Alcohol abuse, or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), can destroy marriages and create havoc in all family interactions. Alcoholism makes existing relationship issues more difficult, and problems in the relationship can then cause alcohol abuse to increase. All can lead to eventual thoughts of divorcing an alcoholic.

Almost every day, I get messages from women who are somewhere on the road of divorce who say things like this:

  • “He started drinking more, and didn’t come home one night.” 
  • “He said, ‘I can’t stop drinking.’”
  • “I didn’t realize until after we were married that my spouse is a high functioning alcoholic.”
  • “How do I go about divorcing an alcoholic husband?”
  • “How can I get custody of the kids when my husband is an alcoholic?”

Alcoholism can be a vicious circle in a marriage and it often leads to divorce. If we are living in that awful space of being married to someone who is abusing alcohol, we eventually find ourselves searching for resources about alcoholism and divorce.

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The Problems Of Alcohol Abuse

When a marriage partner abuses alcohol, it harms not just the marriage, but can also damage our children and negatively affect extended family members. Alcohol abuse can also cause difficulties between children and the non-drinking spouse and among the children themselves.

Often, drinking can begin innocently enough, for our spouse and for us as well. During divorce, it’s easy to use alcohol to numb the pain we’re feeling. After my divorce was final, on many evenings after our youngest son had left for college, I had a glass or two of red wine. It went well with my simple meal of an apple, cheese and some good dark bread. I enjoyed it.

However, I soon realized my nightly glass of wine was becoming a habit that could easily turn into a problem. I write in my Radical Recovery book about one particularly difficult day before Christmas during the divorce, when I took a swig out of the small bottle of bourbon I had purchased to soak our Christmas cake. That was the only time I have ever done that and haven’t done it since! I wouldn’t have been tempted to do that if I hadn’t been going through divorce.

Our spouse may also increase alcohol use because of conflict or tension in the relationship during and after divorce. Both partners might start drinking more as problems escalate. The truth is, alcohol abuse makes it almost impossible to solve marital issues. In the end, alcohol usually becomes the main cause for divorce.

Withdrawn Or Emotionally Distant

When one spouse starts abusing alcohol, the relationship becomes less stable, more volatile. If one spouse is drinking too much and the other spouse is constantly on his or her case, both spouses can start withdrawing and become emotionally distant. When alcohol becomes the biggest problem in our marriage, other problems get worse, too.

Often our alcoholic spouse starts spending more time with other drinkers and less time with the family. He or she finds reasons to get with friends who also drink too much. In one of our MasterPlan support groups, one participant said her partner’s idea of fun was to go someplace and drink too much.

Most of us finally realize that our husband (or wife) really does have a drinking problem. Even though many are what is called “functioning alcoholics”, we notice that when they get the chance, they gravitate toward people and occasions that allow them to drink too much. Often they tell us we’re being a stick-in-the-mud (or worse!) if we want to go home at a reasonable hour.

Often, spouses who do not have an alcohol abuse problem can have fun without getting drunk. Alcohol abusers usually always end up drinking too much. Spouses of alcoholics get tired of cleaning up after them, or trying to quiet them down in the hotel on a trip, or waiting for them to finally come stumbling in at two or three in the morning. And it seems insignificant, but then there is the awful snoring when they “pass out.”

Physical Illness

Drinking too much not only causes hangovers, verbal abuse, risky behaviors, lack of patience, and more, alcohol abuse can also cause serious health problems over time.

According to Mayo Clinic, “drinking too much alcohol weakens the immune system and makes the drinker more prone to getting sick.” There is a whole list of physical illnesses that can happen when a person is abusing alcohol…especially over time.

Here a list from Mayo Clinic of general categories of health problems caused by alcohol abuse:

  • Liver disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart problems
  • Diabetes complications
  • Sexual function and menstruation issues
  • Eye problems
  • Birth defects
  • Bone damage
  • Neurological complications
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Medication and alcohol interactions

Alcohol Use disorder is not good for our physical selves and definitely not good for our marriages.

Violent or Verbally/Physically Abusive

Not all alcoholics are violent. Not all alcoholics are verbally or physically abusive. But some definitely are and adding verbal or physical abuse to alcohol abuse almost always creates a situation where we find ourselves deciding to divorce an alcoholic. Divorce because of alcohol abuse almost always includes some other kind of abuse as well. You and your children’s safety is of utmost importance if physical, emotional or verbal abuse is part of your spouse’s behavior. Take necessary precautions.

Financial Issues

If our spouse is abusing alcohol, trouble starts showing up in multiple areas of their life. Not paying bills on time or spending money they don’t have threatens your marriage. If you have joint accounts, your alcoholic’s financial irresponsibility can cause problems for your credit score as well.

Alcohol abuse often causes trouble at work. Days missed at work because of a hangover or because of other health issues start appearing, causing some alcoholics to lose their jobs. Eventually, they may find themselves unable to get a job or hold a job because they are drinking too much. At this point divorcing an alcoholic becomes self preservation.

How To Divorce An Alcoholic

Experts always tell us that alcoholism is an illness. When an alcoholic verbally, physically, emotionally or financially abuses us, some people say, “that’s his alcoholism talking or that’s his disease doing those things.” That can make us, as a spouse, feel guilty, when we finally decide to divorce the alcoholic in our life. Most spouses try everything they can to get their alcoholic to stop drinking … tough love, rehab, suffering in silence, shielding the kids and enabling the alcoholic. Even though we sometimes realize that divorcing an addict is the best thing for everyone, that decision is agonizing and often emotionally devastating.

