Addictions and Marital Conflict

Addiction and marital conflict are an inexhaustible subject. Recent survey research by Northrup, Schwartz & Witte (2012) was cited by Gottman as a particularly rigorous piece of social science, and they have some interesting things to say about addiction and marital conflict.

addiction and marital conflictWe’ve known at least since 1980 that women have a hard time fessing up to addictions of any kind. Only 31% in this study admitted to every having an addiction or obsession, compared with 39% of men in the same study.

The study asked men and women if they ever had a partner who was addicted. 36% of men were reported as having had an addiction by their partner. Curiously, that was the exact rate of self-reporting by men that admitted to an addiction history.

The same stats for women, however, showed a deep divide between reported and self-reported percentages. The “normal bar” for American society is that anywhere from 25% to 45% believe their partner has had an addiction. An interesting aspect of this study is that it took a close look at gender differences in addictive behavior.

What are 21st Century Men and Women Addicted to?

Addiction and marital conflict are a function of the time we live in. Increasingly technology is playing an increasing role in shaping how addiction and marital conflict are complicating and constraining modern intimacy.

  • The early 21st-century American male may experience addictions to Porn, Alcohol, Marijuana, Technology, Eating, Video Games, or Smoking.
  • The early 21st Century American woman may be addicted to Retail Therapy, Vanity, Alcohol, Smoking, or Perscription Drugs.

Some of these addictions have age cohorts.  Obsessive video gaming is more highly correlated with younger men but has also been seen in men as old as 45. While men 45 and older tend to have more of a problem with porn. Generally speaking, the entire menu of addictive behavior is much more evenly balanced across the age spectrum.

But there is one exception. For some reason, prescription drug abuse for women happens most often between the ages of 35 and 44. I also know that this study is 5 years old. I wonder if opioids would get more than an honorable mention if the same study were conducted today.

 Addiction and Marital Conflict

I was surprised by the data on addiction and marital conflict. Only 18% of women reported that their partner’s addiction was destroying their relationship (Northrup, Schwartz & Witte 2012). Almost half (48%) acknowledged that the addiction provoked relational difficulties from time to time.

What struck me was the size of the tolerant cohort among wives. More than a third (34%), reported that their partner’s addiction was not having an impact on the relationship. That is almost twice the rate of the directly opposite cohort who reported that the addiction was profoundly toxic to the marriage.

Men were even less concerned about addiction and marital conflict. Only 6% reported that their partner’s addiction was destroying the relationship. And while nearly half of women said that their partner’s addiction caused stress from time to time, only 37% of men felt the same way.

The largest cohort of men in this study (58%), reported that they felt that their partner’s addiction was not seriously impacting the relationship.

But the most intriguing finding in this study was that 28% of the participants in this study described themselves as happy or very happy in the relationship. Is this a permissive environment, and a comment on our values? No, because you have to look at all the numbers to get the full picture.addiction and marital conflict

The study showed that those participants who never had a partner with an addiction history were 52% happily married. Now when we compare that with the much lower 28% figure who are happily married to an addict and we can imagine the social costs of addiction on happy marriages.

Another explanation for the 28% figure being so high is that there is an arc to addiction. There are many future DUI’s, and other regrettable incidents that will depress that happiness percentage over time.

3 Addictions Men May Have That Lead to Marital Conflict

The first two addictions should come as no surprise. But one of the greatest sources of addiction and marital conflict is right in your pocket and is a growing problem for intimate relationships.

  • Video Games Over half of the subjects (52%) who reported that their partner was addicted to video games described themselves as “unhappy in the relationship.” Men are overwhelmingly more likely to become addicted to gaming than women. That is why so many games are oriented toward male preoccupations with dominance.
  •  Porn. Research typically distinguishes between occasional users and those who use it as a primary source of sexual stimulation. In this study, 16% of wives reported that their spouses had a porn addiction. Of this 16 %, the majority (62%) said they were unhappy in the marriage, but a surprisingly high 38% said they were happy with their spouses despite their porn addiction. The data suggests a “tipping point” where marital satisfaction sharply declines.
  • Smart Phones…a Growing Problem According to Researchers. Have you ever been out with your significant other and found yourself fuming while they are engrossed in their Smartphone? Congratulations… you’ve just been “phubbed.” 

“Phubbing” is snubbing someone by preferring to gaze into your Smartphone than have a conversation. Phubbing can critically disrupt your present-moment, intimate relationships.

Research on Phubbing is growing.

New studies have shown that phubbing marginalizes face-to-face interactions. A paper recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that even the idea they were less important than their partner’s Smartphone more negatively about the interaction than people who didn’t imagine being phubbing. 

A study published in Computers in Human Behavior in 2016, found that texting during a conversation made the talk less satisfying for both partners compared to couples conversing without phones. An older  2012 study even found that the mere presence of an unused Smartphone was enough to make couples feel less connected in the moment.

Compulsive Phubbing Will Hurt Your Relationship.

In the latest study that asked participants to imagine a phubbing situation, the ides of being phubbed was found to threaten four fundamental human needs— belongingness, control, self-esteem, and the enjoyment of a meaningful relationship. Spouses who have to compete with Smart Phones do not feel valued or respected.

Research indicates that chronic phubbing leads to depression and lower marital satisfaction. We also now know that phubbing impacts the phubber and phubee.

A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people who used their phones while eating intimate others reported feeling more distracted and less engaged than those who didn’t use their Smart Phone over the salad plate.

A follow-up experiment found that using that Smart Phone in other non-dining interactions less enjoyable as well.

Increasingly, Phubbing is seen as rude. Phubbers are perceived as less engaged, impolite, and inattentive. A pretty standard definition of an addictive behavior is when it begins to actively impact intimate relationships.

I’d suggest having a Smart Phone policy in your intimate relationship. This is a classic example of a “perpetual problem” that you can nip in the bud by having a generative conversation about phone use. Phubbing squanders and saps intimacy. Don’t let it become a problem in your intimate relationship.

Are These Addictions Impacting Your Marriage?


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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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