According to studies sited by the American Psychological Association, roughly half of married couples in the United States eventually divorce. While the reasons for ending a marriage are as unique and complex as the relationship itself, couples almost unanimously agree on one thing: Civorces cause significant stress.
In most cases, divorce isn’t the end of a happy marriage but an unhappy one. However, even when divorce is the best solution for one or both partners’ safety and wellbeing, it can cause disruption, introduce financial instability and bring deep grief.
There’s also a strong correlation between alcoholism and divorce, particularly when one partner drinks heavily and the other doesn’t. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers found that roughly half of the study’s 17,000 participants with a history of alcoholism went through a divorce at some point in their lives. On the other hand, only 30 percent of those without a history of alcoholism were divorced.
Even if alcoholism isn’t a contributing factor to a divorce, the resulting stress can cause it to develop afterwards as individuals learn to cope with their new normal.
How Divorce Affects Mental Health
Divorce is among the most stressful events that an individual can face. It scores as the second highest stressor on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, ranking higher than going to jail, losing a job or experiencing a major illness or injury. Even the most amicable divorce shakes the bedrock of an individual’s sense of security and stability and changes their relationship with their children, parents and friends.
Unsurprisingly, divorce can wreak havoc on an individual’s emotional health. Few people go into a marriage expecting it to end on unpleasant terms; most people intend to stay with their partner for the rest of their lives. Strong emotional bonds are critical to the individual’s wellbeing, and divorce severs the most significant bond that adults voluntarily form. When the relationship ends in divorce, feelings of anger, depression, shame, anxiety, resentfulness and hurt are normal.
While researchers have found that those in unhappy marriages feel hope and optimism that their futures can be happier if they divorce their spouse, the reality generally pans out quite differently. In fact, studies consistently show that those who are divorced report higher levels of unhappiness and dissatisfaction than those in unhappy marriages.
This doesn’t mean that divorce is never appropriate. In many cases, especially in cases involving physical, emotional or financial abuse, divorce is necessary for the survivor’s safety and wellbeing. However, it’s important to recognize how disruptive divorce is, even when it’s the best course of action.
Using Alcohol as a Coping Tool
Although the connection between alcohol and divorce may not be immediately evident, alcoholism and divorce tend to go hand-in-hand during and after the event. While using drugs to cope is fairly common, alcohol is generally more accessible during times of extreme stress. Studies examining the links between alcohol use and stress find that men and women who report high levels of stress tend to drink more. Men tend to use alcohol to cope with stress disproportionately compared to women, as they’re 1.5 times more likely to binge drink and 2.5 times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.
5 Risks of Alcohol Abuse During a Divorce
If alcoholism is a factor prior to the divorce or comes to light during proceedings, it can impact the outcome for both partners.
1. Alcoholism May Affect the Grounds for Divorce
Every state allows spouses to file for divorce based on no-fault grounds. This means that spouses don’t have to prove that one of them did something to cause the relationship to end. Spouses can end their marriage based on “irreconcilable differences,” or that they simply don’t get along anymore.
In the majority of states, individuals can still file for divorce based on fault grounds, including adultery, physical abuse or drug or alcohol addiction. Even in states where individuals can only file for a no-fault divorce, such as Florida, individuals can ask for a divorce based on a spouse’s alcohol abuse.
2. Alcoholism May Affect Child Custody
Perhaps the area that alcohol abuse weighs most heavily is child custody arrangements. Moderate drinking won’t affect how custody is awarded, but the courts strongly consider anything that impacts the individual’s ability to effectively and safely parent.
When one spouse has an alcohol addiction, there are a few ways that courts may handle custody arrangements. The judge may order that there be no overnight visits and require that all visitation periods have professional supervision. Courts may require the parent with the addiction to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or receive addiction treatment. In the most extreme cases, the court may give full custody to the sober parent and allow no visitation rights at all for the one with the alcohol addiction. If child abuse is a factor, then the judge may terminate the parent’s custodial rights altogether.
3. Alcoholism May Affect Division of Assets
Depending on where the couple lives, the courts may not consider fault when deciding how to divide marital assets. However, in some states, one spouse’s behavior during the marriage can affect how property and assets are divided. The judge may consider a spouse’s alcohol abuse when deciding how joint property should be distributed and may award more to the spouse without the addiction.
This is especially true if the spouse with the addiction had habits that negatively affected the couple’s finances. For example, if the spouse with the addiction spent a large amount of money on alcohol or if they had extensive legal fees from driving under the influence, the court may award the other spouse a larger share of the joint assets to reimburse these costs.
4. Alcoholism May Affect Alimony
If a spouse’s alcohol addiction negatively impacted the couple’s finances, then they may need to pay alimony to their spouse to make up for draining their joint finances to fuel their addiction. On the other hand, if the spouse with the addiction has led to a mental illness that required institutionalization, then the sober spouse may be required to help cover the cost of treatment.
5. Alcoholism May Affect Negotiation of Divorce Settlements
If alcoholism is the grounds for divorce, the sober spouse has the upper hand in the negotiation of the divorce settlement. Public allegations of addiction and related problems can jeopardize the individual’s reputation and employment and may even lead to criminal charges. For this reason, the individual with the addiction is generally more likely to acquiesce to their spouse’s requests in order to avoid the case going to court.
Is Alcoholism a Reason to Divorce?
Being married to someone with an alcohol addiction can lead to feelings of hopelessness, depression and loneliness. If the individual with the addiction becomes violent or experiences blackouts when they drink, it can result in a cycle of abuse. Alcoholism can turn a happy, functional marriage into an abusive, miserable relationship that can’t be salvaged. With the toll that alcoholism takes on couples, it’s not surprising that it’s one of the leading causes of divorce in the United States.
If the person with the addiction is willing to seek treatment and comply with their program’s rules and if both partners are willing to undergo professional counseling, then reconciliation may be possible. However, there are many cases in which the addiction has resulted in too much pain and distrust. Either way, it’s important for both partners to have realistic expectations of how divorce would affect their relationships, finances and general well-being.
When to Seek Help for Alcoholism
Alcohol-related problems, such as broken relationships and divorce, are a sign that it’s time to get help. Whether the individual’s alcohol addiction is a primary cause in the ending of their marriage or if it came as a coping mechanism after the divorce was finalized, they can benefit from addiction treatment.
FHE specializes in addiction treatment and offers several personalized programs to meet the needs of those ready to overcome alcohol addiction. To speak to an intake specialist about our programs, call us today at (855) 580-2621.