Background It is a widely held notion that alcohol abuse is related to mental distress in the spouse. Research has substantiated this notion by showing a tendency for spouses of alcohol abusers to experience more mental distress than spouses of non-abusers. However, the picture seems to be more complex, as some results do not show a significant effect or even less mental distress among spouses of alcohol abusers with the highest alcohol consumption. The present study investigates the association between spousal mental distress and both a high consumption of alcohol and having experienced alcohol related problems. Methods Norwegian population-based questionnaire data from the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT 2) were analyzed. In total 11,584 couples were eligible for analysis. Alcohol consumption was measured by numerical indicators of alcohol amount and frequency of drinking, whereas alcohol-related problems (i.e. having been criticized for excessive drinking) were measured by the CAGE Alcohol Screening Questionnaire. Multivariate hierarchical regression analyses were performed. Results Results revealed that alcohol consumption was significantly associated with a decrease in spousal mental distress, whereas alcohol-related problems were associated with an increase in spousal mental distress when adjusted for each other. Interaction effects indicated that couples discordant for drinking problems experienced more mental distress than spouses concordant for drinking problems. Conclusions The results of our study indicate that alcohol-related problems constitute a clear risk factor for spousal mental distress. On the other hand, a high consumption of alcohol per se was related to lower levels of spousal mental distress, after adjusting for the alcohol-related problems perceived by the alcohol consumer him/herself. All effect sizes were small, but the trends were clear, challenging the notion that a high consumption of alcohol is exclusively and under all circumstances negative for the spouse.