When a loved one suffers from substance abuse or addiction, it can be very challenging to know how to help. It can be even more complicated when that loved one is your spouse. Understanding the complications of addiction and the potential options for treatment can help you determine the best course of action for your future.
Defining Addiction for Spouses and Partners
Addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a disease that affects a person’s mood and behavior. Addiction leads to an inability to control alcohol, drugs, or medication use. Even if a substance or activity is harmful, the person will continue pursuing it.
Many who suffer from addiction start with the experimental use of recreational drugs or alcohol in social situations. Not all who participate will become addicted, but several factors like genetics or the type of drug used can affect someone’s likelihood of developing an addiction.
While some individuals may succumb to recreational drugs, others may find themselves addicted and abusing drugs their physician legally prescribed them. It’s important to remember that addicts can come from all walks of life.
Addiction VS Dependence
Dependence happens when a person’s body becomes used to a substance and adjusts to receiving that substance regularly. Their body has, quite literally, learned to become dependent upon that substance.
When someone is dependent on alcohol or drugs, they need more of it to feel the same effects. Individuals may also experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using prescription or illicit drugs or stop drinking alcohol. While it depends on the drug in question, dependence simply indicates the presence of withdrawal symptoms and doesn’t automatically mean addiction is present.
Addiction is a degenerative disease that affects the person’s brain chemistry, causing an inability to stop using the drug or alcohol, often at the expense of relationships, work, and financial responsibility. An addict does not need to be physically dependent on a drug to become addicted, but physical dependence can occur due to long-term drug use.
How Addiction Can Impact a Marriage
Due to the secretive nature of addiction, drug or alcohol abuse can take a huge emotional toll on a marriage. As the substance abuse worsens, resentment, conflict, emotional detachment, and sometimes even physical abuse can manifest.
According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, around 24.6 million people are in a marriage where one spouse is an addict.
Substance abuse frequently damages trust in a marriage, as the addicted partner may attempt to lie, distract, or hide that they’ve been using or drinking. It’s common for an addict to lie about where they have been or the cause behind a negative event (e.g., a car accident, an arrest, a fight, etc.).
It’s essential to remember addicts feel a compulsion to use, often at extreme personal costs. Shattered trust can be difficult to rebuild, and you are allowed to feel betrayed. People married to addicts sometimes feel they can’t trust anything their partner says due to frequent lies about their substance abuse. If there are children in the relationship, the loss of trust can be even more upsetting when the safety of minors becomes a risk.
Divorce cases often deal with “money issues” as the primary reason for marriage termination. Many spouses who abuse substances will go to great lengths to buy their substance of choice, sometimes spending money set aside for a necessary expense. It is also not uncommon for an addicted spouse to go into debt or sell possessions to get more money.
Debt can be a significant point of contention in a marriage when money begins disappearing, especially if the substance of abuse is costly. Substance abuse can affect the addict’s ability to work or even cause job loss, jeopardizing the family’s financial security.
Arguments and Volatile Fights
Arguments over substance abuse are prevalent, especially when a partner discovers the extent of their spouse’s addiction. The situation often becomes a vicious cycle: a spouse uncovers their partner’s substance abuse, and an argument ensues. Sometimes, the stress of the fight alone can compel the addict to abuse again. As the arguing continues, resentment builds in the marriage, potentially escalating into domestic violence.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one-fourth to one-half of men who commit domestic violence also have substance abuse problems.
SAMHSA also found that substance abuse by one parent increases the likelihood that the substance-abusing parent will be unable to protect children if the other parent is violent. Once violence is introduced into a situation where the addict may be in an altered state, the situation can quickly become dangerous.
The two primary forms of intimacy are emotional and physical. Because intimacy is heavily reliant on trust, it’s typical for closeness between a couple to suffer because of substance abuse issues. When your partner has broken your trust, you may find it challenging to feel safe and secure, wondering if your spouse is currently under the influence and lying about it.
In addition, many who abuse drugs or alcohol may experience sexual dysfunction. Research has found illicit drug use can cause erectile dysfunction (ED), decreased sexual desire, and increased ejaculation latency. While sexual satisfaction is not always dependent on performance, these factors can still harm the relationship.
Chronic Stress and Fear
Addressing whether or not your partner is struggling with addiction can lead to much anxiety and even fear that they could be in danger. Whether confronting them for the first time, discussing treatment, or staging an intervention, the stress addiction on marriage can be intense.
Other causes of fear might include:
- Whether the drug is legal
- Where your partner is getting the drug
- The safety of the individual (i.e., driving under the influence of drugs/alcohol)
- The purity and safety of the drug
- The risk of overdose, especially if the addict is hiding drug use
Minors living in a home with an addict could accidentally (or even knowingly) access the substance of abuse. Additionally, if the addict is supervising children while under the influence, will they be able to act quickly in the event of an accident? Can the addict respond appropriately or drive a vehicle if the child is injured and needs medical attention?
