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How to Divorce an Alcoholic Spouse and Stay Sane

Gabrielle Applebury
female lawyer talking with client

If you've decided to divorce your partner who has alcohol use disorder, it's important to remember that this process can be challenging, frustrating, and heartbreaking. It may take longer than you anticipate to finalize, and your partner may escalate their behavior in an attempt to draw you back in to their life.

How to Divorce an Alcoholic Partner While Taking Care of Yourself

The best way to move forward in this process is to work with a lawyer who understands your situation and what you're going through. This can help you know what to document, what steps ensure your safety, and how to work through this process in the most efficient way possible.

Staying Safe During the Divorce

During the divorce process, your partner may experience higher levels of stress, and escalate their behavior. If you, your pets, your kids, or your property are at risk of experiencing harm, it's critical that you have a safety plan in place. If your partner has exploded before, or has been abusive in the past, be sure that you, your kids, and your pets have a safe place to stay, notify your lawyer of the circumstances, and request a restraining order immediately.

How Do You Prove Alcoholism in Court?

The best way you can prove alcoholism is by documenting as much as you possibly can, and working with a lawyer who specializes in working with those who are divorcing a spouse with alcohol use disorder. Be sure to:

  • Have reports and letters from mutual friends and family submitted to family court regarding your partner's drinking and their subsequent behavior.
  • Have clearly documented notes of when, where, and how much your partner drank and their subsequent behavior.
  • Take pictures of any property damage or injuries from abuse, as well as police reports noting these incidents.
  • Have clear examples and proof of any time you felt unsafe and how you protected yourself, your kids, your property and your pets (stayed somewhere else, called police, etc.).
  • Request the court drug test your partner to see if alcohol and/or other substances are present.

Create a Healthy Self-Care Routine

During the divorce process, you may feel as if you are going crazy. The pressure can be extremely intense and you may wish that you hadn't even started the divorce process. It is critical that you take care of yourself and listen to your body during this time. Some self-care options include:

  • Journaling about the situation can help you process what you are experiencing.
  • Speak with trusted friends and family members.
  • Join Al-Anon and connect with others who have family members with alcohol use disorder.
  • Read up about alcohol use disorder.
  • Process what part of you was unconsciously drawn to your partner initially.
  • Work on creating healthy boundaries for yourself in all areas of your life.
  • Work with a therapist or counselor who can support you during this time.

Protecting Your Children's Wellbeing

If you have children, be sure to prioritize their self-care as well. You may want to consider allowing them to speak with a counselor who specializes in working with children who have a parent with alcohol use disorder. Remember kids internalize relational patterns that they observe, especially the parent-child, and parent-parent relationships, and tend to unconsciously replicate these patterns as adults.

Dad is holding son

How Many Marriages End in Divorce Because of Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a commonly cited reason for divorce with drinking and drug use listed as one of the top three reasons for divorce. About 48 percent of marriages end in separation or divorce if one partner has a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder.

How Does Alcoholism Affect Divorce?

Alcohol use disorder can impact the divorce proceedings in several ways. Some of which include:

  • Child custody (child custody evaluator may be appointed) and visitation restrictions may apply
  • If a restraining order is put in place due to previous abuse and/or property damage
  • Judge may order random alcohol testing, especially if children are involved
  • The judge may order alcohol use disorder treatment, especially if there are children involved
  • Family court may file order of protection if your partner is volatile and at risk of harming you, the kids, damaging your property, or draining your funds

Is My Partner's Alcoholism a Reason for Divorce?

While some partners are able to stay in a marriage with an individual who has alcohol use disorder, others are not comfortable doing so. This can be for a number of reasons including safety, lack of trust, as well as general deterioration of the relationship. While alcohol use may be the catalyst for the divorce, it probably is not the only reason you have for going through with one. Ask yourself:

  • At what point did I become unhappy in my marriage?
  • Is my partner willing to seek treatment for their alcohol use disorder, as well as marriage counseling to rebuild our relationship?
  • Am I willing to work on rebuilding our relationship?
  • Am I setting an appropriate example for my kids regarding healthy relationships?

What to Expect After Divorcing a Partner With Alcohol Use Disorder

Some people don't think about what their life will look like after the divorce has been finalized. It can be easy to get caught up in the present, especially when you have so much on your plate to deal with. Preparing for what life may look like after the divorce is a helpful exercise to engage in, so you aren't caught off guard when the divorce is finalized.

