Divorce And Addiction: A Step-By-Step Guide To Leaving Your Addicted Spouse
Addiction can have harmful effects on relationships and strain marriages. If your spouse is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s important to determine whether divorce is the right option for you.
One of the most destructive aspects of drug and alcohol addiction is its effects on people’s relationships with their loved ones—including children and spouses. Drug and alcohol abuse can widen the cracks already present in relationships, and create additional problems financially, physically, and emotionally.
Marriage is an intimate bond. Watching a loved one struggle with addiction and feeling unable to help them can be painful. While some of the strain that addiction causes to relationships can be mended in early sobriety, not all relationships can be repaired.
If you’re considering seeking a divorce from an addicted spouse, you’re not alone. Behavioral health treatment providers see the strain that addiction can have on a person’s most intimate relationships every day.
Here you’ll find information about:
- what to do if you’re divorcing your addicted spouse
- how addiction can affect a marriage
- how to know if you’re codependent and enabling your spouse
- what to know if you’re considering divorcing your addicted spouse
- alternatives to divorce
Addiction Recovery And Divorce
Not every relationship that’s been affected by addiction is salvageable. Some issues—such as financial difficulties, emotional manipulation, and personality changes—can push relationships past the point of return.
It’s also true that addiction isn’t always the only factor that can lead to divorce. Other issues within a marriage, such as a lack of compatibility, can become clearer after a person has become sober and is able to process the effects of their addiction on the relationship.
Divorce is not something to be ashamed of, especially when the benefits of divorce outweigh the perceived benefits of staying in an unfulfilling relationship. About 40 to 50 percent of US marriages lead to divorce, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
There are many factors that contribute to this high rate. Understanding how common divorce is among couples may help to ease feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt that are sometimes felt by those going through or contemplating divorce from their addicted spouse.
What To Do If You’re Divorcing An Addicted Spouse: Step-By-Step
Divorce is one of the most difficult decisions a person can make. When addiction is involved, the decision can become even more complicated.
Drug and alcohol addiction can have effects on a person’s mind, body, and behavior. Divorcing someone who is actively struggling with addiction can come with a unique set of challenges.
Here are the steps to prepare for potential complications that could arise in moving to divorce an addicted spouse:
Step 1: Find A Family Lawyer Or Divorce Lawyer
Finding a family lawyer or divorce attorney should be your first priority in seeking a divorce from an addicted spouse. When searching for legal counsel, make sure your attorney has experience with divorce cases involving substance abuse.
Where you live in the United States may determine whether you have the legal grounds to divorce your spouse based solely on their substance abuse. The state you live in may also have certain requirements regarding the types of evidence needed to support your basis for divorce.
An experienced divorce attorney can help you by:
- explaining how substance abuse can affect court decisions in divorce cases
- providing an overview of legal protections given to spouses and addicted individuals in your state
- planning a safe exit strategy for you and your children, if applicable
- ensuring the protection of your finances and other assets
- helping you gather evidence to prove how your spouse’s addiction has affected your marriage, such as:
- chronicles of your spouse’s substance use
- paper and electronic transactions of drug transactions (e.g. receipts, credit card statements)
- photos of drugs and drug paraphernalia
- communications between your spouse that relate to their substance use
- rehabilitation records
- criminal records related to substance use
- witness statements from people who can attest to the severity or nature of your spouse’s substance use
Seeking divorce from a spouse who is struggling with addiction, or in early recovery from addiction, can be confusing. A lawyer with experience in these types of cases can walk you through the more complex aspects of this process.
Step 2: Consider Child Custody Arrangements and Child Support
If you have children with your addicted spouse, one of the most important considerations to prepare for is determining child custody arrangements and child support.
When substance abuse is implicated, factors that can affect court decisions on child custody arrangements, child support, and visitation rights include:
- the severity of the substance abuse
- its impact on parenting ability
- history of criminal behavior/activity
- any history of violent behavior towards your children
- steps taken to ensure commitment to sobriety
- drug and alcohol screening test results
Making preparations for child custody arrangements before moving to divorce your spouse can, for some, be a safety issue.
Certain drugs can make people more prone to reckless behavior, hostility, and violence. If you’re concerned about your safety or that of your children, speak to your attorney about the appropriateness of seeking an emergency child custody order or restraining order.
Step 3: Plan For New Living Arrangements
If your spouse is actively struggling with substance abuse, your current living environment may not be safe or comfortable for you and your children. Seeking new living arrangements may be a time-sensitive issue.
Planning for new living arrangements is not a task you need to take on alone. If you’ve secured legal counsel, your attorney may be able to help you determine an appropriate living situation based on the nature of your spouse’s substance abuse and available community support services.
