Divorce and Addiction: When Is It Time to Leave?

Diane’s* husband appeared to have it all together. He was CFO of a large corporation. They lived with their two girls in a $2.5 million home in Atlanta and spent weekends and vacations at their second home at Reynolds Plantation. (*name changed to protect client’s privacy)

Their perfect world turned upside down the night Diane received a phone call from police. Her husband had been arrested for driving under the influence and possession of a controlled substance.

In the weeks that unfolded, Diane learned her husband had been hiding alcohol, drinking heavily, and abusing prescription drugs for years. She felt betrayed and confused. Her husband was ashamed and desperate for help for an illness he had been hiding from everyone.

After a great deal of counseling, Diane and her husband decided the best path forward for each of them was the painful step to dissolve their marriage.

man drinking on the job

When Addiction Has Left You No Other Choice

While it’s not inevitable, often when one spouse is battling addiction the marriage simply doesn’t survive.

There are as many scenarios as there are people. The addicted partner may blame their spouse for unhappiness leading to their alcoholism or addiction, or there may be unresolved issues from childhood contributing to the behavior. There may also be an unaddressed/unresolved psychological issue involved, leading the addicted spouse to self-medicate to deal with the issue.

In many cases, alcoholism or addiction involves dual, triple, or even more psychological diagnoses. Those unresolved psychological issues combined with addiction make the entire process of separation and divorce even more complicated and difficult.

A co-dependent spouse may find they can no longer accept the physical, emotional, or financial challenges addiction presents in the marriage.

In the U.S. nearly 10% of all divorces are the result of substance abuse and alcoholism issues. Knowing when and how to leave the marriage is never easy, often emotionally charged and requires the help of an experienced divorce attorney, preferably one knowledgeable about addiction, to navigate the challenges.

Atlanta divorce attorney Pete Chambers says, “You will know it is time to leave when the pain of holding on becomes greater than the pain of letting go and facing the unknown.”

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic, progressive, and sometimes fatal disease and not merely a lapse in judgement or lack of willpower. Those suffering from addiction seek out substances and behaviors they know are harmful to themselves and those around them, despite knowing their destructive nature.

According to AddictionHelp.com the disease is characterized by repeated, compulsive behaviors, an inability to limit how much a drug or activity occurs, and a sense of anxiety when access to the substance or behavior is prevented.

Even when spouses living with an addict recognize the condition as a disease, they will eventually reach a point where the behavioral, emotional, and financial damage takes too much toll on the marriage.

Equally, addicts in recovery go through a wide range of discovery about themselves, their motivations, and triggers. Unfortunately, often too much has been said and done and too much destructive behavior has occurred to save the marriage.

The Most Common Addictions That Destroy a Marriage


The Most Common Addictions That Destroy a Marriage

Not all forms of addiction provide legal grounds for a divorce; those most commonly destroying a marriage include:

• Alcohol abuse
• Opioid addiction (OxyContin, Fentanyl, Morphine, Vicodin, etc.)
• Prescription drug abuse
• Amphetamine or methamphetamine addiction
• Cocaine addiction
• Excessive marijuana use
• Heroin addiction
• Excessive gambling
• Sexual addiction
• Pornography addiction

Addiction, like many diseases, will physically and psychologically affect people differently depending on the person.

Some individuals become addicted to a prescription medication following a serious illness or injury. Others start with recreational alcohol or drug use, then find they can’t stop and progress to more serious drug or alcohol abuse.

Dependence happens over time when a person has used a substance repeatedly and gradually needs more to obtain the same feelings of pleasure, emotional escape, pain relief, or temporary relief from any psychological issues contributing to their suffering.

They may also feel withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop taking the drug, limit their alcohol intake or behavior.

Addiction physically changes brain chemistry and prevents the person from stopping or limiting the substance, alcohol, or behavior despite any negative impact on relationships, work, or finances.

Addiction can be hereditary but isn’t always.

Importantly, an addict does not need to be physically dependent on a drug to become addicted. Physical dependence can occur for anyone after long-term drug or alcohol use.

Addiction and the Divorce Process

According to a University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions study, “Over the course of nine years, nearly 50 percent of couples with a discrepant drinking pattern (only one partner drinks heavily) divorced, whereas only 30 percent of couples who drank at similar amounts (neither or both partners were heavy drinkers) divorced in this time.”

Georgia law recognizes “habitual intoxication” and “habitual drug addiction” as “fault” grounds for divorce.

If you ask divorce attorney Pete Chambers, “the legal definition should be changed to “untreated alcoholism” or “untreated drug addiction” or “failure to seek recovery from habitual intoxication” or “failure to seek recovery from habitual drug addiction.”

For now, alcoholism and addiction are still considered legally to be “fault” grounds or “conduct” grounds for divorce. This legal definition fails to recognize and acknowledge alcoholism and addiction as diseases, versus intentional “bad conduct” or “fault.”

