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Addiction & Divorce

Addiction can significantly strain relationships, potentially leading to divorce. Substance abuse can cause trust issues, financial problems, and emotional distance, putting marriages at risk.

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The best ways to prevent divorce due to addiction include seeking professional help, establishing boundaries, taking part in support groups, and opening up dialogue to increase honesty. Primarily, however, the person living with addiction must go through treatment and enter recovery from the disorder. 

The Impact That Substance Abuse Has on a Marriage 

Substance abuse can have a profound and detrimental impact on a marriage, affecting both the person living with an active addiction and the person married to an addict. Some ways in which substance abuse can affect a marriage include the following:[1] 

Breakdown of Trust

Substance abuse often involves deceit and secrecy, eroding trust between spouses. If the spouse with an addiction is trying to cover up the fact that they are drinking or getting high, spending money on substances, or spending time with other people who are also drinking or getting high, the non-addicted spouse may soon be unable to believe anything that person says. Lies and broken promises can ultimately strain the foundation of the relationship. 

Communication Issues

When under the influence, the spouse with an addiction may not communicate effectively, or if they do, they may not remember what they agreed to or discussed with their partner. Similarly, that spouse may take advantage of miscommunications to get away with drinking and getting high without getting caught. 

These breakdowns in communication can lead to the non-addicted partner developing resentment, and the addicted partner withdrawing from the relationship. In this climate, it can be challenging to have meaningful and honest conversations.

Financial Strain

Drugs and alcohol are expensive, and the money used on these substances is usually diverted from family funds. This means that there is no money available for bills, which can cause financial strain. The resulting debt and lack of money can cause fights and make it harder for the two partners to communicate.

Emotional Distance

The partner with an addiction may become emotionally distant, as they are preoccupied with obtaining and using substances. The partner who is not living with addiction may feel abandoned or neglected due to their spouse’s prioritization of getting and staying high. Emotional connection and intimacy in the relationship will suffer as a result.

Neglecting Responsibilities

Substance abuse can lead to neglecting family responsibilities, including childcare, household chores, and financial obligations. This places an extra burden on the non-addicted spouse, which can increase the severity and frequency of arguments. 

Legal Issues

Substance abuse may lead to criminal activity to maintain access to drugs. This could mean stealing to pay for substances, being under the influence in public, or buying drugs illegally. This can trigger a host of legal problems that result in hefty fines and time in jail, further straining the relationship. 

Health Complications

Substance abuse often leads to health problems. This means an increase in healthcare costs and a decreased ability to work. This makes it even harder for the non-addicted spouse to manage household responsibilities and pay bills. 

Impact on Children

If children are part of the marriage, substance abuse can have a damaging impact on their mental and potentially physical health and wellness. Children who grow up with addicted parents may feel like they have to be the parents in the family and cover for their parents. They may ultimately feel unsafe at home. 

Isolation From Support Systems

Substance abuse can lead to social isolation for everyone in the family. Not only will the spouse dealing with addiction be less willing to have people over or allow people in the house, but the non-addicted spouse may try to hide the issue from friends and extended family. The need to avoid talking about the details of their home life can cause the kids and both spouses to feel disconnected from their support systems as well as each other.

Cycles of Conflict & Tension

It’s normal for there to be a cycle of conflict within the family when one spouse struggles with addiction. The secrecy and lying will eventually be exposed, triggering an argument. The non-addicted spouse may threaten to leave or end the relationship. The addicted spouse may attempt to reconcile. Because the problem is addiction and not lack of love, the non-addicted spouse may agree to try again. 

Unless the addiction is treated, it will continue to cause the same problems, furthering a cycle of conflict and damage in the relationship. 

Divorce Statistics Related to Substance Abuse 

  • Drug and alcohol abuse were ranked as the third most common reason for divorce in one study.[2]
  • Just under 50% of people living with a lifetime alcohol use disorder reported getting a divorce compared to 30% of those who did not have an alcohol use disorder. This was found to be the same across genders.[3]
  • About one out of every 10 kids in the U.S. lived with a parent who had an alcohol use disorder between 2009 and 2014. About one in 35 kids had a parent who was struggling with a drug abuse problem.[4]
  • Child Protective Services found that between 50% and 80% of incidents in which children suffer from abuse or neglect involve parental use of drugs or alcohol.[5]

How to Prevent Divorce Due to Substance Abuse 

Preventing divorce due to substance abuse involves early recognition of signs, seeking appropriate help, and fostering a supportive environment. Here are some tips to best preserve a marriage that is in danger due to substance abuse: 

Look for the Signs as Early as Possible 

There are some signs that addiction has become an issue for one partner in the marriage. The earlier those signs are recognized for what they are and the cause identified, the sooner treatment can be given. 

Watch out for these signs:[6]

Changes in Behavior

Look out for sudden shifts in behavior, secrecy, withdrawal from social activities, and neglect of responsibilities. Your partner may spend more time alone or away from home in general without explanation.

