Considering divorce with an addicted partner?
According to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Approx. 16 million Americans have Alcohol Use Disorder.
Adding drugs and behavioral addictions to this number, it is not surprising that a lot of divorces include concerns about one or both parties’ substance use.
Is this really addiction? Do I have the right to say someone else is addicted?
Three important symptoms of addiction are:
- Loss of control. For instance, the person with addiction plans to drink 2 and drinks more, plans to use $20 and uses more, plans to use only on the weekend and starts using during the week. Or maybe your spouse says they will quit, but then continues to use or falls back into using.
- Using becomes the focus of the person and often the family’s attention much of the time. Do you worry on your way home whether your spouse will be sober when you see them? Do you look for the signs of their using most days? Do you try to find ways to stop them from using? Do you carry anger or secrets about your spouse’s behavior?
- There are consequences to the person’s use, for instance missing work or events, DUIs, fights, arrests, people angry with the person or medical issues or troublesome behavior when using or when recovering from use.
Some other indications that it is addiction include the person lying about their whereabouts or about their use, hiding their use, and using more than they admit. With alcohol, you may find hidden bottles. With drugs or alcohol, or behavioral addictions (sex, gambling, etc.) the person may leave home for longer than expected, even for days or weeks in some cases. Unexplained money may be spent. Another indicator is blackouts, where the person does not remember what happened while intoxicated.
Do I have a right to call it addiction, if it is not my addiction?
You have a right to speak your mind and call it whatever you believe it to be. You may want to be strategic about how you handle it, especially if you are negotiating a divorce, but you know what you know, and it does not help to minimize it. It is also not useful to use “name-calling,” or to be accusatory or attacking. Children, especially teenagers, for instance, need the truth spoken out loud, but in a compassionate, caring way. No one wants to be addicted. Think about how you would like it handled if you were the one with the problem.
What if my spouse does not fit the addiction criteria?
If someone does not have the “official” signs of addiction, but you are still bothered by their behavior, it still counts as a problem for you. There may be many reasons why it troubles you, even if it does not rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis. You get to say what’s important to you.
If I leave will my spouse kill themselves or die?
This is a valid concern for many people who are considering divorce and whose spouse is very depressed and not functioning well. Perhaps your presence is helping minimize their use. Perhaps they are very dependent on you. What is your responsibility?
This is a question only you can answer. What I can say, is that you count, too. You are also important and living a life that works for you is a reasonable expectation. You can encourage your spouse to get treatment. You can share with other family members and friends your concerns. You can enlist the help of someone your spouse respects.
Am I a bad person if I just don’t care anymore?
No. You may be worn out. Maybe you have stayed in the relationship longer than you wanted. It doesn’t even mean that you don’t love your spouse anymore. It just means you are done. It’s ok.
What if I don’t want to leave them?
You can stay with someone with addiction. You have the choice. You may be able to tolerate the addictive behavior, with compassion and love. You may want to seek help if you are tortured by your spouse’s addiction, but still don’t want to divorce. There may be various good reasons to stay, including financial reasons, love, children, other family ties, and numerous other considerations. There is not one right way, and people with addiction are not “bad” people.
If you do stay, it is important to develop or continue the meaningful things in your life, and to not be focused on your spouse’s addiction. If you need support, reach out. There is Al Anon for family members of people with alcoholism. Nar Anon for family members of people with addiction to drugs. There is Alateen for teens with parents who have addiction. Psychotherapy is a good option. Family members and friends might also offer important support.
Can someone still be a good parent if they are an active addict?
Sometimes. It’s about the behaviors. Can your spouse be sober when with the children? Can they show up on time and be responsible? Many people with addictions CAN be good parents. Others can be adequate parents, and of course, some cannot handle it because their addiction has progressed too far. It is important, whether you divorce or not, that you pay attention to how the children are doing and how your spouse is parenting. If there is any abuse, you must take action to protect the children. If they are being neglected when your spouse is in charge, you must arrange other care for them. Having a good relationship with both parents is best for the children, if at all possible.
Want to read more about addiction and divorce? Read Part II – “You have decided to divorce”