Marriage is not always easy. The statistics on divorce show 41 percent of first marriages fail, and the number is higher for second marriages.  When you add addiction into the mix, the situation can feel hopeless.  Divorce is always rough, and divorcing an addict has particular challenges. 

If your wife is willing to admit she has a problem, an inpatient, residential addiction recovery program is probably your best bet to save her, and your marriage, from inevitable self-destruction. An addict in denial of their dependency, corroding your marriage with lies, stealing, and sneaking around, maybe even begging for help when she gets caught, with no actual intention of doing so, is a lost cause until she wants to do the work to come clean, and get clean.

Millions of Marriages are Damaged by Addiction

While you may feel alienated and alone, there are millions of marriages facing the scourge of addiction. With 13 million alcoholics and 1-2 million cocaine addicts in the U.S., not including the epidemic of heroin and prescription pill addiction, there are plenty of addicts in marriages around the country. And it doesn’t stop at alcohol and drug abuse. There are an estimated two million gambling addicts. Porn and Pornography addiction were cited as a factor in 56 percent of divorces according to a recent study, and nearly 15 percent cited video game addiction. 

Addiction in divorce is at staggering levels because addiction is such a widespread health problem. In fact, researchers from Pennsylvania State University found drug and alcohol abuse to be the third most popular reason people cited for their divorce in the United States, equaling 10.6% of all American divorces. Only infidelity (21.6%) and incompatibility (19.2%) were more commonly cited as causes.

Divorcing an addict often brings intense feelings of guilt and shame. You may feel guilty for leaving someone you promised to stand by in sickness and health, for better or worse. There is the shame of admitting to families, colleagues, and friends that your wife’s drinking or gambling is out of control, or that she abuses prescription pills or street narcotics. 

Divorce is agonizing enough without the added guilt and shame, but if she is not making an honest effort at sobriety, she will likely bring you and your children down with her in her spiral to rock bottom. Especially if her addiction is negatively impacting the lives of your children, you have a responsibility to end the chaos and provide a stable environment.

Protecting yourself and your kids is not the same as blaming her for her illness.

Protecting yourself and your kids is not the same as blaming her for her illness. It’s taking care of your children until which time she can seek help and get healthy. If you do not want to unleash legal or financial troubles upon your wife by making her addictions public, you can always seek a no-fault divorce. But be aware, if your wife’s addiction makes her a threat to the safety of her children then not disclosing her problem could mean she ends up with custody of the kids, putting them at extreme risk.

Filing for Divorce from an Addict

Divorce laws are dictated by state law. So always check with a lawyer, or do your research on the laws of your state. Across all 50 states, divorcing couples can file for a no-fault divorce, meaning there is no one at blame for the dissolution of the marriage. Most states retain addiction as grounds for a fault divorce. Filing on the grounds of addiction requires proof of habitual drunkenness or drug addiction. The substance abuse must be a fixed, long-term habit (usually for the length of at least one year) that occurs regularly. In most states, you must prove that your wife became addicted during the marriage.

There are two instances when a divorce on the grounds of addiction will likely be denied.  If you knowingly entered a marriage with an addict, you cannot seem to condemn now what you condoned previously.  Likewise, if you engaged in drinking or drugging with your wife while married (even minimally), then the same applies; you cannot object now that you are no longer partaking and participating. Ultimately, the judge will have final jurisdiction over what meets the standard of addiction in your divorce case.

Habitual drunkenness is its own fault in some states. This usually requires a pattern of drunkenness for at least one year. Even if your wife is a danger to you or your children, cannot hold a job and is ruining you financially, the year standard must be met. Occasional or moderate drinking does not usually pass muster. Repeated car accidents, drunk driving convictions, or hospitalizations are all solid evidence of a habitual problem.

Custody Strategies When Divorcing an Addict

Courts will take action when presented with an accusation of substance abuse—whether in the form of alcohol and/or prescription, or illegal drugs. If the issue is raised during a child custody hearing, the judge will likely investigate to determine whether the allegations are true, and if so, determine if a drug problem is interfering with a parent’s ability to properly care for her children. The best interest of the child standard is used to determine child custody in all fifty states. Any documented history of past substance abuse—such as arrest records, photographs or recordings, or inability to hold a job—can be presented as evidence. Often, an allegation of addiction will result in the judge ordering a drug test. Do not be surprised if you accuse your wife of being an addict and the judge orders her, and you, to be tested. If your wife fails a drug test, it goes a long way in itself to establish a problem and lead to further action by the court.

For a parent accused of abusing drugs, there is a grave risk of losing custody, having restricted visitation rights, and being subjected to frequent, on-going drug testing. The more tangible corroborating evidence that you can present to the court, the better chance you have of obtaining a more favorable child custody outcome. It’s a good idea to ask your lawyer about how to gain evidence, what types of evidence is best, and how to present a persuasive case.

It is also likely a court will appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (“GAL”) to represent what is in the best interests of your children. A GAL will conduct their own independent investigation into whether the mother is fit as a parent. Since a GAL can be objective, the court will usually weigh their testimony heavily when ordering a custodial arrangement.

Dealing with Continuing Addiction

So, let’s say custody has been ordered in your favor due to your wife’s substance abuse, but she continues to display addict behavior during her visitation. What can you do? Bring it to the court’s attention immediately. Once they are advised, they will have some options to protect your children during visitation periods. The judge may restrict all overnight visitation; order supervised visitation periods (usually by a court-appointed social worker or family member), mandate periodic drug and alcohol screens, and mandatory attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and/or outpatient or inpatient addiction treatment. The judgment may require visitation remains supervised in a safe and controlled environment until your ex-wife participates in a drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation program.

Custody orders will almost always mandate parents abstain from alcohol or controlled substances before, and during, visitation. In extreme cases, a court may revoke her parental rights entirely and award full custody of the children to you, the sober parent. In this scenario, she will have no visitation with the children at all.

Many courts will make specialized treatment programs available at no, or low, cost to families.  Parenting classes, family counseling, and psychological evaluations may also be part of the required treatment. In severe cases, the court may mandate an in-patient detoxification and rehabilitation in a hospital or mental health facility.

While in treatment, your ex-wife may be granted supervised visits, or they may be suspended until she completes the rehabilitation program. However, failure to comply with court ordered rehabilitation may lead to the permanent termination of parental rights. Family courts sometimes give immunity from criminal prosecution if the addict parent successfully completes the program. Your lawyer can talk to you about available programs that can help your ex- spouse regain a healthy lifestyle and be a positive influence for your children.

Make an Informed Decision

If addiction is a problem in your marriage, there are a few things to consider before making any decisions. Is your wife beyond help? While you may be fed up and want to give up on your marriage, it’s important to consider if this is the best course of action for your family. If divorce is the right option, find out how divorcing an addict will work with the laws in your state so you can proceed carefully and effectively to protect your children and your financial livelihood.

Resources for Addiction

For more information on how you can help your spouse with her addiction, these national resources can be the first step.

  1. National Institute on Chemical Dependency
  2. American Academy of HealthCare Providers in the Addictive Illnesses
  3. Association of Intervention Specialists
  4. Family Intervention Institute
  5. Full Circle Intervention
  6. Drug Rehab Advice Center


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