Your Children May Ask Difficult Questions

If you have a child or children with your ex-partner, they may begin to ask you difficult questions about you and your ex-partner, especially if they are preteens and older. Be sure to speak with them honestly and at an age appropriate level. If you are having a hard time figuring out how to speak with your child about their other parent's alcohol use, you may want to enlist the help of a professional therapist. Some questions may include:

  • "Why does mom drink so much? " You can say: "What started off as a way to cope with really difficult situations has turned into something that mom can no longer control."
  • "Did you split up because of dad's drinking?" You can say: "Yes, that was one of the reasons why we decided it was best to split up."
  • "Why aren't you helping mom anymore?" You can say: "I'm giving mom the space to figure out what she needs and how she can best help herself" or "I absolutely support her recovery, but that is a decision that only she can make."
  • "Why doesn't dad go get help?" You can say: "Honestly, I don't know why dad isn't ready to get help yet. When he is ready, we will be here to support him."
  • "Why doesn't mom have consequences, but I do?" You can say: "I know that it feels that way, but mom's consequences are ones that we can't see- for instance, she physically feels really sick without drinking, but also may feel bad about herself while drinking. It's my job to teach you how to make healthy life decisions, and that means learning from mistakes."

With kids, it's best to keep answers short and honest. They will let you know if they need more information. Try to avoid inserting your opinions, especially involving your partner, and just focus on helping your kids process this complex situation. Be sure to let your kids know that they are loved and you are here for them if they need to talk. Remember, you are the parent and they should not be comforting or taking care of you.

Mother and son bonding

You May Feel Relieved

You may initially feel relieved once the divorce has gone through. The marriage, as well as the divorce process, may have incited high levels of anxiety and exhaustion in you, and having this chapter closed may give you some release. Know that this relieved feeling may not stick around permanently, and you may find yourself just as emotionally tethered to your ex-partner as you were when you were married.

You May Feel Guilty

Post-divorce, you may find yourself feeling worried and/or guilty about the safety of your ex-partner. You may have initially thought that the divorce would take some worry away, and be surprised to find yourself just as worried, or even more so now that the divorce has gone through. If you have a tendency towards co-dependence, you may find yourself thinking about your ex-partner more, and trying to continue helping them seek treatment.

You May Find Yourself Drawn to Similar New Partners

If you begin dating again, you may be unconsciously drawn to similar partners. Relational patterns tend to be unconscious and developed in early childhood, meaning that they are very difficult to control, and even harder to identify in the moment. If you do find yourself dating similar partners, you may consider speaking with a therapist who can help you better understand your relational and attachment patterns, so you can be in the healthiest relationship possible going forward. Common relational patterns linked to alcohol use disorder include:

  • One partner is the symptom bearer, while the other is the caretaker
  • One partner is the scapegoat or symptom bearer, while the other is the rescuer
  • One partner may play the role of the parent, while the other plays the role of the child
  • One partner may be abusive, while the other is the survivor/placater

In all cases, the power dynamic is inappropriate for a healthy, loving, and equal partnership. If you do begin dating someone new, try to take a step back and examine the roles you both are playing in the relationship. Are they equal, or are you in a similar role as you were with your ex-partner?

Causes of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is deeply tied to early childhood trauma with kids who experience four or more adverse childhood experiences being 7.2 times more likely to develop alcohol use disorder than their counterparts. As adults, those who experienced trauma and who have a diagnosis of AUD, are 87.5 times more likely to relapse. There are also genes that may increase a person's chance of developing alcohol use disorder that can compound environmental risk factors. Individuals may be unable to work through early childhood trauma because:

  • It's too painful, scary and traumatizing to delve into
  • Internal coping resources aren't strong enough
  • They have a comorbid disorder, like a personality disorder, that is further complicating their ability to cultivate insight and connect with their hurt inner child
  • They have dissociated and are unable to connect to the unconscious traumatic memories

Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

Think of it this way- alcohol use disorder serves as a sort of protective factor to those who have it, blocking them from working through intense pain, rejection, abuse, and unhealthy attachments that they may have experienced in early childhood. This doesn't mean that those who have AUD want it or like it, but it does create opposing tensions that are difficult to overcome. In this sense, AUD becomes the focus, instead of the trauma that may have been endured and for some, this may unconsciously or consciously feel like the better end of the deal.

Woman drinking whisky

What Is the Criteria for Being an Alcoholic?

Alcohol use disorder is a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual V with severities of mild, moderate, and severe based on the number of symptoms present. A professional counselor, therapist, doctor, or psychiatrist can give the formal diagnosis of alcohol use disorder if the patient presents with some or all of the following symptoms in the past year:

  • Drinking more than you initially intended
  • Tried to cut down on drinking more than once but couldn't
  • Spent a lot of your time drinking or being sick from drinking
  • Hyper-focused on drinking
  • Drinking interfered with home, work, or school life
  • Kept drinking despite knowing the negative effects
  • Cut back or stopped participating in activities that used to bring you joy in order to drink
  • Increase in risky behavior due to drinking
  • Continue to drink despite increasing anxiety or depressive symptoms
  • Increased drinking tolerance
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms including delirium tremens

The Link Between Alcoholism and Divorce

Deciding to divorce a partner who has alcohol use disorder can feel emotionally draining, scary, and overwhelming. Keep in mind that the divorce and recovery process for you may take longer than anticipated and it's critical that you have a healthy self-care routine, as well as a strong support system in place before you begin this process.

How to Divorce an Alcoholic Spouse and Stay Sane