Divorce is one of life’s most stressful events. To add to the complication and chaos, it often involves a move, downgrade in your financial situation, disruption of established routines, and changes in your relationship with your children. Taken alone, each of these changes is demanding enough. Thrown into a mix with staying sober, they can easily make you feel out of control and overwhelmed.
Alcoholics marry at the same rate as those who do not have a substance abuse problem, yet they experience divorce at four times the rate of the general population. This is an indicator of the corrosive effect of addiction on marriage.
Addicts in recovery are usually plagued with guilt and shame about their past behavior, while their spouses may be riddled with resentment. When a recovering addict needs forgiveness, his partner may be ready to work through years of built up grievances that took a back seat to the addiction. This may be compounded by the addict’s commitment to put sobriety first, which is necessary for recovery. A sober spouse who envisioned sobriety as meaning a renewed dedication to family life may be resentful when nights out drinking or partying with narcotics are replaced with nights at meetings. This is the worst time to put an addict on trial for past behavior as it can lead to relapse. Staying sober needs to be a continual focus, one day at a time.
When an addict gets sober the expectations for all the problems in the marriage to dissolve and marital intimacy to be automatically renewed can set up both partners for disappointment. Couples may not be ready for the realistic effects of sobriety. The new dynamic can throw both spouses off an established balance of co-dependency. In new sobriety, couples often don’t know how to talk to one another and have trouble adjusting to the new normal.
Sadly, the second honeymoon that occurs after a person has stopped using can often lead to divorce. Those in recovery are often facing a problematic relationship for the first time without the numbing escape of alcohol or drugs. Addicts may resent their dependency on their spouse and feel managed by them. As a recovering addict, you may tire of being handled with kid gloves. Meanwhile, your partner is likely to cling to control to avoid focusing on the void within herself that was filled by managing you during your addiction. She may now be forced to face her own inner emptiness, now that she is no longer preoccupied with enabling you. This mutual dependency didn’t happen overnight, and will not revert back to normal right away either. Maybe her cynicism is out of control, refusing to believe that this time you are making a lasting change. Again, trust was eroded over time and will take time and patience to rebuild.
All of these stressors can result in an addict drinking or using, in order to return to a familiar status quo. It may mean he needs more support or is trying to change too much, too soon. For this reason, treatment and recovery programs discourage making any major changes in the first year of sobriety—including getting a divorce or starting a new relationship. Staying sober is enough to deal with without any major life changes to add to the struggle. Both partners need outside help in learning new coping and communication skills. Even if you decide to divorce, it is beneficial for your spouse to be involved in your recovery and that she understands that addiction is a disease that affects both brain functioning and an addict’s ability to choose. Repairing your relationship shouldn’t be all about blame. The focus should be healing, acceptance and moving forward. No, this won’t happen overnight. It will take patience and time. But you have a stronger chance of staying sober if you have the support and forgiveness of your family and loved ones.
1. Remind yourself that you will face extra challenges as an addict.
It will help to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for the struggle to stay sober. Divorce is trying for anyone; but you will have the added difficulty of getting through fights with the ex, court dates and custody negotiations without reaching for a drink or drugs. To add to the temptation, you may also be new in sobriety and dealing with anxiety, trauma, shame, and other issues that drugs once masked and are now bare and raw. Don’t try to deal with everything at once and be open to asking for help. As the popular AA saying says, staying sober is about “Progress not Perfection.”
2. Focus on what you can control.
Your reaction is where your power lies. You cannot control how fair or sensitive your ex, the courts, or your family members will be throughout the process. What you have total power over is your reactions to these things. Give up trying to control how others behave and enter every interaction focused on how you can react to get the most effective outcome.
3. Remember why you are getting a divorce in the first place.
Maybe your relationship was toxic and added to your addiction. Perhaps your partner is not supportive of, or beneficial to, your process to get and stay sober. It could be your problems with your marriage started you on the path to unhealthy, addictive coping strategies in the first place. It will help get over the rough patches if you remain focused on the reasons the divorce is a positive step in your life, and that it is a step in the right direction for your eventual happiness.
4. If things get too challenging, check into a rehab center while going through your divorce.
The professional support may be what you need to get you through to the other side.
