, after many years of concentrating mostly on aging, I took another look at marriage. This time I was armed with a great deal of information about alcohol use among the men and their wives (which I’ll detail in Chapter 9). And it turned out that Lewellen Howland was a very wise man.

Once again, the long picture was quite different from the shorterterm one. Not about everything. At eighty-five, twenty-six of the twenty-eight men with consistently happy first marriages reported that their marriages remained happy. Marriages that had been poor to start with tended to remain that way, whether they endured without divorce for fifty years or ended, still unhappy, in death. Of the thirty surviving men who had had unhappy marriages between twenty and eighty years of age, only five reported happy marriages after eighty. Four of these were new marriages, undertaken after the first wife had died. None of this was very startling (with the exception of the fifth husband’s mysterious report that he and his wife were “still in love, mutually dependent and the best of friends”). But it was very startling, to me at least, that twenty-three of the twenty-seven surviving divorced and remarried men reported that their current marriages were happy—and had been for an average length of thirty-three years!

68 years in, a new factor in divorce emerged – alcoholism

What magic had occurred in those final years to shed such a different light on the early statistics? None. It was just that a new calculation had cleared away a lot of obscuring underbrush. On second thought, though, maybe it was magic after all—the magic of lifetime study.

…the single most important factor in the Grant Study divorces was alcoholism; thirty-four of the divorces—57 percent—had occurred when at least one spouse was abusing alcohol.

…it looked very much as though alcoholism in a marriage often caused not only the divorce, but also the failed relationships, the poor coping style, and the evidence of shaky mental health.

Alcoholism is still, arguably, the most ignored causal factor in modern social science, and it took the Grant Study sixty-eight years to notice that it was the most important cause of failed marriage.[1]

  1. Vaillant, George E. Triumphs of experience. Harvard University Press, 2012.

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