Divorcing an Alcoholic: Is Alcoholism Grounds for Divorce?

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.

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About Alcoholism 

When people use the term alcoholism, they are typically referring 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. adults 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.

Signs Your Spouse is an Alcoholic

If your spouse has an alcohol addiction, they will show symptoms and signs 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 disorder 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 showed 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 studies 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 linked 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 study 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 study 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 alcoholic 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. 

A no-fault divorce can be a strong option for an individual divorcing their partner because they do not have to prove their spouse has a substance use disorder. You might consider a no-fault divorce if you live in a true no-fault state, where it is the only option, or in a state where it is one of several options. It is often cheaper, and with a no-fault divorce, you are not stating that you were at fault.

On the other hand, some states specifically list alcoholism as grounds for divorce. For instance, Ohio recognizes habitual drunkenness as a reason for divorce. If you have questions about your specific state laws, consult resources or legal counsel in your location.

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:

  • Police reports
  • Medical records
  • Court records from alcohol-related cases 
  • Direct testimony
  • Video recordings
  • Bills from drug and alcohol treatment facilities.

If you can prove in court that alcoholism is the grounds for your divorce, certain factors could affect debt division. For instance, if your spouse incurred legal fees or medical bills or used joint credit cards to fund their alcohol abuse, they could be responsible for these debts. 

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. 

If this is the case, you may be eligible for alimony to continue the standard of living you had while married. Suppose your spouse was the sole income earner, and you stayed at home to raise children or otherwise care for the family. In that case you could be granted an alimony payment for some time so you have a source of income until you can complete training and any other requirements to obtain employment, so you can support yourself. 

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.

If one parent has an alcohol use disorder, it could impact custody decisions. For instance, a judge is not likely to award sole or joint custody to that parent. Visitation may also be restricted if there is alcohol abuse, and the court could limit overnight visits. A parent with alcohol use disorder could petition the court for a change in visitation or custody if they undergo treatment and show they have been sober for a period. 

Staying Safe When Divorcing an Alcoholic

Sometimes, alcoholism can lead to violence within a marriage, and the risks could increase when you decide to leave. A spouse angered by the threat of divorce may act out violently or increase their drinking. If you are concerned for the safety of you or your children, you might consider taking the following steps:

  • Filing for a protection order 
  • Staying with a friend or family member after filing the divorce 
  • Asking that your spouse be removed from the approved pick-up list, so they cannot remove children from school or daycare 
  • Contacting law enforcement in the case of a threat 

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. 

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.