Family & Relationships

The Link Between Alcoholism and Divorce

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Most couples acknowledge that if you work at it, with some give and take, lots of patience and understanding, marriage can be a rewarding and fulfilling life-long partnership. But many days it can be tough going. And if you are married to an alcoholic, it can make things even tougher, intruding on the relationship and maybe even leading to divorce.

Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States: 14.1 million people suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence along with several million more who engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems.

When you are living with an alcoholic, it can lead to situations that are stressful and frustrating, weighing heavy on your relationship. But how can you tell if someone is drinking too much alcohol? The first step is to understand the physical and mental aspects that constitute being an alcoholic.

What is considered alcoholism?

For most of us who aren’t trained to detect its symptoms, one of the biggest challenges of understanding alcoholism lies between the blurred lines of what most of us consider to be a “social drinker,” a “heavy drinker” and an “alcoholic.” It’s hard to know when a person’s behavior crosses those lines, and sometimes it’s even more difficult to admit when you’re involved in a committed relationship with the person.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use disorder, or AUD, is a diagnosable medical condition in which an individual’s alcohol consumption causes harm or distress. The AUD most people are familiar with is alcoholism. Symptoms of alcoholism include:

  • Craving: a strong need, or compulsion, to drink.
  • Loss of control: the inability to limit one’s drinking on any given occasion.
  • Tolerance: the need to drink greater amounts of alcohol in order to get high.
  • Physical dependence: withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness and anxiety, occur when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking.

Additionally, serious dependence can lead to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms including convulsions, starting eight to twelve hours after the last drink. The delirium tremens (D.T.’s) begins three to four days later where the person becomes extremely agitated, shakes, hallucinates and loses touch with reality.

If you are concerned that your spouse may be exhibiting symptoms of alcoholism, you can suggest getting an alcohol assessment to determine the extent of the drinking problem. Many alcohol abusers are able to hide their disease from health care professionals.

In addition, family members often deny or downplay the addiction. These denials may make it easier to manage the situation in the short term, but they can also cause a delay in the alcoholic getting the critical medical or clinical treatment he or she needs.

How alcoholism affects a marriage

Detecting the presence of alcoholism can be tricky. The alcoholic may not realize they have a problem or may be reluctant to admit it exists. In many ways, the need to consume alcohol takes over an alcoholic’s daily life, and the person may start to lie, behave irrationally and neglect important responsibilities like a job or caring for children — all which damages the relationship they’ve established with their spouse.

It can also cause them to suffer serious health problems if they don’t get treatment. Often, a spouse who is married to an alcoholic is left to pick up the pieces after the afflicted person disregards the consequences of his or her actions and increasingly seeks to escape the stress of day-to-day life through drinking.

If your spouse’s drinking is affecting your marriage, it can be difficult to figure out what to do. Living with an alcoholic is tiring and you may feel like you are walking on eggshells. Further, there is a stigma associated with alcoholism so you may feel like you are unable to talk openly about the situation with friends or family. To complicate matters, you may want to support your spouse and feel guilty that you are considering getting a divorce.

How alcoholism affects divorce rates

Regarding the correlation between alcoholism and divorce, the real issue seems to arise when only one spouse is the heavy drinker in the marriage. Studies have shown that when one spouse has a drinking problem, the couple is much more likely to divorce.

For example, according to a study published in May 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the University of Michigan found that nearly half of the more than 17,000 study participants with a history of alcoholism got a divorce at some point in their lives, while only 30% of the participants who were not affected by serious alcohol problems got a divorce.

The consequences of periodic or ongoing excessive drinking can lead to the deterioration of the communication channels, as well as the intimate relationship between the couple. Specific manifestations of such deterioration may include arguments, serious financial problems, acts of infidelity and acts of violence.

What to do if you're married to an alcoholic

Unfortunately, it is impossible to force an alcoholic to change. Treatment will generally only be effective if the person is ready to make the changes in his or her life. However, there are many ways to get help if you are married to an alcoholic.

  • Seek counseling – Try counseling with a therapist who is experienced in working with issues related to alcohol abuse. There are also a number of programs available to partners of alcoholics, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics. These programs offer support groups and other resources to help you with the situation.
  • Encourage your spouse to seek treatment – Rehabilitation and recovery programs offer a vast number of resources and skills to help alcoholics cope with their disease. These programs also help them learn tools to prevent them from relapsing. If you feel that you have exhausted all of your options and your relationship with your spouse is not able to be repaired, getting a divorce may be the only way for you to break free from the potentially toxic relationship. If your partner becomes violent or if you otherwise fear for your safety—or that of your children — it may be time to consider getting a divorce.


Talk to a family law attorney.

Being married to an alcoholic can be exhausting and dangerous. However, divorcing an alcoholic can be a tricky endeavor. It is tough to call it quits on a relationship that you valued, and in many cases, would like to have preserved, if at all possible. However, in some cases it’s the best option to move on to spare the well-being of both you and your spouse, not to mention the welfare of any children who are a part of the union.

If you’re divorcing an alcoholic husband, for example, an initial step would be to talk to an attorney who specializes in family law, and more specifically, divorce cases. Be honest about how the situation has developed or deteriorated, as well as any role you’ve played in possibly enabling their behavior for the sake of the marriage.

If you decide to pursue a divorce, it’s good to know what options you have, what rights you’re entitled to and what support is available as you move forward. If you have children and you fear for their safety, make sure the attorney is aware of your concerns so you can develop a custody plan to keep them safe.

Courts make decisions about custody based on what they determine is in the best interests of the child. A judge will take a spouse’s drinking problem into consideration when making a custody determination. The court may also order the alcoholic parent to receive addiction treatment. An attorney can discuss your legal options and hopefully help everyone, your spouse included, arrive at a better place in their lives.

For times as stressful as divorce, don’t try to go it alone – Legal Now can provide the help and peace of mind you need at an affordable rate. Our network of attorneys is available to all members not covered by legal insurance from an employer.

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