Academic journal article Family Relations

Assortative Mating among Adult Children of Alcoholics and Alcoholics

Academic journal article Family Relations

Assortative Mating among Adult Children of Alcoholics and Alcoholics

Article excerpt

Assortative Mating Among Adult Children of Alcoholics and Alcoholics*

Relations between parental alcoholism, self-alcoholism, and partner-alcoholism were examined in a nonclinical, non-self-identified sample of 128 married and engaged young couples. Couples were recruited to participate in a longitudinal study of close relationships. They were assessed using three alcoholism questionnaires that included reports of parent-, partner-, and self-alcohol use. Participants were predominantly White and well educated. Cross-sectional analyses indicated that alcoholics tend to marry other alcoholics and that male adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) are more likely to be alcoholic than their female counterparts. The relation between parental alcoholism and partner's alcoholism was affected by self-alcoholism in male participants. There was a significant relation between ACOA status and marriage to alcoholics for women that was not affected by their own alcoholism.

Key Words: adult children, alcoholism, marriage, marital relations, mating.

Popular ideology contends that adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) are doomed to become alcoholics, marry alcoholics, or both (Schuckit, Tipp, & Kelner, 1994). That ACOAs are at increased risk for becoming alcoholics is well supported and widely acknowledged in the literature (Sher, 1991). Furthermore, evidence suggests that people do not marry randomly; instead, they mate with partners of similar background and interests (Houts, Robins, & Huston, 1996). A common interest in drinking may explain why alcoholics tend to marry each other (Jacob, Favorini, Meisel, & Anderson 1978; McLeod, 1993). Only about 20% of ACOAs become alcoholics, however (Chiauzzi & Liljegren, 1993), and no more than 50% of alcoholics have an alcoholic parent or close relative (Cotton, 1979). Thus, ACOAs and alcoholics may have neither a common family background nor a common interest in drinking, leaving no reason to expect that they would marry each other.

The popular belief in ACOAs' increased risk for marrying alcoholics is derived primarily from anecdotal evidence from mental health professionals working in the chemical dependency treatment field (Sher, 1991). These professionals indicate that such a pattern is not merely common but virtually universal (e.g., Beattie, 1987). Empirical support for this pattern is scarce, however (Schuckit et al., 1994). Few published studies have investigated the question of mating patterns among ACOAs, and fewer still have done so with methodological rigor. This study was designed to examine the incidence of assortative mating among ACOAs and alcoholics.

Conflicting Previous Findings

In two samples, self-identified ACOAs were more likely to report that their spouses were alcoholic than non-ACOAs (Black, Bucky, & Wilder-Padilla, 1986; Kerr & Hill, 1992). Although these findings provide some support for the observations of alcohol counselors, the samples were not representative of the general population. One sample relied on individuals with a "professional or personal interest in alcoholism" (Black et al., p. 220), whereas the other sample consisted of individuals attending conferences on ACOAs or seeking treatment for alcoholism (Kerr & Hill). More important, neither study controlled for alcoholism in the participants. Given the increased risk for alcoholism among ACOAs (Sher, 1991) and the likelihood that alcoholics will marry each other (McLeod, 1993), the findings may merely represent a combination of these two effects.

In contrast to the reported experiences of mental health professionals in the chemical dependency treatment field, Bennett, Wolin, Reiss, and Teitelbaum (1987) showed that not all ACOAs become alcoholics or marry alcoholics. They collected data from the children of 30 alcoholic men who were recruited primarily through alcoholism counselors. In the resulting sample of 68 ACOAs and their spouses, about 7% of the ACOAs married an alcoholic but were not alcoholic themselves, 4% both became and married alcoholics, and 28% became alcoholics but did not marry alcoholics. …

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