By Mel for Divorce Magazine
Many individuals do not realize that they are marrying an addict when they take their vows, or that addiction is something that can develop later into the marriage. No matter how or when you discover that the person you are married to is struggling with an addiction, that addiction can quickly grow and begin to feel like a third party in your relationship, driving a wedge between you and your partner.
The Negative Behaviors That Accompany Addiction
Addiction, which in and of itself is something very difficult for a spouse to deal with, is often accompanied by a series of other negative and potentially dangerous behaviors: lying and stealing in order to fund their addiction, cheating, beating, and behaving irresponsibly while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Most spouses (and their children) bear the brunt when there is addiction involved in a relationship, and the breaking point that leads to divorce can be very quickly reached.
Loving someone who has an addiction they can't overcome can leave you feeling powerless, frustrated, and ultimately angry at their inability to change in order to save their marriage and their family. These feelings can be further exemplified if the addict in the relationship refuses to acknowledge that they have a problem and seek help, or if they depend on you to help hide the extent of their problem in order for them to continue functioning as an active member of society. In many marriages where addiction is a factor, the spouse takes on the role of being the enabler, and this can become a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. If a partner hides each time an addict blacks out or is unable to go to work due to intoxication, or pays the bills every time the spouse who is going through addiction forgets to pay them, then there is no incentive to get clean or stop behaving in the negative way that they currently are.
No matter how great a marriage might seem, particularly to the outside world, a spouse's addiction to drugs or excessive use of alcohol can undermine it and give you a front seat view of the most negative effects that alcohol and drug abuse can cause to an individual. When the breaking point comes, divorce can be the only answer.
Divorcing An Addict
Dealing with drug or alcohol addiction is hard work. Although it is a cliché, it often takes reaching rock bottom before the individual suffering with the addiction seeks the help they need and turns their life around. For many addicts, divorcing their spouse and potentially losing the freedom of access to their children can be that rock bottom that they need.
If an addict is in the throes of an addiction, then the threat of divorce will not normally be enough to drive them to rehabilitation, encourage them to seek help or promote change. Often addicts are engaging in their self-destructive behavior not because they no longer have love or affection for their spouse, but because they have an addictive illness that they can't control. Therefore, the threat of divorce may be ineffective as a threat, and it is good practice to only talk about divorce if it is something you plan to follow through with. As a non-addict though, sometimes the only option for self-preservation is to seek a divorce. This is particularly true if you have young children who are being negatively impacted by living with an addict and the anti-social behavior that so often accompanies addictive illness.
Dealing with addiction in a marriage is, sadly, a very common problem. Conservative estimates suggest that between 12 to 13 million Americans are alcoholics and between 1 to 2 million Americans are cocaine addicts (not to mention the many millions that abuse cannabis, prescription drugs, and other drugs too). There are approximately 1.2 million divorces every year, which means that it is likely that a large percentage of those divorces will involve some kind of addiction or abuse.
The Mechanics of Divorce
When you make the decision to divorce your spouse, the first step you should take on your journey to your new life should be to secure the services of a divorce lawyer; finding a lawyer that has worked on a divorce case where addiction has been involved would be particularly beneficial as they are likely to know what you are thinking and feeling, and know the mechanics of the divorce process in your unique situation. If the divorce is particularly acrimonious or if there are young children involved, and for the sake of their safety you wish to restrict your addictive spouses access to your children (at least until they have completed a rehabilitation program and stayed clean for a certain period of time), then you may wish to begin gathering all possible evidence of any problematic behavior from your spouse, including times they have been unable to safely care for your children or drive your children responsibly when needed due to being under the influence. Being able to share this information with your lawyer, and ultimately with a judge, will make the process of protecting your children much easier. The more information you can give to your attorney, the better your case will be. Ensuring your divorce agreement includes a well-written drug or alcohol rehabilitation program, followed by regular testing, will also help give you the peace of mind you need to ensure your former spouse is behaving in a way that is responsible when around your children. Finally, while much of the focus of a divorce from an addict is on the addicted individual, it is important to also focus on yourself; take time to be kind to yourself and heal from what has sure to have been a harrowing ordeal.
When addiction in a marriage leads a couple to divorce, there really are no winners. Only heartache, distress, and pain for everyone involved. If the help of therapy and counseling cannot save the marriage (and often by the time a couple decides to confess to the addiction in their marriage and seek help, it is too late for these measures to help), then divorce is sadly the next step. Addiction leads to endless human tragedies, and the breakdown of relationships and the breakup of families is commonly one of these.
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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.