The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Married-Parent Family vs. the Bottle and the Joint

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Detox centers have been extremely busy in recent decades trying to help millions of men and women overcome self-destructive use of alcohol and cannabis (marijuana). And at a time when marriage and birth rates continue to drop to new all-time lows while divorce rates remain near historic highs, the stream of people needing such help is unlikely to decline any time soon. For in a study recently conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin, and Pennsylvania State University, the unmarried and childless emerge as groups especially vulnerable to Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD). 

In launching this new inquiry into pathological use of alcohol and marijuana, the researchers acknowledge that previous research on use of these two substances has focused largely on young adults. And though they concede that use rates run higher in this younger age group, they feel that looking at use of both substances among older adults—that is, those in their thirties—is warranted given that “substance use and abuse remain among the primary threats for morbidity and mortality across adulthood.” They further argue that “the multiple demands and challenges of early midlife”—demands and challenges that multiply as men and women find themselves “fully immersed in primary adult roles of spouse/partner, parent, and/or worker”—are such that they “may confer emergent vulnerability to substance-use disorders.”  

Alcohol and cannabis disorders, the research team argues, deserve attention in part because they are typically “associated with overall poorer health.” Indeed, alcohol and cannabis use disorders often come linked with “neuropsychological deficits” and “other psychiatric disorders, suggesting an array of possible health difficulties.”

To determine which early-midlife adults are most at risk of developing alcohol or cannabis use disorders, the researches examine data collected between 1975 and 2014 for 25,536 men and women tracked from their senior year in high school up to age 35. These data identify a number of groups as especially vulnerable to alcohol and cannabis use disorders. Less educated and less religious individuals, for instance, are much more prone to developing such disorders than are their better educated and more religious peers.

But given recent trends in American family life, no findings merit more attention than those linking alcohol and cannabis use disorders to marital and parenthood status.  

 The authors find that rates for Alcohol Use Disorder run especially high among men and women who are “single or separated/divorced, and nonparents,” compared to peers who are married and parents.  

Similarly, the authors of the new study report that “those who were married compared to those who were not married/not cohabiting were at lower risk of being in . . . the C[annabis]U[se]D[isorder] category.” The researchers likewise conclude that “parents, compared to non-parents, were at less risk of being in the C[annabis]U[se]D[isorder].”

As the Michigan, Texas, and Penn State scholars reflect on their findings, they find the low rates of alcohol and cannabis use disorders consistent with earlier studies revealing an “ubiquitous marriage effect whereby substance use decreases with marriage (and then increases with divorce).”

And though progressives have spent the last five decades pushing the idea that cohabitation is the functional equivalent of wedlock, the researchers underscore the data indicating that “those who were cohabiting at age 35 compared to those who were not married/not cohabiting were at greater risk of being in the A[lcohol]U[se]D[isorder] and C[annabis]U[se]D[isorder] categories.” The researchers leave progressives no latitude in interpreting a finding that “clearly shows that the benefits of the marriage effect do not apply to cohabitation.”

The challenge to progressive thinking posed by this report extends beyond the finding linking cohabitation to substance-use. Progressives try hard to turn every social problem into an economic problem soluble through more aggressive redistribution of income. But the authors of this new study find “higher socioeconomic status was not a protective factor against heavier substance use.”

The authors of the new study suggest that their findings might need reassessment through further research—“particularly in the current changing legal and attitudinal context.” But their findings provide ample reason to suspect that changes in American family life are a prime reason that “among adults in the USA, alcohol and marijuana use have shown an overall increase in the past 10–20 years.”

So long as the clientele for wedding chapels keeps shrinking and the clientele for divorce lawyers remains large, detox centers will remain a disturbingly large presence in American life.

(John E. Schulenberg et al., “Substance Use Disorder in Early Midlife: A National Prospective Study on Health and Well-Being Correlates and Long-Term Predictors,” Substance Use: Research and Treatment 9 (Suppl 1): 41-57, emphasis added.)