Why are many women drinking their way to divorce?

Precised article taken from the Daily Mail.


Waking up on the sofa where she had passed out after drinking a bottle of wine, Sarah Turner’s thudding headache was compounded by a sense of shame.

She couldn’t remember what she had said at the dinner party. Nor could she be sure of how the evening had ended.

All she knew, with dreaded certainty, was that her drunken behaviour would have made her once happy marriage to husband Michael more precarious than ever.

‘By my mid-30s I was drinking at least a bottle of wine a night,’ says Sarah, who at the time combined a demanding job as a chemical consultant with bringing up two children.

‘I’d black out and wake up feeling guilty. Michael and I had dreadful arguments — he drank too, but didn’t make a fool of himself like I did — and after we’d been married five years, he told me my drinking made me an embarrassment, and that he’d leave if I didn’t stop.

‘At the time, I thought it was the cruellest thing he’d ever said but it was the catalyst I needed to quit. If I hadn’t stopped drinking, our marriage would never have survived.’

Sarah’s experience is symptomatic of a worrying trend among otherwise successful middle-aged women, whose heavy drinking is ruining not just their health but their relationships.

Recent research suggests that wives’ excessive alcohol consumption is contributing to as many as one in seven divorces, with the number granted to husbands on the grounds of their spouse’s unreasonable behaviour — which includes heavy drinking — tripling since 1980.

‘Men are more likely to be accused of having an alcohol problem, but the frequency with which wives’ drinking has been cited over the last few years is marked,’ says lawyer Laura Guillon of Hall Brown, the firm that did the research.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, given our changing attitudes towards female alcohol consumption. The now ubiquitous ‘wine o’clock’ has persuaded generations of middle-class women that a drink can take the edge off everything from work stress to domestic boredom.

But what was marketed as an innocuous — even desirable — habit has turned into a debilitating problem for many. One 2015 survey found women aged 45 to 64 were the most likely to drink too much.

‘I am inundated by professional, middle-class women whose relationships are on the rocks because of their alcohol intake,’ says Sarah Turner, now 61, who stopped drinking and retrained as a cognitive behavioural therapist before founding alcohol treatment centre the Harrogate Sanctuary in 2000, which now treats women, in April this year, will also counsel couples.

She adds: ‘It is a hidden epidemic. Drinking is normalised as couples typically meet over a first date drink or share a bottle of wine with a meal.

‘But women get drunk quicker than men because their bodies contain more fat (and fat doesn’t absorb alcohol).

‘They are also more likely to see drinking as an emotional crutch and seem to find it more difficult to stop drinking, which their partner often cannot understand.’

She warns: ‘Men can unwittingly act as “enablers”, escalating their partner’s alcohol intake. To persuade a wife to stop drinking could limit a husband’s freedom. After all, if a wife is drinking she’s less likely to be bothered about what time her partner is coming home for example, so he will often persuade her to carry on.’

Not that we always need much encouragement. Whereas in the past heavy drinking was a pursuit associated with men networking with colleagues, it has now become ingrained in the fabric of many women’s lives.

A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that better educated British women are even more likely to drink heavily — one in five female graduates drinks at least twice the safe limit of 14 units a week, compared with one in ten less educated women. Getting drunk, meanwhile, is no longer taboo, but something to joke about at the school gates or to brag about on social media.

As Sarah Turner puts it, the problem is that ‘wine has become a normalised form of self-medication for high-functioning, driven women. But tolerance to alcohol rises, and when women come to rely on it they feel ashamed and a sense of failure.’ All too often, a wife’s drinking exacerbates existing tensions in a marriage. ‘Alcohol blurs the edges in an unhappy marriage, but also can increase levels of the male hormone testosterone in a woman’s body by up to 60 per cent,’ says Sarah.

Turner says, ‘A drunk woman is more likely to pick fights. Then the guilt starts and she’ll start drinking in secret, which creates a further rift. I had one client who would put her empty bottles in a neighbour’s bin at 3 am so her husband didn’t see she’d been drinking.’