Chambers believes this ultimately contributes to so many refusing to seek the help they need from addiction due to the shame and stigma associated with “fault” or “bad conduct.”

Regardless of the definition, the disease of addiction/alcoholism presents unique challenges during a divorce settlement.

Addiction can lead to a loss of trust and intimacy between partners, lack of communication, and in some cases physical and/or emotional abuse.

Many times, if not always, these challenges lead to enabling.

Co-dependent partners who stay in the relationship even when their spouse refuses to get help end up enabling the addiction to continue.

During a divorce, untreated addiction or alcoholism can impact the court’s decisions related to alimony, child support, parenting schedules, and child custody.

What to Look for When You Suspect Your Spouse is Battling Addiction

What to Look for When You Suspect Your Spouse is Battling Addiction

Many spouses suspect, even if they have been in denial for years, when their loved one is battling addiction. But not always. Addicts can be very good at hiding their substance or alcohol abuse. They are also masters at manipulating their spouse into believing there is not a problem or that the non-addicted spouse is the problem and reason for the substance abuse.

A functional addict can usually hide their addiction very well, hold a job, build a tolerance to their substance of choice, and appear normal to everyone — including those closest to their heart — for a period of time.

Physical Signs of Drug or Alcohol Abuse

Noticing physical changes in your partner is a crucial step toward recognizing substance abuse. These physical symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on the type and frequency of substance or behavior.

Physical symptoms might include:

• Bloodshot or dilated eyes
• Pinned pupils (abnormally small pupils)
• Erratic or violent behavior
• Slurred speech
• Tremors
• Sudden weight loss or weight gain
• Impaired coordination
• Change in personal hygiene
• Unexplained wounds or bruises

Behavioral Signs of Addiction

Recognizing the behavioral signs of addiction can be challenging, particularly if you have no prior experience with an addicted loved one.

During a divorce, identifying problematic behavior can be even more perplexing since a change in your spouse’s conduct may or may not be the result of substance or alcohol abuse.

Look for these uncharacteristic behaviors:

• Lying or secrecy
• Mood swings or violent outbursts
• Manipulation
• Unexplained absences or whereabouts
• Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
• Difficulty concentrating
• Trouble sleeping, or sleeping excessively
• Neglecting responsibilities
• Multiple DUIs
• Inability to maintain a job
• Lack of interest or concern for family issues, children, etc.
• Avoids being with the family or at home

As well as these unexpected financial changes in behavior:

• Fast-growing debt
• Frequent large cash withdrawals
• Selling items for cash
• Sudden late payment notices appearing
• Spending money put aside for necessary expenses
• Cashing in retirement savings prematurely
• Excessive or unusual spending habits

Is it Time to Divorce?

Is it Time to Divorce?

When the illness of addiction has damaged the marriage beyond repair, spouses often come to realize the time has come to move forward separately. The decision is never easy, can be gut-wrenching emotionally, and is seldom without legal and financial challenges.

How an Atlanta Divorce Attorney Can Help You

Dealing with an addicted spouse can be frightening and traumatic during the marriage and while working through the steps toward divorce.

For Diane, finding a family law attorney with personal and professional knowledge of addiction was crucial in protecting her legal rights as well as the safety and well-being of her children.

Finding a compassionate attorney who understood the complex legal process and challenges of a high net-worth divorce was beneficial not only for Diane, but for her husband.

Diane’s attorney was able to help identify ways her husband could demonstrate his ongoing recovery efforts. By having a plan with safeguards or consequences in place, Diane was less stressed about her children’s safety and financial stability should her ex-husband fail to continue in recovery.

An experienced divorce attorney who understands addiction issues can also walk you through how substance and alcohol abuse affect court decisions, provide an overview of legal protections provided to spouses and addicted individuals, and help guide you through how to gather documentation needed to support your case.

An understanding attorney can also help develop a safe exit strategy for you and your children and ensure a fair division of all your marital assets.

For the addict, an attorney with experience in addiction and alcoholism can understand and help achieve a fair resolution to the divorce, including help in preserving custodial rights and time with their children. An experienced attorney can support the addicted spouse in their recovery efforts and protect the addicted spouse while in treatment and/or while working on their recovery. Most importantly, the right attorney can represent the recovering addict with dignity and respect.

An attorney with experience in addiction can also explain the disease of addiction to a judge or jury in a compassionate and nonjudgmental manner. Your attorney can provide the acknowledgment and recognition that should be afforded recovery efforts.

Chambers Family Law attorneys are experienced and prepared to successfully provide non-judgmental, compassionate, and invaluable assistance when addiction plays a role in your divorce. Speak to a Chambers Family Law attorney now at 404-795-5090.