You May Have Your In-Laws to Blame For This Bad Habit, Study Says

Looking at family connections could help you get to the root of your addiction.

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A parent's influence over their offsprings' alcohol consumption is well documented, and it makes sense that through both nature and nurture, a parent's own habits could factor into those of the next generation. But a surprising new study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that the familial factor in alcohol abuse is far more complex than previously thought.

As it turns out, the risk of alcohol abuse stretches far beyond the most immediate familial bonds, and shatters theories that genetics are always to blame for these unhealthy habits. The study concluded that having in-laws with a history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) can make you more likely to have a drinking problem yourself—even if your spouse does not.

The research team, lead by Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., stumbled across this shocking insight while trying to answer a separate question altogether. They wanted to know whether a spouse's genetic makeup affected a person's likelihood to have AUD, which is characterized by an inability to quit drinking despite negative consequences. To this end, they analyzed the marital histories of 300,000 couples and their in-laws in Swedish population registries.

"In a somewhat surprising twist, we found that it wasn't the spouse's genetic makeup that influenced AUD risk. Rather, it was whether the spouse was raised by an AUD-affected parent," explained Salvatore. But before you outlaw your in-laws in the name of recovery, it's worth noting one thing: the team determined that their findings held true regardless of whether a person had much direct contact with their spouse's parents.

As Salvatore explained, "Growing up with an AUD-affected parent might teach people to act in ways that reinforce a spouse's drinking problem." She further rationalized that one might be more likely to enable a spouse if they grew up coping with their parents' addiction. These enabling behaviors can include denying that a problem exists, helping to soften the consequences of excessive drinking (Salvatore pointed to the example of caring for a hungover spouse), and drinking together to strengthen the relationship.

The good news is that the study leaves us with an important take-away message: addiction is complex, and rarely happens in a vacuum. Interventions for those with AUD might see more success when partners are included, and when the full complexity of our attitudes toward alcohol and enabling are taken into account. Only then will we begin to break the cycle and avoid passing our problems down to the next generation. And for more on examining addiction, check out A New Way to Look at Your Drinking Habits.

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