It is not only women’s higher fat ratio that means they get drunk faster than men. Scientists also believe their stomach linings produce less of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol before it enters the bloodstream.

The higher sugar content of drinks popular with women — a glass of wine contains one and a half teaspoons of sugar compared to beer, which usually contains less than one — also makes us more susceptible to blood sugar spikes and crashes, which play havoc with our mood.

The sulphites — or antioxidants — in wine, usually added as preservatives, meanwhile, can trigger unwanted side-effects such as sore throats and rashes in those with allergies.

Much of which resonates with newly-separated Susan Worth, 41, who says alcohol contributed to her marital breakdown this February. ‘By the end of last year I was drinking up to a bottle and a half of red wine a night to numb the pain of how unhappy I was,’ says Susan. Husband Bill, 41, met Susan in a pub ten years ago after she’d been drinking. ‘We were very different,’ she says. ‘Bill was an intense book lover, whereas I was more of a party-goer, but back then he thought I was fun and charismatic.’

‘I started going to bars with friends after work, and buying bottles of wine on my way home,’ she recalls. ‘Alcohol was an escape.’

By late last year, the couple were communicating largely by texts. ‘It was a mutual decision to end it and I agreed to move out with the children,’ says Susan, who now realises she was too quick to use alcohol as an emotional crutch, putting their relationship under added stress.

Carer Susan, from Bushey, Herts, admits her occasional glasses of red wine became a daily habit to help her deal with mounting claustrophobia in her marriage.

As years passed Susan’s silent resentment began to fester.

‘After a bottle of wine I became tearful and would try to tell Bill I was unhappy. He accused me of being argumentative and we’d go to bed in silence.’

Bill started coming home from work later. ‘I’d stare into space with a glass of red wine in my hand, feeling sorry for myself,’ says Susan, who has an eight-year-old son with Bill and a 15-year-old son from a previous relationship.

‘The next morning, hungover, I’d feel like a paranoid monster, embarrassed and guilty at how drunk I’d got. I’d bag up bottles for the recycling bin so Bill wouldn’t see them, but he said he could smell it on my breath.

‘I sometimes stopped drinking for a week to try to make him happy, but I resented him for it.’

Maria Hollis, an articulate housekeeping manager and mother of two from Craven Arms, Shropshire, only ever enjoyed the occasional drink until she reached middle age.

In 2004, however, her 15-year marriage to the father of her daughters Laura, 26, and Sophie, 19, broke down, and her mother Wendy died of cancer. Grief stricken, she says wine became ‘a way of coping and a nightly habit’.

For a while, Maria’s drinking aroused no suspicion. But as her tolerance grew, so did her intake, and by the time she met John, 61, a security adviser, in 2010, she was getting through a bottle of rose every evening.

‘When friends noticed, I’d insist I didn’t have a problem, interpreting their concern as interference,’ she says.

Neither did her drinking problem seem immediately obvious to John, whose job entailed night shifts, meaning he was often working while Maria was drunk.

‘It took months for me to realise,’ says John.

After he proposed to Maria in December 2012, her escalating drinking made her increasingly argumentative. ‘I’d storm out and slam doors if John hadn’t done the washing up,’ she says.

‘If we were watching television and a good-looking woman came on I’d jealously accuse him of wanting to leave. Drinking stopped us talking — all I wanted to do was sit at my computer on Facebook drinking wine. John began to point out I was drinking too much, but I wouldn’t admit I had a problem.’

Her emotional outbursts became physical. ‘I began to lash out at John over petty things like clothes left on the floor. I’d scratch his face, push his chest and slap his arms,’ says Maria, who at 5 ft 3 in was no physical match for her 6 ft 2 in fiance.

‘He only ever looked at me with silent reproach. I felt dreadful and started drinking in the morning to deal with the remorse.’

Despite losing her appetite, the high sugar content of alcohol left Maria three stone overweight at the height of her addiction.

John, a pragmatic man, admits being attacked by his fiancee was ‘tough’ but says: ‘I knew the alcohol was behind Maria’s mood swings, and could still see the woman I loved underneath.’

