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So You're Married to An Addict: Is Divorce Inevitable?

Like everything else, it all depends.

If you love an alcoholic or addict, you know how terrible the disease of addiction can be and you are indirectly impacted. If you are married to an addict or alcoholic, not only do you suffer from watching the person you love go down the tubes, you are directly affected.

You have to deal with the person you love behaving irrationally, getting sick, perhaps lying, cheating or any other number of unacceptable behaviors and, on top of that, you are legally bound to this person. That means that you bear the brunt and are on the hook for any damage they may cause.

For example, if your spouse drives while intoxicated, you are the one who sits home and worries; if he or she gets arrested for driving under the influence (DUI), you are the one who gets the call at 2 A.M. from the police or the hospital; you are the one who has to pay the fines for the DUI and/or damage done to the car or another’s property, and funds used to pay for damages awarded in a lawsuit or insurance claim probably come from your hard-earned dollars or sweat equity as well.

No doubt, addiction is one of the greatest challenges a marriage will face. It is also perhaps one of the most frustrating in the sense that a rational, non-addicted person looks at the addict and says, “Can’t you see what you’re doing to us? Why won’t you stop using?” or, “If you really loved me, you’d stop drinking, spending too much, starving yourself.”

Tragically, I have seen dozens of relationships completely deteriorate or completely dissolve due to addiction in one spouse or the other. Given that the prevalence of addiction is staggering, this comes as no surprise. Here are some of the estimates of numbers on only a handful of types of addictions:

  • 12-13 million alcoholics in the U.S.
  • 1-2 million cocaine addicts in the U.S.
  • 8 million Americans are believed to have eating disorders
  • 2 million U.S. citizens are estimated to be pathologically problematic gamblers (and 4-6 million people might be classified as merely "problem gamblers")

There are many other variations of addictions such as gaming, shopping or spending, sex and love addiction (which might include internet porn) and pot smoking, which is all too often disguised as a “medical necessity.”

Because all addictive illnesses are progressive, the only path for the addict and his or her spouse is a downward spiralif they don’t get help. While this decline seems preventableand there is no shortage of rehabs, 12-step programs and other types of supportsan addict has to want help in order to stop acting self-destructively.

But addiction is a disease that tells the addict s/he doesn’t have a disease. Unlike other diseases, such as cancer, that may invoke a patient’s survival instincts, addiction wants its victims dead (but, as the saying goes, it’s content to just make the person miserable).

So getting back to the issue of marriage and addiction, it would seem that there are just as many millions of people out there suffering from the effects of living with an addict. With just the numbers listed above, assuming half of these people are married, there are as many as 12.5 million spouses suffering out there on this limited array of addictions.

That’s a lot of suffering.

Some of these people will divorce, some will live with the problem for the rest of their days and, sadly, the smallest number of people will get the help they need and enjoy recovery from the addiction and go on to live a happy and fulfilled married life.

The threat of divorce is not usually enough to get an addict in the throes of their addiction to stop. It’s almost never a function of their love for their mate, rather it is an indication of the level of progression in their addictive illness. While the threat of divorce should never be used if you don’t plan on following through with it, divorce can be a bottom for some addicts and can be the impetus for them to stop using. After all, when you are responsible for yourself and living on half of all the assets you once had, it is much harder to maintain an addiction.

It’s important to seek professional guidance with regard to the strategy you use in moving forward. I recommend checking out 12-step programs such as Al-anon, CoDA (Codependents Anonymous), ACoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), as well as the many companion programs for gamblers, sex addicts, food addicts and more.

For those who need professional advice, it can be helpful to find a therapist in your community who specializes in addictive illness and recovery. If you have tried all other measures to change the addictive family system and nothing has worked, you may want to look into conducting an intervention. This is a powerful tool that friends and family can use to educate everyone (including the addict) on what addiction is, how the family system may be unconsciously helping the addict continue their negative behavior, and what type of treatment plan is recommended for the family (yes, the familyit is a fact that treating the addict alone will do little to interrupt the dysfunctional system).

When all else fails, you may have to look at getting a legal separation or even a divorce. A legal separation is a legal proceeding in which you maintain your marital status but you are no longer tied to your spouse financially. You would need to speak with a local attorney to know if this is a good or practical option for your particular situation.

Having to get a divorce is unfortunate, to say the least. It can be heartbreaking and devastating, but it sometimes is the only choice you have as the non-addict. This is especially true when there are children involved because they need a stable adult around. When addiction is present, both parents are unavailable and there is little or no stability and consistency.

Here are some questions you can answer that may help you get clarity on what steps, if any, you can or should take next:

  • Have you acknowledged to yourself that your spouse is an addict?
  • Have you acknowledged to your spouse that s/he is an addict?
  • Has your life been made chaotic as a result of living with an addict?
  • Have you gotten help for yourself from an addiction expert?
  • Have you sought help for your spouse from an addiction expert?
  • Have you attended counseling together with your spouse from a therapist who is knowledgable about addiction and family systems?
  • Have you experienced serious negative consequences as a result of your spouse’s addiction?
  • Have you let your spouse know that you are contemplating divorce unless s/he stops using?
  • Are you truly willing to leave?
  • Have you done a trial separation?
  • Have you considered arranging an intervention?

Here are some national resources and books that may be helpful to you in dealing with your situation:

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