Before finally divorcing an alcoholic husband or wife, some people try a legal separation so they are not held liable for things the alcoholic spouse does financially or in any other way. But if you file for divorce or separation, be prepared for harassment and pleading and begging and promises to change. It’s stressful and exhausting. If your spouse stops drinking or using, it will be worth it, but be sure to set strong and enforceable boundaries to protect yourself. 

Find A Lawyer

Divorce is hard enough when both partners are trying to do the right thing and make the divorce as pain free as possible for everyone. Things are usually way worse when you are divorcing an alcoholic. Be prepared for them to have trouble getting their documents together and not showing up at court dates. Be prepared for little or no alimony if they have no job. Do everything you possibly can to protect yourself and your children.

Get a lawyer, even if you feel like you can’t afford it. Sometimes, you can’t afford not to get a lawyer. Get recommendations. Also, take advantage of Legal aid or online Legal help from Do not try to go through divorcing an alcoholic without at least contacting someone in the legal field and finding out what your best options are.

Below, are some issues you need to think about and ask your attorney or a legal aid representative about if your are on your way to divorcing an alcoholic:

How To Get Custody Of Your Kids

When your spouse is an active alcoholic, he or she may pose a danger to your children by:

  • Drinking and driving while they are in the vehicle
  • Becoming physically violent 
  • Making bad decisions related to them due to impaired judgment
  • Neglecting their basic needs 
  • Failing to properly supervise them because your spouse is drunk or passed out

Child custody is a material issue in a divorce case and you will need to know how to achieve a custody arrangement that will protect your children. State courts make decisions regarding child custody based on the “best interest of the child” standard. In some states (like Florida) there is a presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child, but this presumption can be overcome with evidence of the contrary.

To determine what is in the best interest of the children, courts will often consider many factors. Many states specifically list a history of alcohol or drug abuse as a factor or have a catchall provision of “any other factor” that the court feels affects the child. Your divorce lawyer can discuss the other factors the court in your state will consider and how to prove these factors weigh in favor of you having primary custody.

Gather Evidence To Prove They Are An Alcoholic

Family courts are used to parents lodging accusations against each other in order to gain an upper hand in a child custody dispute, so you will need to be able to prove the alcoholism. This may be easier to do while you are still in the home where you may have access to evidence or be able to record your spouse during a drunken spell.

Evidence that may help establish your spouse is an alcoholic includes:

  • Police reports
  • Convictions for public intoxication or DUI/DWI
  • Video recordings of your ex while he or she is drunk
  • Audio recordings of your ex while he or she is drunk
  • Your spouse’s own admissions
  • Injuries that occurred during a violent outburst
  • Multiple wrecks to the vehicles your spouse drives
  • Eyewitness testimony of your spouse being drunk or drinking to excess 
  • Prescription medications to help ease alcohol dependency 
  • Medical records

May Assign An Evaluator

Some courts may assign an independent evaluator to investigate the situation and make a recommendation regarding child custody. In some states, the evaluator is a psychologist. The evaluator may complete a variety of tasks and assessments to make the decision, including:

  • Interviewing each parent separately
  • Interviewing the children privately
  • Interviewing teachers, health care providers, and others involved with the family
  • Observing each parent interact with the child
  • Conducting psychological testing on the parents
  • Reviewing documents and other evidence in the divorce case

The evaluator will usually prepare a report and submit it to the court, along with their recommendations regarding custody. The judge does not have to agree with the recommendations or make the custody decision solely on the evaluator’s recommendation, but these evaluations often carry a great deal of weight with the court. 

Get Counseling

Counseling can help almost all of us, especially our children when alcoholism has been an active problem in our marriage and in our family life. Take any free counseling that is offered by the court if you are divorcing an alcoholic. Talk with someone who has experience with divorce caused by alcohol abuse.

Divorce And Alcohol Statistics

People have been doing research about alcohol and divorce for more than 100 years. From those early studies until now, evidence shows that “alcohol involvement is a common reason for divorce.” That is especially true if one partner is a heavy drinker and the other partner is not. 

I have never seen any hard numbers on exactly how many divorces are caused by alcohol in the alcoholism divorce statistics. In 2003, an 18-year study (Anato & Previti) found that, along with drug use, alcohol was the third most commonly cited reason for divorce, following infidelity and incompatibility.”

A study (Hasinet al., 2007) showed that “being widowed/separated or divorced was associated with higher odds of lifetime alcohol dependence and past-12-month alcohol abuse and dependence.” So both we, and our alcoholic spouse or ex-spouse, have to be on the alert against alcohol abuse before, during and after the divorce. 

“Alcoholics face a divorce rate that is three times higher than those who are not alcoholics. About 80,000 people a year die from alcohol abuse.”

Divorce is usually a very disruptive, chaotic and exhausting process. Combining alcoholism and divorce multiplies the challenges, especially financial and custody issues. Be aware, too, that anyone can turn to alcohol during a stressful time like divorce, even if we’re facing a divorce due to alcohol abuse.

Part of this article were contributed by Valerie Keene, J.D.

Valerie Keene graduated magna cum laude from the University of Arkansas School of Law, was a finalist in the 2014 National Moot Court Competition, and participated in the Arkansas Law Review. She is a licensed attorney who primarily practices family law and estate planning. She is a regular contributor to several legal sites and her prolific writing career has focused on law, finance and business.
5-Day Divorce Recovery Crash Course. Take the first steps in your recovery and start healing today! Send me the free emails
5-Day Divorce Recovery Crash Course. Take the first steps in your recovery and start healing today! Send me the free emails