Divorcing an Alcoholic: Is Alcoholism Grounds for Divorce?
By The Recovery Village
Medical Reviewer Erika Krull, LMHP | Editor Theresa Valenzky
Last Updated: May 16, 2023
Editorial Policy | Research Policy
Alcoholism can hurt marriages and harm children in the family, leading some people to decide to divorce an alcoholic spouse. Knowing what to expect can help.
Alcohol abuse can take a toll on relationships. If you’re married to someone struggling with an alcohol use disorder, you have probably experienced the mental, emotional and financial consequences when a family member abuses alcohol. If your spouse refuses treatment, divorcing an alcoholic may become a reality for you. Below, learn what you can expect when divorcing an alcoholic spouse.
When people use the term alcoholism, they are typically referring1 to an alcohol use disorder, the medical diagnosis of someone with an alcohol addiction. An alcohol use disorder is a legitimate medical condition that causes changes in the brain, leading a person to seek alcohol compulsively, even when serious consequences result.
As of 2019, 5.6% of U.S. adults1 had an alcohol use disorder,or alcoholism, which can be mild, moderate or severe. Engaging in binge drinking or heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk of alcohol dependence and addiction.
Get your loved one the care they need.
Signs Your Spouse is an Alcoholic
If your spouse has an alcohol addiction, they will show symptoms and signs1 of an alcohol use disorder. Remember that occasionally drinking too much doesn’t mean your spouse has an alcohol use disorder.
When you’re living with an alcoholic spouse, they will show some or all of the following signs and symptoms of an alcohol use disorder:
- They cannot reduce the amount they drink, even if they’d like to.
- They have given up hobbies and leisure time activities in favor of drinking.
- They continue to drink, even though it causes problems in their marriage.
- They cannot keep up with work or family responsibilities because of their alcohol abuse.
- They drink even when it places them in danger or contributes to a health problem, like high blood pressure.
- They show withdrawal symptoms when they are not drinking.
- They frequently drink a larger quantity of alcohol than intended or need to drink larger amounts to achieve the same effect.
- They talk about craving alcohol and spend a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from being drunk.
How Alcoholism Affects Marriages
If you’re thinking about divorcing an alcoholic, it is probably no surprise that alcoholism can damage marriages. In fact, one of the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder1 is continuing to drink when it causes problems with your family.
A study in Clinical Psychology Review looked at just how damaging alcoholism is for marriages. Results showed2 that alcohol problems and heavy drinking are linked to lower levels of marital satisfaction. Further research found stress related to alcohol problems resulted in reduced marital satisfaction.
In some cases, the negative effects of alcohol abuse on marriages can be severe. Multiple studies2 have found a relationship between alcohol abuse and violence within marriages. More specifically, the research found that aggressive husbands consumed more alcohol and were more likely to be dependent on alcohol when compared to non-aggressive husbands.
How Alcoholism Affects Families
Just as alcoholism can hurt marriages, it can also damage families. For instance, a person with an alcohol use disorder may be unable to maintain steady employment, creating financial problems for families.
A study that involved interviews of individuals who underwent treatment for drug and alcohol addiction found that addiction was linked3 to numerous forms of disruption within families, including marital problems, loss of child custody, job loss and abuse. Individuals who abused drugs and alcohol also experienced legal trouble and accidents, causing distress to their families.
Perhaps the most significant consequence of having a spouse who abuses alcohol is its effect on children. One recent study4 found that alcoholism in mothers was linked to financial strain and an overall negative family climate, increasing the risk that their children will use alcohol by age 15.
Alcoholism and Divorce
Alcoholism and divorce statistics show that divorce is more likely for people with an alcohol addiction. A 2014 study5 found that among those with alcohol use disorder at some point during their lives, 48.3% experienced a divorce compared to 30.1% of those with no history of alcohol use disorder.
Given the harmful effects of alcoholism on marriages and families, it is no shock that it increases the risk of divorce. Some reasons people may choose to divorce an alcoholic spouse include:
- They cannot cope with the ongoing stress of alcoholism in the home.
- They desire to protect the children from the effects of being raised in a home with an alcoholic parent.
- They no longer want to financially support an alcohol-dependent spouse who does not work.
- They have endured physical and emotional abuse and want to escape.
- Alcoholism has led to a lack of physical and emotional intimacy in the marriage, and one spouse desires more.
- The spouse has given the person with alcohol use disorder numerous opportunities to change, but they continue to refuse treatment.
Is Alcoholism Grounds For Divorce?
The laws associated with divorcing an alcoholic6 vary from state to state, but all 50 allow for a no-fault divorce, meaning each partner’s faults are not considered in proceedings. While all states allow no-fault divorces, only 17 states and the District of Columbia are true no-fault divorce states, meaning it is the only option. In this instance, the court considers marriage a contract termination and does not consider behaviors like alcoholism.
Proving Alcoholism in Divorce Court
If you live in a state that offers at-fault divorce as an option, you will need to prove your spouse is struggling with alcoholism. This will require you to produce evidence, which could include:
Divorcing an Alcoholic Who is the Family’s Financial Support
Divorcing an alcoholic spouse may seem scary for those who rely on their spouse for financial support. If your spouse is a functional alcoholic, they may be able to continue working and could even be the primary breadwinner for the family.
Child Custody Determination
Another consideration when divorcing someone with an alcohol use disorder is child custody. When a judge hears a divorce case, their responsibility in child custody decisions requires determining the child’s best interests. This means they will make custody and visitation orders to ensure children are cared for and safe.
What To Expect After Divorcing an Alcoholic
If you decide to end the marriage, expect challenges after the divorce. You might go through a period of grieving the loss of your marriage, especially if the union was strong before your spouse developed an alcohol addiction. It is normal to have mixed emotions, including anger, sadness or even relief.
You may also have to adjust financially after the divorce. Hiring an attorney and paying court fees can add up, and you might have to reduce living expenses after the divorce. You might have to move into a new home, especially if you cannot afford to stay where you lived while married.
After time passes and you process your emotions, you may find life becomes easier when you no longer live in a home affected by alcoholism.
If you or a loved one live with alcohol addiction, help is available. The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper provides comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment, including inpatient and outpatient rehab, in South Jersey and Philadelphia. Contact us today to begin the admissions process.
Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed May 20, 2022.
- Marshal, Michael P. “For better or for worse? “The effects of alcohol use on marital functioning.” Clinical Psychology Review, December 2003. Accessed May 20, 2022.
- Schäfer, Gabriele. “Family functioning in families with alco[…]other drug addiction.” Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, June 2011. Accessed May 20, 2022.
- Johnson, A. K.; Fulco, C. J.; & Augustyn, M. B. “Intergenerational continuity in alcohol […] family functioning.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 2019. Accessed May 20, 2022.
- Cranford, James A. “DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence and Marital Di[…]d Related Conditions.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, May 2014. Accessed May 20, 2022.
- The Law Dictionary. “True vs. Optional No-Fault Divorce States.” Accessed May 20, 2022.
- The Ohio Legislature. “Section 3105.01 | Divorce causes.” October 6, 1994. Accessed May 20, 2022.
- FindLaw. “Spousal Support (Alimony) Basics.” Accessed May 20, 2022.