5. See a therapist.
This can be in conjunction with a residential or outpatient recovery program, or as a stand-alone option for professional care, during what is one of life’s hardest transitions to navigate. Staying sober is central to health and productivity in every single other area of your life, so it needs to be your primary concern. It is a wise and strong decision to seek help when you feel you need it.
6. Lean on supportive family and friends.
Divorce has a way of showing you who you can count on. Don’t dismiss those who offer to be there for you. Let them know you will take them up on it and give them specific ways they can help you.
7. Take advantage of support from others that have been where you are and are on the same path to staying sober.
While it may not qualify as professional counseling, sometimes sharing with other addicts who “get” your past and current struggles can be enormously helpful. Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have regular meetings you can drop in on. Maybe you went to meetings early in your efforts to get sober but have not been back in a while. It may be a good time to seek group support again. If nothing else, it’s comforting to realize you are not alone and that there is hope even after the darkest of days.
8. Accept responsibility.
This is key to rebuilding the trust that was lost during your substance abuse and with staying honest with yourself. What we are aware of we can deal with. What we refuse to accept or look at can breed in the shadows of our subconscious until it manifests in dangerous ways that derail our lives and progress.
9. Forgive yourself.
Loving yourself, forgiving yourself, and taking care of yourself are central to your ability to deal well with life. It’s likely a low sense of self-worth, and an inability to love and care for yourself is at the root of some of your addiction and marriage problems. This is often the hardest thing for an addict to do, especially if they are hung up on what they lost as a result of their substance abuse. To pile onto the difficulty, there are people in your life who may not be ready or willing to forgive you. But meeting life on its own terms is what sobriety requires. You must focus on what you can change. Work on giving yourself the life-giving gift of forgiveness and self-love.
10. Write it out.
AA suggests writing lists; many therapists recommend keeping a journal– whichever works best for you, it can be a huge release to get your feelings out in a safe space on paper. You can chronicle your tough times, talk to people that you may not be able to talk to in person (because they are no longer around, you have trouble communicating with them in person, or they are not ready/able to have an honest conversation), or just write stream of consciousness to get your messy emotions and troubling thoughts out of your mind and onto paper where they no longer burden you.
11. Get physical.
Medical studies prove time and time again that exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve mood and decrease stress levels. Endorphins released with physical exertion are as (or even more) effective than many pharmaceutical treatments for everything from anxiety to depression. For as small of a time investment as thirty to sixty minutes a day, you can improve your overall health, energy levels, and outlook on life. And let’s face it, physical exercise is the healthiest way to channel stress and anger into sweat and a nice-looking physique. Serious win-win.
12. Take time off when you need it.
Listening to your body when it says you are out of steam and need a break. This is a crucial part of self-care. It’s okay to tune everyone and everything out when you need some time to decompress and charge your batteries. It’s important to focus on yourself sometimes, even if that feels lazy or selfish.
Riding yourself into mental, physical or emotional exhaustion is a road to self-destructive behaviors. Maybe it’s as simple as turning off the phone, ordering from your favorite take out spot and having a Netflix and chill night. You are like everyone else on the planet, you have limited emotional and physical resources, so recognize when you need a break and indulge. You will be more able to tackle life on its own terms once your power is recharged to full.
The fact that you are thinking about how to stay sober during divorce is a sign you are managing your sobriety with honesty and clarity. You are not oblivious to the challenge ahead, or in denial that your sobriety may be tested in some serious ways. Don’t try and tackle all of these twelve steps at once. Start with one or two that speaks to you and implement those first. It could be a meeting that feels most useful and urgent to you right now. After a few meetings, you might feel like writing out some thoughts and emotions are a good idea. Then you might feel the need to get away to the ocean for a day or curl up under the covers with a good book. After a week or two, you could decide that going for a run or playing some basketball is the kind of stress relief you need to add to your journaling and meetings.
These tips are supposed to help you, so don’t stress thinking you need to start everything tomorrow. Overwhelm could lead to you avoiding to try any of these strategies; so bite off what you can chew at a time and see how it works. And remember, your divorce is temporary, but your love and care for yourself will be a lifelong relationship—so focus on staying sober and positive. Be sure to take the steps you need to take care of yourself and to ask for help when you need it. It’s about progress, not perfection.