Women Whose Partners are Problem Drinkers Studied

Published October 2, 2020

Women whose partners are problem drinkers are the focus of a clinical trial being conducted by principal investigator Robert G. Rychtarik, PhD, senior research scientist in the Department of Psychiatry.

“If a woman’s husband or live-in boyfriend is an alcoholic, that’s not just his problem — it’s a problem for his wife or girlfriend, too. Our research program is designed to reduce stress for these women, help their marriages and relationships, and help them improve their lives. ”
Senior research scientist in the Department of Psychiatry
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Research Project Also Provides Treatment

Robert G. Rychtarik, PhD

The Stop Spinning My Wheels project is part of a two-pronged research and treatment initiative designed to evaluate different methods of providing support and counseling to women with alcohol-dependent partners while at the same time helping participants to hone their coping skills.

“If a woman’s husband or live-in boyfriend is an alcoholic, that’s not just his problem — it’s a problem for his wife or girlfriend, too,” Rychtarik says. “Our research program is designed to reduce stress for these women, help their marriages and relationships, and help them improve their lives.”

Rychtarik and his colleagues are currently recruiting women from across New York State to participate in the confidential, secure online program, which is offered at no charge.

“The name of the research comes from a common feeling experienced by a woman whose partner has a drinking problem,” says Rychtarik, who is also a senior research scientist at UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions (CRIA). “She tries everything she can to get him to stop drinking, but she is getting nowhere. She feels she is just spinning her wheels.”

Negative Consequences for Partners

The program is designed exclusively for women because researchers say that is where the greatest need is. According to Rychtarik, an estimated 7.7 million people in the United States are living with a partner with a drinking problem. Of these, about 73 percent are women living with a male partner. In all, estimates suggest about one in 20 adult women in the U.S. are married or living with a partner with an alcohol use disorder. 

“This is a hidden and underserved population,” Rychtarik says, noting that there is currently limited professional help designed for people living with a problem drinker. “With the added stress of COVID-19 and increased unemployment, we’ve seen a rise in the number of women who are interested in getting help.”

Living with an alcohol-dependent partner has several negative impacts, Rychtarik says.

“There is an increasing body of research that shows that women with an alcoholic partner experience significant emotional distress that arises directly from problems brought on by the partner’s drinking,” he says. “They show an increased risk of medical and mental health concerns. There are also increased health care costs.”

Rychtarik says women in this circumstance often refrain from seeking help, or do so secretly, because they:

  • fear retribution if the spouse finds out
  • don’t want to damage the family structure
  • don’t want to face stigmatization

In addition, he says, there are institutional and socioeconomic barriers that discourage these women from seeking help, and when they do seek help, newer, empirically tested services are out of their reach. That is why novel delivery models, such as easily accessible, inexpensive (or no-cost) web-based programs, are needed.

280 Women Recruited Since Program Launch

Stop Spinning My Wheels is designed to provide participants with the coping skills they need to lower their stress levels, improve their quality of life, maintain their safety, and possibly give them tools to help motivate their partner to stop or cut back on alcohol consumption.

Rychtarik and his colleagues hope to recruit 450 women from across New York State to participate in the program. About 280 have been recruited since the program launched in October 2019. Recruitment is currently projected to extend through January 2021.

Study participants can complete the confidential, online program at their own pace, from their own home or another location they choose. Program materials consist of videos, readings and interacting with the Stop Spinning My Wheels website. Participants also will take part in research interviews and complete online questionnaires periodically over the course of 15 months.

Prospective study subjects first go through a five-minute online or telephone screening. Eligible women will then be contacted for a telephone interview with a research assistant from UB. If the project is deemed appropriate for them and they agree to participate, they will be randomly sorted into one of three groups.

Women in the first group will work through the self-contained, online educational materials on their own. The second group will use the same self-paced materials but will also receive telephone coaching as needed. The third group will be given a collection of online readings that has been derived from internet searches.

All participants will be assessed five times. They are:

  • before they start the 12-week program
  • halfway through the program
  • at the completion of the program
  • six months after program completion
  • one year after program completion

Jacobs School, CRIA Researchers Involved

The program is provided at no charge, and participants will be paid for the time they spend in research interviews.

The research is being conducted by the CRIA in collaboration with Brian Danaher, PhD, research professor and senior research scientist at the University of Oregon Prevention Science Institute. 

Christopher G. Barrick, PhD, research assistant professor of family medicine, research associate professor in the School of Nursing and senior research scientist at the CRIA, is a co-investigator.

Neil B. McGillicuddy, PhD, another senior research scientist at the CRIA, is also a co-investigator.

The program is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Women who are living with a partner who has a drinking problem can learn more at the program’s website, StopSpinningMyWheels.org, or by calling 716-887-2484 or 1-800-679-3010.