Divorcing an Alcoholic or Substance Abusing Spouse

If it seems like there’s a strong correlation between divorce and substance abuse, that’s probably because there is. Half of all marriages end in divorce, and alcohol abuse alone triples that rate. Substance abuse is cited by women as the 3rd most popular reason for divorce; for men, substance abuse is the 7th cited reason for a marriage’s failure. Alcoholism and substance abuse impact every member of an affected family, so it only makes sense that divorces would become more common in situations where it is present in a family.

The Impact of Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse has a negative impact on work performance, being responsible, and maintaining relationships.  These consequences in turn have a huge negative effect on family finances and strain relationships between the abuser and his or her family and friends.  The spouse/abuser may be terminated from their work; lose their driver’s license; and perhaps endanger others, including children. Alcoholism and substance abuse has a negative effect on sex drive and fertility. Increased stress between spouses and between parents and their children is commonplace. It is a family disease, and family members often develop unhealthy coping mechanisms long after experiencing someone’s struggles with alcohol or other substances.  Children of alcoholics tend to marry less frequently, and if they do marry, their divorce rate is higher even when no substance abuse is involved in their marriage.

Leaving a marriage where there is substance abuse is the only option for some spouses.  Unfortunately, as a result, the abuse will typically impact the separation process and divorce related proceedings. If the spouse with the substance abuse problem enters treatment, that treatment phrase may actually slow down the divorce proceedings. While in treatment, the patient/spouse may lack capacity to participate in divorce hearings and negotiations. The hope of reconciling is strong and can be shared between parties. Successful treatment can bring about a hope of mending the family – the threat of divorce shouldn’t be the ultimatum that drives someone to seek help, but sometimes it does so successfully and changes the family for good. However, even when couples try to make it work, sometimes spouses determine that the damage is already done and the relationship cannot be repaired.

Alcoholism and Substance Abuse vs Child Custody

As mentioned previously, substance abuse not only impacts the relationship between spouses, but also between parent and child. Some states mandate that judges must consider the abuse as a factor when making a custody decision. Some states make judges presume that a parent with a substance abuse issue is not capable of having custody. At times, social services may need to step in and take the children out of their home for protection. Judges can order extreme visitation restrictions, including supervised visitation where a social worker is present; limited visitation of just a few hours a month at a supervised public setting; mandatory drug testing prior to visitations; and required substance use monitoring. If a spouse who has previously abused alcohol or substances, they can sometimes modify these custody decisions by proving their sobriety.

The ”sober” parent typically has to prove that the other parent has a problem. Some spouses who suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse can be prone to trying to hide it, whether lying about their behavior or spending more time away from the family to engage in their substance abuse privately. Proof can include:  DUI’s; public intoxication arrests; testimony from friends and family; drunken or impaired texts, emails or voicemails; social media posts; drug test results; credit card records showing large and frequent alcohol purchases; and work related firings/reprimands.  Drinking in and of itself is not a problem, but if a judge finds that a child or the children have been put in danger, a judge will take action. If a judge is persuaded by this evidence, he or she can award sole custody to the sober parent and very limited visitation to the other parent. A judge can also order that the parent with the addiction undergo drug testing and install a detection device in their automobile. Urine testing can be ordered; ankle bracelet monitoring can be mandated; or a portable breathalyzer which can test and transmit results can be authorized.

If the parents are trying to resolve their issues via a separation agreement or in mediation, the parties can agree that they will refrain from indulging in any alcohol or other adult or restricted substances while the children are in their custody, as well as abstain 24 hours before a visitation. Parties can also agree to the use of monitoring devices and supervision, as mentioned above.

How a Parent Can Prove Sobriety

If a newly sober parent is wishing to re-claim visitation and have limitations lifted, that parent should provide a good history of negative test results, even if testing was not required. Other helpful factors include attendance records from AA meetings, witness testimonies, and proof of consistent, positive behaviors. This parent will need to realize that the passage of time will be required; judges want to see and review corrective measures that have been taken over the course of months. Judges are aware that those who abuse alcohol can become sober, but the relapse rate in the first year of recovery is typically over 30%. Relapse rates for other drugs are even higher. But, the more time that passes while sober, the chance of relapse decreases. Judges can be impressed by the parent’s progress, but judges will often be slow to remove all safeguards. Judges will always want to rule in a way that protect the children’s safety and wellbeing.

The parent with the addiction may find that long term success is tied to therapy and treatment. There are various 12-step programs and medication assisted programs. There is cognitive behavioral therapy which helps patients recognize and change negative thought patterns. There are group therapy sessions for those who struggle to go forward on their own, and there is individual therapy for those who need a personal connection made to be effective. There are art and music based treatments to help addicts explore their feelings on the way to recovery.  There are numerous other approaches available to those looking to make a change.  Treatment success can make a difference, but again, judges will want to make a decision that protects the children. Often, judges will rule so that custody decisions can be revisited and reviewed in 3 or 6 months – a safe guard to help keep the children protected – and, if the parent abusing substances appears to have ceased, custody time can be granted going forward.

Divorce and separation are never easy, but hopefully if substance abuse is to blame for the situation, this article provides some insight. If you have any questions or need a referral for a legal or mental health professional who can help, please call us at 919-787-6668.

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