Postdoc Studies the Part Marriage Plays in Reducing Severe Problem Drinking

Matthew Lee
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Psychological Sciences

Current research shows most young people tend to “mature out” of risky behaviors like drinking heavily as they transition into young adulthood. However, there is evidence that reductions in drinking in those with severe drinking problems may be especially pronounced when they get married.

Matthew Lee, a postdoctoral fellow in psychological sciences at MU, recently released a study on the part marriage plays in changing the behavior of severe problem drinkers, “Role Transitions and Young Adult Maturing Out of Heavy Drinking: Evidence for Larger Effects of Marriage Among More Severe Pre-marriage Problem Drinkers.”

“There is a natural tendency for drinkers to age out of risky behaviors like heavy drinking as they transition into young adulthood, and marriage appears to be an important influence on reductions in heavy drinking, particularly for severe problem drinkers,” Lee says. “A key theory we use to explain the marriage effect—role incompatibility theory—says that if your existing behavioral pattern is conflicting with the demands of the new role that you are taking on, like getting married, one way to resolve that incompatibility would be to change your behavior.”

Based on this theory of role incompatibility, Lee made his prediction that particularly severe problem drinkers would be the ones to show the most dramatic reduction in drinking when they get married. His article speculated that this might occur because severe drinkers will have the greatest incompatibility between their drinking and their new role. Indeed, marriage-related reductions in drinking were statistically non-significant in low-severity drinkers but became stronger and more significant in moderate and severe drinkers.

Lee says this topic merits further study, and he has applied for a grant to continue and broaden his research. He credits Curators’ Professor of Psychology Kenneth J. Sher for helping him to take a more comprehensive developmental perspective in studying alcohol problems and disorder. Lee’s research has tended to study drinking reductions in young adults, but his recent grant submission reflects his desire to focus his career on investigating problem drinking across the lifespan.

“The idea with the grant is to look across different age groups—different developmental stages—to better understand whether there are different mechanisms that are driving drinking reductions across different stages,” Lee says. He says the role-related behavioral changes in young adults his current study looks at might be less central to drinking changes taking place later in life.

Lee’s study is based on pre-existing data collected by Laurie Chassin, his graduate adviser at Arizona State University, where he completed his doctoral studies. He says his work highlights the need for further research to better understand the processes under investigation.

“Further studies may show us some things that help to address problem drinking from a public policy or clinical standpoint,” Lee says. “If we can understand what it is about these roles like marriage that are driving these drinking changes, it could tell us how to better help people along who are not reducing their problem drinking naturally.

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