Alcoholism and Divorce
If you and your spouse are considering divorce, first step back, take a deep breath, and reconsider. There are so many good reasons to stay together — from the children to the finances to the fear of the unknown — and, if believe you still have a loving foundation in your marriage, do whatever you can to rebuild on that.
If your spouse is an alcoholic, that adds a whole new dynamic to the equation. Chronic alcoholism is not a reason in and of itself for divorce; although there’s no “cure” as such for alcoholism, every day there are people who quit drinking never to drink again, and a loving marriage can be part of a strong support structure for a recovering alcoholic. At the same time, there are alcoholics who fall into lifelong patterns of recovery and relapse, with each relapse more destructive and painful than the last.
Most physicians and organizations around the world subscribe to the disease concept of alcoholism, recognizing that the condition has both a learned, behavioral component and a genetic component. As such, one’s marriage vows are pertinent: most vows still include the “in sickness and in health” promise, or some variant thereof, and anyone abandoning a spouse who was sick with cancer or some other life-threatening disease would be considered the worst sort of scoundrel. However, with alcoholism, it’s not so clear-cut.
The first thing to bear in mind is that you have no control whatsoever over your spouse’s drinking. It’s not your fault. An active alcoholic follows his own patterns, which are entirely unrelated to whatever your household patterns may be. Whether you try to be loving or withdraw completely; whether you stay at home or move out; whether you find comfort in extramarital affairs or even start drinking yourself — it doesn’t matter.
And second, there is nothing you can do to “fix” your spouse. He (or she) will have to follow the arduous process of recognizing his alcoholism, committing himself to recovery, and taking the necessary steps to get there, at first on his own and then through support networks such as Alcoholics Anonymous. You cannot be your spouse’s AA sponsor or otherwise manage his recovery for him. The best you can do is set a good example, maintain your household to the degree possible by taking over the family finances for instance, and support your spouse’s efforts at recovery by driving him to AA meetings, participating in any related family programs, and the like, without being dictatorial or judgmental.
Spouses of alcoholics often fall into destructive patterns of their own. It’s very hard to not become controlling or judgmental. You might find yourself going through the household rubbish or secret places throughout the house looking for bottles or liquor store receipts. You might become accusatory, or you might begin to lose your own self-esteem, finding fault in yourself. Some psychologists and counselors have identified this kind of reactionary behavior as its own “disease,” called codependency. Whether you wish to consider your own self-destructive behavior a “disease” is beside the point; if you do find yourself losing self-esteem, falling into depression or inertia, or generally changing in ways you don’t like, you can find support among others in your position at Al-Anon meetings, which are becoming nearly as widespread as AA meetings.
At what point should you consider divorce?
(1) If your spouse’s drinking cycles have gone on for years, with no sign of a letup, even if he (or she) is making something of an effort by occasionally attending AA.
(2) If he habitually engages in reckless behavior, for instance by driving when drunk. If your alcoholic spouse badly hurts or kills someone in a car accident, you as well as he will face financial ruin.
(3) If he is abusive toward you, verbally and especially physically, no matter how apologetic he may be afterward.
(4) If your spouse, over time, continues to minimize the effects of his drinking on his life and on your life together, or otherwise shows that he is not willing to make a sincere effort at recovery.
(5) If your spouse continues to relapse and you can genuinely visualize the possibility of happiness without him — either on your own or with a new partner. We all do deserve happiness. Don’t use your spouse’s drinking as an excuse for you to sleep around or otherwise behave in ways that are destructive to your marriage, but eventually you may have to conclude that you’ve done all you can, and that you have to find your own happiness elsewhere.
Consider what your alcoholic spouse may already have lost as well. Has he (or she) been fired from a job, spent time in jail, accumulated debts, lost friends, racked up a laundry list of negative consequences to his drinking? Many drinkers don’t stop until they’ve “hit bottom”; — that “bottom” will differ from person to person, but for many it’s the loss of a spouse. Again, don’t use this argument as an excuse to file for divorce — don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re actually doing your spouse a favor, that he will finally quit drinking and enter a period of successful recovery once he’s lost you. But your continuing to live with your alcoholic spouse may in fact not be the best thing for him.
There is no easy solution to this problem; each alcoholic is different, as are the alcoholic’s family dynamics. Eventually, you will have to be a little selfish — think about what’s best for you and your happiness. If you are chronically depressed living in a stressful, unhappy household, you’re not helping your spouse and you’re certainly not helping yourself. Find your own support through Al-Anon or other organizations geared toward helping family members of alcoholics, and in the end do what’s right for you.