Other factors to consider in planning for new living arrangements might include access your spouse has to alternative living arrangements, whether you’re seeking shared custody, and whether you’re a homeowner.
Step 4: Begin The Divorce Process And Seek Support
Seeking divorce from an addicted spouse can be a complicated and emotional process. Don’t be ashamed to ask for support from friends, family members, or other loved ones, regardless of whether they’re already aware of your situation.
You might find yourself struggling with a variety of emotions and second-guessing yourself. Having loved ones who are willing to listen and show compassion during this process can be incredibly beneficial.
You might also consider seeking professional help from a therapist. Processing through the effects of your spouse’s addiction on your marriage and your own well-being might provide you with greater strength as you begin the process of divorce.
Types Of Addiction That Can Affect A Marriage
Addiction is a mental and behavioral condition that can refer to a reliance on addictive substances—such as illicit drugs and alcohol—or an addiction to certain behaviors.
Types of addiction include:
- drug addiction (e.g. opioid addiction, meth addiction)
- alcohol addiction
- shopping addiction
- gambling addiction
- cigarette addiction
- food-related addiction
- exercise addiction
- sex addiction
People who struggle with drug addiction, for instance, may have both a chemical addiction to substances, as well as a behavioral addiction. While research about the underlying drivers of addiction is still ongoing, researchers do understand that addiction can be physical, mental, and psychological.
Drugs and alcohol, for instance, are known to have effects on the brain. These effects can make it difficult for a person to stop misusing substances. Alcohol and drug abuse can also cause other life difficulties, such as difficulty concentrating, unstable mood, and a lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed.
People living with addiction may neglect the needs of others, as well as their own, in order to continue engaging in unsupportive behaviors related to their addiction.
If you’re married to someone who is addicted to drugs or certain behavioral patterns (e.g. gambling), you’ve likely experienced this for yourself. Your spouse may apologize, may promise they’ll do better in the future—or perhaps appear to be unaware of how their addiction is affecting your marriage.
How Addiction Can Affect A Marriage
Addiction can affect virtually all areas of a person’s life. Within a marriage, this can show up in many different ways. First, addiction can impact a person’s ability to work, often resulting in worsened job performance, job loss, and difficulty finding a job.
This can cause significant financial stress for couples and families and may be even further compounded by other costs related to addiction. This may include the cost of drugs or alcohol, treatment costs, and loss of income.
The financial burden of addiction, however, is not the only way it can affect a marriage.
Other consequences of addiction in a marriage may include:
- feelings of guilt and shame
- worsened communication
- lying and deceit
- emotional abuse
- verbal and physical abuse
- changes in sex life
- loss of trust
- pressure to hide the addiction from friends and loved ones
The consequences of addiction on a marriage can vary according to the specific dynamics of a relationship, the type of addiction, how long your spouse has been struggling, and other factors.
How Codependency Affects Addiction
Codependency is another problem often seen in marriages affected by addiction. Codependent spouses of an addicted individual may find themselves easily manipulated or placated by the words and promises of their loved one.
This can be driven by a desperation to believe what they’re saying is true. It can also be an act of self-protection.
Addicted individuals in a codependent relationship may use their codependency to manipulate their spouse’s emotions and behaviors. They may also perceive themselves as unable to get sober, or unable to maintain recovery from addiction without significant financial and emotional support from their spouse.
Characteristics of codependent people include:
- a tendency to do more than their share in a relationship
- lack of trust in other people outside of the relationship
- having trouble setting boundaries
- difficulty identifying emotions
- extreme need for approval and recognition
- fear of being alone or abandoned
- a tendency to confuse love with pity
- frequent lying and dishonesty
- poor communication
- a compelling need to control others
Codependency can also occur in dysfunctional families, and show up in relationships with friends, coworkers, siblings, and parents. Codependent people often have low self-esteem, can be quick to anger, and may struggle with adjusting to change.
Codependency can show in all stages of the addiction and recovery process, including when a person is receiving treatment and after completing an addiction rehab program.
Signs Of Enabling: Are You Enabling Your Addicted Spouse?
Enabling behaviors are common among spouses and other loved ones of those with addiction, especially within codependent relationships. The term ‘enabling’ can generally be defined as helping or encouraging a person to continue using drugs, either directly or indirectly.
Examples of enabling behaviors include:
- giving the addicted person money to buy drugs
- allowing them to misuse drugs around you
- hiding or lying about their addictive behaviors to others
- taking on the responsibilities of your addicted spouse
- cleaning up for them after their drug misuse
- making excuses for their addictive behaviors or going along with their excuses
- getting them out of the financial difficulty that’s resulted from their substance abuse
Enabling your spouse can have harmful effects on your own wellbeing, as well as that of your spouse—even when you mean well. Enabling behaviors can impede your spouse from seeking addiction treatment or progressing in their treatment.