According to SAMHSA, about 1 in 35 children (2.1 million) lived in households with at least one parent who had a past year of illicit drug use disorder. In a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, in 2016 alone, there were more than 30,500 reports to poison control centers about young children exposed to addictive substances.
Young children face undeniable risks living in a home with an addicted parent. Additionally, if an addict’s spouse does move forward with the divorce process, children will have to deal with the sudden, permanent change in their family structure.
Divorce cases for couples with children are challenging on their own. However, cases involving addiction will also have to cover issues such as child support and potentially limited visitation rights for the addicted parent.
Sadly, many marriages end due to substance abuse and alcohol abuse. According to Swedish research, 7.3% of marriages end in divorce due to drug or alcohol addiction.
The University of Buffalo’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions discovered that alcohol and substance use are among the most common reasons for divorce—the third-most common reason for women and the eighth-most common for men.
The damage inflicted on the marriage from a person’s addiction will often take time and therapy to heal. If a partner undergoes treatment and can live a sober life, those wounds will not simply disappear.
While some couples will work to rebuild that trust, some may discover they cannot reconcile the damage caused. In cases where the addict rejects treatment or treatment is ineffective, many couples may feel their only recourse is divorce.
Signs Your Spouse May Have an Addiction
People from all backgrounds and lifestyles can succumb to addiction, so it’s vital to know what signs to look for in your spouse. Everyone is different, and these traits are not exclusive only to addiction; these are just the most common indications.
Behavioral shifts are often one of the first indications of addiction.
Some behavioral clues that your spouse may have an addiction include:
- Engaging in secretive or unusual behaviors
- Frequent legal trouble, including fights, accidents, criminal activity, and driving under the influence
- Neglecting responsibilities at work or home, including neglecting one’s children
- Abrupt changes in friends, favorite hangouts, and/or hobbies
- Unexplained need for money or financial problems—may even borrow or steal money
- Abandoning enjoyable activities (hobbies, sports, and socializing) to use drugs or drink
- Appearing fearful, anxious, or paranoid with no reason
- Sudden mood swings, increased irritability, or outbursts of anger
- Unexplained change in personality or attitude
- Continuing to use regardless of negative consequences (blackouts, infections, fights, depression)
- Life revolves around drug use or drinking alcohol (always thinking of using, figuring how to get more, or recovering from use)
Many substances cause physical attributes or signs unique to them. If you suspect your partner is using a particular drug or alcohol, it may be helpful to visit one of our other pages that detail signs for each substance.
Here is a general list of physical changes you may notice:
- Bloodshot eyes and pupils larger or smaller than usual
- Changes in sleep patterns or eating habits
- Deterioration of physical appearance and personal hygiene
- Runny nose or sniffling
- Sudden weight loss or weight gain
- Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination
- Unusual odors on breath, body, or clothing
Whether you have a joint bank account or split monthly expenses, finance issues are a potential red flag to look out for if you suspect your spouse is dealing with addiction. Some substances can be expensive, and many addicts will spend money set aside for necessary expenses or may sell valuables for cash.
Here are some signs of addiction when it comes to finances:
- Quickly-growing debt
- An unusual need for money
- Frequent large cash withdrawals
- Suddenly unable to pay bills or contribute to expenses
- Borrowing or even stealing money
- Selling sentimental or essential items for cash
Getting Help for Your Spouse
Dealing with an addicted spouse can be frightening and leave you feeling uncertain. The good news is that many recovery centers are available to help, and many treatment programs often will include the non-addict partner.
As your partner receives the treatment they need, you can also be part of the process to support them and have access to support for yourself.
Addiction affects not just the addict but everyone around them—their partner, children, family, and friends. It’s important to remember that, while your spouse needs and deserves help, you also deserve support and treatment for the stress and trauma you may be going through.
What treatment fits your partner best will depend on their unique situation, so it is essential to meet with a physician or specialist to assess and develop a game plan. This section will discuss the most common treatment options available to addicts and their families.
How Can I Stop My Spouse’s Substance Abuse?
One of the most challenging situations a couple can face is when the addict isn’t ready to change. It’s crucial to remember that addiction is a mental illness, not something your partner engages in for trivial or spiteful reasons.
Although your partner’s addiction may feel personal or as if they are discounting your fears and concerns, they struggle internally. Typically, addicts are not ready to face the reality of their situation.
No one can force an addict to change because they must want to change for themselves. However, there are ways you can help them start the process.
Educate yourself on addiction and learn about the critical dangers of the substance your partner is using. Provide your partner with resources, even if they initially discard them. Gentle reminders and exposure to sober living can slowly encourage your spouse over time.
You can also speak with their friends and family about the issue and get them on board. There may come a time when an intervention will be effective, so getting other people in their life involved is essential.
You can also consult with a professional addiction interventionist to ensure your intervention is as successful as possible.
The road to treatment for your partner may be messy and even painful, but ultimately it will be worth the effort if your partner decides to work towards a healthy, sober life.
