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Untreated substance use disorders (SUDs) can wreak havoc in relationships. Spouses are among those who suffer the most, and it is not uncommon for SUD-affected marriages to end in divorce. This article offers some general information, advice and resources for when a spouse’s drug or alcohol addiction threatens your marriage.
Alcoholism and Divorce
Untreated alcoholism is linked with higher rates of divorce and, according to the literature, is also a clear predictor of divorce. In one study by University of Michigan researchers, for example, the rate of divorce was significantly higher among those with a lifetime alcohol use disorder; and almost half of the 17,192 people surveyed with past or present alcohol use disorders reported at least one divorce in their lifetime.
Another study by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse found that marriages in which only one partner was a heavy drinker (meaning they consumed six or more drinks in one setting and/or drank until intoxication) were more likely to end in divorce.
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Drug Abuse and Divorce
Not surprisingly, a similar trend—a strong causal link to divorce—pertains to marriages in which drug abuse is occurring. Strikingly, one study cited by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that illicit drug abuse correlates more strongly with the disintegration of families than with poverty. The explanation given pointed to how substance abuse strains relationships and ultimately renders families dysfunctional.
How Drugs and Alcohol Cause Divorce
How, more specifically, does substance abuse strain marital relationships and cause dysfunction that often leads to divorce? A recent article in The Chicago Tribune summarized the many ways in which drug and alcohol problems foster unhealthy interpersonal dynamics within couples and families. These include:
- Alienation, separation and self-isolation – Addiction can involve self-isolating and shame on the part of the addict, in addition to avoidance on the part of the partner and/or children who would prefer not to be around their loved one who is under the influence.
- Resentment and conflict – One spouse may understandably become resentful of their partner’s drug or alcohol habit, the people with whom they drink or do drugs, and/or the ways in which their behavior is causing negative consequences. It is also not uncommon for arguments and the “silent treatment” to be a feature of SUD-affected relationships.
- Conflict with children – When children are part of the equation, there can often arise still more conflict: dysfunctional attachment between one or more parents and the children and arguments over parenting are just a couple of factors that contribute to this conflict.
- Financial problems – As it is, disagreements over finances are a big issue in marriage. The presence of a SUD often only exacerbates these financial problems.
- Cheating – The alienating dynamics of an addiction can create emotional distance between spouses, and, in turn, can raise their vulnerability to cheating.
- Domestic violence – There is also a well-established link between substance abuse and domestic violence, according to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.
What Should You Do When Drugs or Alcohol Threaten Your Marriage?
Naturally, then, on the basis of these various dynamics and others, it is understandable why so many SUD-affected marriages end in divorce. It is also understandable how, if your spouse has an untreated SUD, your marriage may also be in trouble. This awareness can be a source of consolation and reassurance that you are not alone in your pain, and that many others have been through similar distress. By recognizing and accepting this reality, you will be taking a healthy first step in the direction of your own recovery, and potentially that of your spouse as well.
Here’s what to do if drugs or alcohol threaten your marriage:
- If an addiction is putting you and/or your children in physical harm’s way, your safety is a first priority. You need to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible.
- Make sure you are getting the help and support you need. That may involve joining a 12-step recovery group like Al-Anon or Co-dependents Anonymous, or meeting regularly with a therapist.
- Remind yourself that you can only take responsibility for your own behavior. That means recognizing and putting an end to behaviors that may be enabling your spouse’s addiction. That also means letting yourself off the hook for your spouse’s actions. Let go of any self-blame, guilt or shame to the degree you’re able, starting with this commonly cited phrase: “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it.”
- Let your spouse know, gently, honestly and directly, how their addictive behaviors are affecting you. Try to avoid overly emotional blaming or shaming statements, and instead keep your focus on the facts and what you are experiencing and observing as a result of your spouse’s substance abuse.
- Consider conducting a formal intervention with other family members, in which you firmly and lovingly encourage your spouse to enter treatment, with the bottom line that until they do, you will no longer enable their behavior. (This may also include issuing a separation request in the event that your spouse does not agree to treatment.)
- As a precondition for reconciliation and ongoing cohabitation with your spouse, you may also insist on couple’s therapy, which correlates with better marital outcomes. For example, extensive research has shown that behavioral couples therapy (BCT) is an effective treatment for reducing substance abuse and improving relationship satisfaction. BCT is based on the premise that certain couple and family interactions reinforce drug-seeking behaviors, and therefore it seeks to break these dysfunctional behaviors, replacing them with behaviors conducive to abstinence.
BCT can be conducted in various formats, including group behavioral couples therapy (GBCT), in which a therapist may treat several couples together over the course of nine to 12 weeks. In BCT, couples can also undertake something known as the Daily Recovery Contract, as a way to rebuild trust, instill accountability and prevent relapse via old interpersonal triggers.