Although enabling may feel like a way of protecting your spouse, supporting your spouse is different than enabling. Ways to support a loved one who is battling addiction might include attending couples counseling and driving them to treatment.
Another way to support your spouse would be to learn more about their addiction in your own time to better understand what they’re going through.
In addition, setting boundaries with yourself and your spouse can also be a supportive strategy. Mending relationships requires attending to the various ways in which the relationship has been harmed. During the treatment process, it might be helpful to discuss codependency issues with the help of a substance abuse counselor.
Addiction And Divorce Statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), national divorce and marriage rates are on the decline. Over the last 20 years, the number of divorces in the United States has decreased from 944,000 in 2000 to 782,038 in 2018.
Along with infidelity and domestic violence, substance abuse is commonly reported as one of the most common “final straws” among people in the United States who seek divorce. In a small study from 2013, 34.6% of participants named substance abuse as a primary reason for why they were seeking a divorce.
More than 20 million people in the United States are estimated to have a substance use disorder (SUD). While people who get married are believed to have lower substance abuse rates than the general population, substance abuse can also create unique stressors that may contribute to an unhappy or unsupportive marriage.
How Will Divorce Affect My Addicted Spouse?
Divorce can stir up difficult emotions for all involved. Telling an addicted spouse you wish to seek a divorce can come with unique challenges based on whether your spouse is still actively misusing substances or in recovery from addiction.
If Your Spouse Is Still Struggling With Addiction
Threatening divorce is typically not enough to make a person stop using addictive substances or seek treatment. This is especially true if your spouse can sense that you’re not willing to go through with it.
Addiction doesn’t self-correct, and while threatening divorce may create greater urgency for your spouse, they may require greater intervention in order to seek help.
If Your Spouse Is In Early Recovery From Addiction
Getting professional help for addiction may not always be enough to save a marriage. In some cases, participating in treatment with your spouse may make you realize there are other issues in your relationship beyond their addiction.
The biggest concern among spouses seeking a divorce from a spouse in early recovery from addiction is the fear of relapse. This is a valid concern, but also not a burden that you should feel pressured to bear.
If you’re in an unfulfilling relationship and believe your options for remedying it have been exhausted, you have no reason to hide your true intentions. However, it might be helpful to seek guidance from a counselor to figure out how to broach this topic with your current spouse.
Is Divorce The Only Option?
Living with an addicted spouse can cause significant strains to a relationship. You may feel resentment towards your spouse, fear, or hopelessness about whether the relationship can be repaired. But not every relationship that has been hurt by addiction is beyond repair.
Drug and alcohol rehab programs for addiction often encourage participation from patients’ loved ones, including spouses. Seeking treatment for a loved one with addiction is the first step towards getting greater clarity about the future you may have together.
Through counseling, your spouse may learn to acknowledge the strain their addiction put on your relationship and take concrete steps to mend them. Through couples counseling or family therapy, you and your spouse may be able to work through some of the challenges you both faced as a result of your spouse’s addiction.
Other resources can help you if you feel your marriage can mend from the effects of addiction. Al-Anon, for example, helps family members of addicted individuals seek support during recovery, while groups like Codependents Anonymous could help you and your spouse work towards a healthier, happier marriage.
Divorce is an option, but it’s not the only option. Through improved communication and in time, you may be able to get a clearer idea of whether your relationship can be saved, and whether you want it to be. Temporary separation from your spouse may also be an option to explore.
If your loved one is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, don’t wait to seek help. Spring Hill Recovery Center in Massachusetts offers residential rehab and intensive outpatient treatment programs for adults struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.
Contact our rehab center today to learn more about our addiction recovery programs and couples counseling services.
- American Psychological Association (APA)—Marriage and Divorce https://www.apa.org/topics/divorce
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC): NVSS—Marriages and Divorces https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage-divorce.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fnchs%2Fmardiv.htm
- Mental Health America—Co-Dependency https://www.mhanational.org/issues/co-dependency
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)—2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Key Findings https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2018-nsduh-annual-national-report
- U.S. National Library of Medicine—Reasons for Divorce and Recollections of Premarital Intervention: Implications for Improving Relationship Education https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4012696/
- Washington State Employee Assistance Program — Codependency and Addiction http://des.wa.gov/sites/default/files/public/documents/More%20DOP%20Services/EAP/2016TipSheet/Sept2016CodependencyandAddiction.pdf