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Divorcing an Addict

Posted by Elizabeth Steen | Mar 17, 2021 | 0 Comments

We all know that many people with addiction challenges can be fun, and charming, and so resourceful. They struggle with a disease and they deserve compassion with that struggle. 

You, as the person who's married to them, also deserve compassion. It's tricky to balance the exhaustion and extra work that addiction can create during a divorce. Here are some tips if you are divorcing someone who struggles with addiction: 

Trust Can Be Hard

1. How do you know if they are still drinking/using drugs/abusing substances? You've probably already realized that it can be impossible to tell for sure if an addict is really sober. A lot of the time addicts say things that are aspirational. They WISH they were sober, so they say they're all fixed now because they don't want you to be disappointed in them. Meanwhile, you don't know whether or not it's safe to let them drive or make large financial decisions. This is frustrating for both sides. So here's an easy guide. An addict who is really in recovery will listen to you, and their actions will match their words. If you ask for a boundary, then an addict who is not in recovery will either say "Oh sure, I'll do that for you!" And then they don't that for you. They just go ahead and do whatever they want even though they pretended they would listen to you this time. Or sometimes the addict will challenge every attempt to set a boundary with some gaslighting like, "Oh my god I can't believe you asked me that! What's wrong with you?" Every time you ask for a boundary they fight as if their life is on the line (because they're hoping you'll stop asking for boundaries, so they can keep drinking or abusing whatever substances without any limits). These are two really common responses, and there are several variations. So how do you know you can trust the addict? If your loved one is able to listen and respect boundaries, then you're probably in the clear. If they can't listen or they only pretend to listen or setting a boundary leads to a fight... then they still need to do more work on themselves before they will be someone you can trust. When your addict allows you to set boundaries without ignore or challenging them, then that addict is probably in recovery, or at least taking their recovery and their relationships seriously. 

Outsource Any Monitoring To Avoid The Addiction Cycle

2. How can you trust the addict with your children? The more there is on the line, and the more they don't want to screw up, the harder it is for addicts to handle the emotions that lead them to want to drink. It's a paradox. They want to protect their children more than anything. The fact that they want something so much also makes it really really hard for them to stay sober. It's tempting to want to monitor the addict every minute. And there are programs that you can sign up for randomly test the addict. There are two problems with the sober partner monitoring the other partner, however. First, monitoring tends to become a full-time job for the sober partner. If you're the sober partner, you're probably getting divorced so that you can step back from taking on the addict's problems. You want less responsibility, not more. You need less enmeshment, not more. So monitoring can be helpful, but it cannot be the job of the sober partner. Otherwise you're just locked in the addiction cycle even after you've broken up. You both need a break. The second problem with monitoring is that it isn't perfect. Nothing will be perfect until the addict takes their recovery seriously. You can't relax and trust the process anyway. You're still waiting for the addict to decide how this will go. And giving up your agency like that won't give either of you peace of mind. Leave the monitoring to third-party apps and professionals as much as possible. It will feel better to both partners. 

Advance Planning Can Protect Your Children

3. How do you let the addict have a relationship with the children without the sober partner babysitting the other parent all the time? You set up situations with as many built-in safeguards as possible. The sober parent handles drop off and pick up, so the children won't be waiting for an addict who maybe won't show up (and so there's no chance the children will end up in a car driven by an impaired parent). Other than the chauffer role, however, the sober parent needs to back away for their own mental health. The addict can then be enrolled in monitoring programs to keep track of any lapses. And the children can be taught, compassionately, how to call for help if the parent becomes sick or incapacitated while supervising the children. if your children are younger than five, supervised visits are a good idea. The parents can also agree that the younger child will wear a watch with GPS or some other monitoring device at all times during a visit, to avoid a toddler escaping an impaired adult and becoming lost. The parents can also agree to ground rules. But again, you want to avoid a situation where the sober parent is always having to check up on the parent who struggles with addiction. The check ups will only become exhausting and unproductive for both partners. 

Avoid Ultimatums Because They Tend To Backfire

4. How do you come to terms with the addict "choosing" the addiction over family? A lot of partners of addicts feel like the addict is on a seesaw. On the surface, things seem simple. The addiction is interfering with the family relationship. So people assume that it's a choice: either the addict wants their family, or they want the drugs or alcohol. A lot of people even say things like, "I only want a divorce so they will finally see how serious this is." This is a basic misunderstanding of what's happening for the addict. Addicts (of all kinds) are people who can't handle their emotions. The addiction is an escape from the overwhelming feelings that they can't process. The more the addict cares, the less able they are to do much about it. The more worried the addict is about failure, the harder it is for the addict to stay sober. The addiction isn't happening because the addict doesn't care. The addiction is happening because the addict cares in a way that is too much for them to process or handle. So they get drunk instead. Then the problems get worse. And as their problems get worse, the addict will feel like they need to get even more drunk to avoid it all. The more serious a situation is, the more the addict wants a drink. Or 12. Or a days-long bender. Anything to avoid the feelings. So asking an addict to feel more will always backfire. And it's not because the addict doesn't care. They care. Their caring is just caught up in a dysfunctional loop. Caring leads to emotions. Feeling emotions leads to fear, and confusion, and overwhelm. Being overwhelmed leads to needing a substance to feel "normal" again ("normal" usually means "numb"). Most ultimatums end with the addict clinging even harder to the addiction because they already can't handle their fear and anxiety. Ultimatums increase fear and anxiety. Fear and anxiety make everyone's life harder when addiction is in the mix. 

It Will Be Easier As You Both Recover

5. How do you lower fear and anxiety for the addict, and yourself? This one is a bit beyond the uncontested divorce process. I can make your divorce simple. I can break everything you need into manageable parts, and give you a sense of control over an emotional situation. I can remove the threat of litigation, which comes with uncertainty and economic turmoil. But only you can find a way to feel okay again. And when you both feel okay, the addiction is going to lose a lot of the power that it's had over your lives. 

Our mission at Divorce Without Court is to lower the anxiety and uncertainty around the divorce process. This is helpful for everyone, but especially for families affected by addiction. Call today and we can help you brainstorm some boundaries to give your family some peace. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Steen

Elizabeth Steen is licensed in Washington State as well as Washington D.C. After work, Elizabeth enjoys making her West Seattle renowned flan recipe with her daughter, which she’s willing to share with favorite clients. She also enjoys hiking, yoga and chasing her family’s fantasy football league title every fall.


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