When people think of rehab, they often imagine inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment programs involve your partner living at the treatment facility in a controlled, substance-free environment with 24/7 medical supervision.
Inpatient rehab is beneficial if a detox phase is necessary, as healthcare providers can administer medical care to ensure no dangerous side effects occur during the withdrawal phase.
During their time at the treatment center, your spouse will participate in support groups, behavioral therapy, and recreational activities with other recovering addicts on the same journey. Inpatient rehab typically lasts between 30 to 90 days.
Inpatient treatment is ideal for more severe addictions or individuals with previous addiction history.
Outpatient Treatment Options
Outpatient addiction programs come in a few different levels of care. Most commonly, recovering addicts can choose between a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) or an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP).
Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) are considered a step down from inpatient treatment. Like inpatient treatment, a PHP offers medical detoxification, health monitoring, therapy, and educational services. The main difference between a PHP and inpatient rehab is that the patient can go home after treatment each day.
Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) are ideal for individuals with mild to moderate addiction. For ten or more hours each week, patients visit the treatment center for individual and group therapy sessions, medication management, and life skills education.
Medical detoxification services are usually available through a PHP but not an IOP. Patients going to an IOP can request a referral for medical detox at a separate location before they begin the rest of their treatment.
Medical Detox Services
Many substances cause withdrawal symptoms when a person stops using them. Depending on the type of addiction, some withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. Medical detox programs provide medical care and support during the early stages of withdrawal to ensure your spouse’s safety and lessen their discomfort.
Healthcare providers sometimes prescribe prescription drugs during medical detox to make the withdrawal process more manageable. These prescription medications can reduce cravings, lessen withdrawal symptoms, and help prevent relapse.
Medical detox is available as an inpatient or outpatient treatment option, depending on the severity of the patient’s addiction and the type of substance involved.
Therapy is a significant component of addiction treatment and recovery. Your spouse will participate in individual and group therapy sessions during their treatment. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) are the most common therapies offered during addiction recovery.
Some additional types of therapy used during addiction treatment include:
- Interpersonal Therapy
- Psychodynamic Therapy
- Supportive Therapy
- Behavioral Couples Therapy (BCT)
- Family Therapy
Family therapy can benefit married couples because it allows them to work together in recovery. Family therapy sessions also allow married partners to work through any trauma or emotional issues that developed due to one spouse’s addiction.
Getting Help for Yourself
Regardless of the outcome of your marriage or your partner’s recovery, you should also take time for yourself and your own needs. It can be easy to overlook the personal stress and trauma your partner’s addiction has caused you—especially if your spouse was in danger.
It is common for spouses of recovering addicts to struggle mentally and emotionally after the “dust has settled.” If this happens, remember that you deserve help and support to work through everything you’ve just experienced.
Find a Support System
Many different support groups exist for families who’ve dealt with addiction, found through online forums or in your community. For example, Al-Anon Family Groups provides a 12-step program for families and friends of addicts. Likewise, the Herron Project hosts live online support groups led by licensed clinicians.
The treatment centers in your area may also have support groups or great online recommendations for you.
When Is It Time to Walk Away?
If you’re contemplating divorce due to your partner’s ongoing addiction, there’s no simple answer about when it’s time for you to move on. Ultimately, you are the only person who can make that decision.
First and foremost, you should prioritize your safety (and your children’s, if applicable). Separation may be necessary depending on the severity of your spouse’s addiction and the resulting behavior.
If you decide divorce is the only option, ensure you protect your finances and property. Being married to an addict may have already impacted your finances.
You should also seek support through family or friends. A solid support system during this challenging time can make a big difference in your overall well-being.
In addition, you should consult a reputable divorce attorney to ensure you understand your state’s laws and how your partner’s substance abuse will affect your divorce filing. Your lawyer will explain what to expect during and after the process, including details of your divorce settlement, child custody, division of assets, alimony, etc.
Get Support for Yourself and Your Spouse
Call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 to get referrals for treatment programs in your area. Alternatively, you can find local treatment centers through their online locator.
FAQs About Addiction and Divorce
Is addiction considered grounds for divorce?
It depends on a few factors. To be granted a divorce on the grounds of chronic drug or alcohol addiction, you must demonstrate that your spouse has an addiction and that the substance abuse began after you were married. Additionally, each state has different laws about divorce regarding addiction and substance abuse.
How can I help my spouse with addiction recovery?
If you’re able, participating in the recovery process is always ideal. Couples therapy focused on addiction can be a great way of supporting your spouse and working through any feelings of resentment or betrayal.
You can also help your spouse by committing to sober living with them. For example, if your spouse is recovering from alcohol abuse, you can decide to no longer drink socially to show your solidarity.
Should I divorce my spouse for addiction issues?
Divorce is a difficult choice to make, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Ultimately, you must decide how far you are willing to go without sacrificing your or your family’s safety, sanity, and overall happiness.
If you choose divorce, you may be able to file on the grounds of drug or alcohol addiction, depending on your situation and the laws in your state.