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When Is It Time To Divorce an Alcoholic?

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Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol can negatively affect a marriage in many ways
  • Divorcing an alcoholic is usually reasonably straightforward unless other factors like child custody are involved
  • Divorcing an alcoholic can be challenging due to legal issues and emotions
  • It’s estimated that marriages end in divorce 50 percent of the time when one of the partners drinks heavily
  • With support and communication, many marriages thrive in sobriety

How Does Alcohol Affect a Marriage?

Alcohol is a serious and traumatic problem for couples and families. Being married to an alcoholic can make the other spouse feel depressed, hopeless, and alone.

It can even turn into a cycle of abuse. This is especially if the alcoholic spouse is prone to violence when drinking or experiences blackouts.

The following are some signs and symptoms that alcohol is becoming harmful to your marriage:

  • Neglect of important duties: Alcohol affects cognitive function and physical abilities. Heavy drinking can lead to a neglect of responsibilities linked with work, home, and/or school.
  • Hangovers: Drinking alcohol has many short-term side effects, including hangovers. While a hangover may be temporary, it can significantly disrupt a person’s ability to meet commitments. It can also contribute to unhealthy behaviors like poor eating and a lack of exercise.
  • Encountering legal problems: Drinking can heighten a person’s likelihood of getting into fights, driving under the influence, and getting involved in domestic disputes or violence.
  • The inability to stop drinking: Alcohol is addictive and can lead to physical dependence. Ongoing drinking is a slippery slope that can lead to addiction.
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What Happens When You Divorce an Alcoholic?

If you’re divorcing someone due to alcoholism, it can change how the divorce proceeds and impact other factors like child custody.

The best way to move forward when divorcing an alcoholic is to work with a lawyer who understands your situation and what you’re experiencing.

This can help you understand:

  • What to document
  • What steps ensure your safety
  • How to work through the process in the best way

Divorce Court and Alcoholism

Alcoholism must be proven when alleged in a divorce proceeding. Proving spousal faults like this can be messy in divorce cases.

Evidence of alcoholism and how it affects the marriage can be introduced through:

  • Direct testimony
  • Police reports
  • Accident reports
  • Rehab bills
  • Medical records
  • Court orders in DUI cases
  • Video footage

The other spouse can rebut the evidence shown. This can turn a hearing into a case of “he-said, she-said,” making court proceedings long and expensive.

Regarding marital assets, substance abuse isn’t usually relevant. However, it can be if alcoholism harms assets or debt. For example, if the alcoholic partner collected significant debt on a joint credit card to fund their problem.

Today, all states allow for no-fault divorce grounds. In no-fault divorces, the suing spouse only needs to state that irreconcilable differences stop the couple from staying married. No fault needs to be communicated or proved.3 

This means the court won’t judge either spouse’s actions when deciding on a divorce. This is even if alcoholism is a factor.

Divorces, including those involving alcoholism, typically take less than a year to complete. However, this varies from couple to couple.

Alcoholism and Child Custody

Alcoholism in a divorce may be relevant to other issues. For example, child custody and visitation. 

Family court judges are governed by the child's best interests when considering legal and physical custody of a child. Judges want to ensure children are looked after and live in a healthy and safe environment.

All states have statutes that govern what can be considered by a court when deciding the child's best interests.2 

Moderate drinking won’t usually impact custody. However, courts assess drinking levels that negatively affect a parent’s ability to look after their children properly.

If one parent is a proven alcoholic, winning child custody becomes more challenging. They may only be allowed supervised visits or may require treatment for their addiction.

Receiving addiction treatment and achieving sobriety can affect whether your children return or stay in your care. The length of a person’s sobriety is also important.

A long period of sobriety makes it more likely that a parent will remain sober and be able to care for their children.

Why Can it Be Hard to Divorce an Alcoholic?

Divorcing an alcoholic can be challenging for various reasons. Firstly, the legal process may be timely and expensive. Likewise, it can be emotionally tolling trying to leave someone you care about who’s struggling with alcoholism.

If your partner’s drinking affects your marriage, it can be challenging to figure out what to do. Living with an alcoholic is hard, and you may feel like you’re walking on eggshells.

Furthermore, there’s a stigma linked with alcoholism, so you may feel like you can’t talk openly about the situation with friends and family. You may want to support your partner and feel guilty about considering divorce.

How Many Divorces are Caused by Alcoholism?

​​There are strong links between heavy alcohol use and divorce rates in the United States.4 

Couples with one heavy drinker are more likely to divorce. Couples with two heavy drinkers or two abstaining spouses are much less likely to divorce.7

One study found 50 percent of marriages end in divorce when one partner drinks heavily.5

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Can Marriage Survive Sobriety?

Yes, many marriages can survive sobriety. If a couple takes a healthy approach to managing their issues and discussing their feelings, couples practicing sobriety have a strong marriage.

It may take time to rebuild trust after dealing with alcoholism in a marriage, so it’s essential not to put pressure on each other and take it one day at a time.

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Updated on September 20, 2022

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