Financial Issues

Question unexplained financial strain, unusual spending patterns for your spouse, or funds consistently disappearing without explanation or with poor explanation.

Decline in Physical Health

Take note if your partner seems to continually struggle with their physical health. This could mean unexplained weight loss, a general deterioration in hygiene and appearance, or frequent bouts of illness or claims of extreme fatigue. Depending on their substance of choice, this could indicate periods when they are under the influence or without their drug of choice. 

Communication Breakdown

If you experience repeated breakdowns in communication, increased arguments, a general lack of emotional connection, or avoidance of discussions about substance use and other issues, it could be evidence that an addiction is present.

Emotional & Psychological Changes

Pay attention to emotional volatility, mood swings, irritability, anxiety, or signs of depression in your spouse that could be caused by the ups and downs of substance abuse.

Intervene as Soon as Signs Are Noticed

If you are seeing the signs of a potential addiction, do not wait to start a conversation or stage an intervention. It can be helpful to engage a professional in guiding the conversation, such as a therapist or interventionist. The goal is to express concerns about your partner’s drug use and the state of your marriage, and to request that they enter a rehab program immediately.

Engage in Therapy (Together & Separately)

Therapeutic intervention is one of the best ways to address a substance use disorder, and it can be incredibly beneficial for a caregiver or spouse of an addicted person. Consider couples therapy as well as individual counseling to address the impact of substance abuse on the relationship and to develop coping strategies that will help both of you to prioritize self-care.

Attend Support Groups 

Support groups like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or therapy groups designed for family members of individuals struggling with addiction can help you to feel less alone in the process of recovery, get advice when you need it, and vent when you are struggling. 

Similarly, your spouse can attend AA or NA meetings to connect with others in recovery. 

Connect With Treatment

Support and encourage your partner to seek addiction treatment. This will be the most important aspect of saving your marriage. If they continue in active addiction, it will be much harder, if not impossible, to avoid divorce.

Set Boundaries

Establish clear boundaries regarding substance abuse and its impact on the marriage and family, outlining very clearly what the consequences will be if these boundaries are not respected. If your spouse crosses these boundaries, you will need to follow through on the consequences you defined.

Educate & Raise Awareness

Educate yourself about the nature of addiction, its effects, and the treatments that are available, so you can better understand and support your spouse’s recovery process. Everyone is unique, and the drug of choice will impact the specifics of detox and recovery, but gaining a better understanding of what your spouse is going through can help strengthen the relationship.

Financial Management

Money can be an issue during recovery as well as addiction. Come up with some financial management strategies to ensure financial stability and prevent misuse of funds. If your spouse has access to a large amount of money (or any money, in some cases), they may be tempted to relapse. Do your best to avoid putting them in that situation.

Develop a Strong Support Network

Encourage your spouse to build a strong, supportive network filled with friends, family, and treatment professionals to help them stick to their recovery goals. It’s important that your spouse avoid spending time with anyone who is actively drinking and using drugs regularly as it can be a trigger for relapse.

Monitor Progress & Adjust as Needed

Monitor your spouse’s progress in recovery, and be prepared to adapt and adjust your strategies as needed. Treatment and recovery is fluid, and it can take multiple attempts to truly rebuild a new life in recovery. Be prepared for ups and downs throughout the process.

Practice Self-Care

Take care of your own well-being as your spouse goes through the process of recovery.[7] Self-care can look like therapy, engaging in hobbies, or getting spiritual guidance, depending on your needs. It’s the practice of ensuring your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs are met. 

To best preserve your marriage and prevent divorce, you must ensure you are caring for yourself first. 

The Toll of Addiction

It can be tough for a marriage to survive addiction if one party refuses to get help.[7] Start the process of preserving your marriage and helping your spouse who is dealing with addiction by connecting with treatment. Simply having a guide through the process of recovery can alleviate some of the burden on you.

Updated March 7, 2024
  1. The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: From theory to practice. Lander L, Howsare J, Byrne M. Social Work in Public Health. 2013;28(3-4):194-205.
  2. Alcohol abuse and relationships: Implications for relationship and marriage education. Brief R, Cox R. National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  3. DSM-IV alcohol dependence and marital dissolution: evidence from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Cranford JA. Journal of Studies on alcohol and drugs. 2014;75(3):520-529.
  4. Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder. Lipari RN, Van Horn SL. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Published August 24, 2017. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  5. Protecting children in substance abusing families. Kropenske V, Howard J. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. Published 1994. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  6. Warning signs of drug abuse. Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services. Published April 9, 2021. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  7. Resources for families coping with mental and substance use disorders. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Published March 14, 2023. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  8. Reasons for divorce and recollections of premarital intervention: Implications for improving relationship education. Scott SB, Rhoades GK, Stanley SM, Allen ES, Markman HJ. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice. 2013;2(2):131-145.
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