By 2013, Maria’s lunch was just wine, or beer, with drinks staggered around shifts at the hotel where she worked. ‘I’d have a drink two minutes before I left for work and as soon as I got back,’ she says. ‘My colleagues didn’t suspect — they say I hid it well.

‘Sometimes at weekends I would push my wine glass behind my computer screen, but usually I didn’t bother. Perhaps drinking in front of John was a cry for help, but it was also because I was too addicted to care. I could see how much it upset him — sometimes he was so angry he wouldn’t speak to me for days and any marriage plans were on hold.’

John’s pleas for her to stop drinking became ultimatums. ‘I told her to choose between alcohol or me. Maria said she would stop drinking, but never did,’ he recalls.

Maria adds: ‘I knew I risked losing him, but I couldn’t help it. Alcohol was my priority, as much as it made me bloated, with yellow skin and a heart that constantly raced.’ The turning point was not so much her health as a realisation one Saturday morning in December 2014 that sobriety was an option.

‘I was at my computer with a glass in hand when I suddenly wondered what life would be like without alcohol. It sounds strange, but I’d never considered I could give up before. I walked into the living room and told John I needed to stop drinking. “I’ve been telling you that for years,” he replied as we hugged.

‘Saying the words out loud made my intentions seem real.’

Maria’s GP referred her to a substance misuse team who prescribed her anti-anxiety medication to help her withdraw and offered counselling. ‘I was drenched with sweat and I shook and felt sick as the alcohol left my body,’ she recalls.

‘John brought me soup when I lost my appetite. It was incredibly hard, but knowing I could lose John gave me the determination to keep going.

‘As months passed we started having fun together. For my 50th birthday last July he booked a surprise holiday to the States. Before, I’d have spent the whole time wondering where I’d get my next drink. Without that burden, I felt liberated. We would have split up had I not stopped drinking.’

Drinking has also become acceptable for mothers seeking to alleviate domestic stress.

For Tanya Robertson, 31, married to Harry, 34, alcohol was a way of coping after their first baby, Rose, became seriously ill.

‘My drinking took the edge off a horrific situation, but caused awful arguments with Harry,’ says Tanya, a product buyer. ‘I’d only ever drank socially before but quickly realised a glass of wine had numbing properties.

‘Within a week I was drinking a bottle a night. At first I waited until Harry got home but then I started drinking earlier, at 5 pm, as I cooked tea.’

Tanya adds: ‘After a couple of months I was having a drink in the garden at 4.30 pm, pretending for a few fleeting moments that my life was normal.

‘We’d have huge arguments. I’d shove him and he’d shove me back. It was almost as if we were trying to push our grief out. Harry drank nearly as much as me, but as a man he handled it better.’

Their daughter died of pneumonia last September, after which, Tanya says, ‘drinking became more of a crutch than ever. Harry said I had to stop, and I knew it was ruining my marriage, but I refused.’

A month after Rose’s death the couple were at a family gathering when Tanya’s drinking spiralled out of control. ‘Harry made a comment about people grieving in different ways and I took it as a sign of disloyalty. I’d drunk a bottle of wine on an empty stomach and, incoherent, was screaming that he didn’t understand me.’

A relative called an ambulance, which took Tanya to A&E.

‘A mental health worker at hospital said I wasn’t crazy, but that drinking was a cover for my grief,’ she says. ‘I was given monthly counselling, which offered an outlet in its place. I only drink occasionally now.’

The picture at the top of this blog, also represents the quips that so many cards show about us drinking, never do we see a woman or a man for that matter with a cigarette in their mouths wishes them Happy Birthday. The chasm between the normalisation of an equally potentially carcinogenic drug, alcohol and tobacco is to me mind boggling. I for one have never heard of anyone driving a vehicle after smoking 10 cigarettes and killing themselves or anyone else. I am not condoning smoking, but the bigotry is crazy.

This article shows the reasons why I am so passionate about talking to couples together, and for each to understand the complicated relationships that are manifested with alcohol.


Author: Sarah Turner

Founder of the Harrogate Sanctuary.