Divorcing An Alcoholic: What You Need to Know

March 10, 2023 O'Connor Family Law Divorce

Saint Patrick’s Day may be a lot of fun for some people, but for those who struggle with alcohol-addicted spouses, it can be a painful and challenging day. If you are in a relationship with a high-functioning alcoholic, March 17th may be the tip of the iceberg regarding your partner’s struggle with alcoholism. As much as you try to support them on their journey to sobriety, there is only so much you can do as their partner. If you’ve made the difficult decision to leave a spouse who is struggling with alcohol, there may be some things that you want to consider beyond the standard divorce process. You can check out the free Divorce Basics E-Book to learn about the general divorce process here, but in this article, we’re tackling what your spouse’s habits might mean for your separation and how you can protect yourself and your spouse throughout this process.

You’re Not Alone

Divorcing a high-functioning alcoholic can affect your divorce process. While each marriage has its unique challenges, alcoholism takes a toll on everyone involved in that person’s life. Heavy drinking has even been shown to be correlated with a higher risk for divorce (Rognmo et al.). If you’re particularly interested in the science and studies on it, alcohol and marital dissolution have been known associates for a while… check out Caceset al., and this study by Ostermann et al., which both examine how differences in alcohol habits between spouses can lead to marital conflict. But enough of the nitty gritty. Let’s talk about the real effects of being married to a functioning alcoholic.

Those in this position may feel conflicted about leaving because they still want to support their soon-to-be-ex partner but can no longer carry the weight of such expectations- and that’s completely understandable. As adults, we are not responsible for spending all our energy on keeping other people from destroying themselves… You need to save energy for yourself, too. Chances are, you’ve spent years pouring your heart into your spouse, and that’s commendable, but you deserve your own life as well.

A relationship with any form of addict, including a high-functioning alcoholic, can be extremely emotionally taxing. The divorce process may also come with related challenges, like whether you should reach out to ensure that your soon-to-be-ex is doing alright. Having a plan that addresses your legal concerns is essential but equally as vital to support your emotional problems.

divorce coach like Stacey Beal can help you prepare for and navigate the emotional turbulence of divorcing somebody battling substance addiction and can guide you in carefully documenting incidents or issues as they arise.

Documentation strategies like these can help you be better prepared for court and pair wonderfully with a lawyer who will advocate for you in the courtroom. 

Divorcing an addicted partner affects more than your marriage. It’s vital that you take the time to understand the impact this may have had on your life by seeking proper emotional support. 

What to Know Before Divorcing a High-Functioning Alcoholic

If you are married to a high-functioning alcoholic, worrying about how your divorce will affect you, your soon-to-be-ex partner, and your network of friends and family is understandable. Splitting up can be complex, particularly when one’s sobriety (or lack thereof) is considered. Especially if life changes have caused relapses or more intensely addictive behaviors for your ex-partner in the past, it is normal and logical to wonder whether your separation may hurt your soon-to-be-ex. 

You may hope to persuade them to seek professional help for their problem. This can be a great step in the right direction, but it is also important to note that many high-functioning alcoholics deny their drinking habits. This can make it difficult to persuade them to seek the help they need. They may remain reluctant to do so even after your separation, which is okay. Chances are, you have already discussed entering therapy with them, and they have likely declined the suggestion. Furthermore, high-functioning alcoholics often feel ashamed and guilty about their drinking. They may believe they are not good enough or don’t deserve help. Your divorce coach or therapist can help you work through these complex emotions as you go through the divorce process.

Read: How Will a History of Alcohol Abuse Affect Custody Agreements?

Your soon-to-be ex might hide their habits by disappearing for long periods without explaining what they were doing or lying about how they’ve been spending money or time. High-functioning alcoholics, especially, may not seem problematic to those outside. Still, intimate partners often see the signs before others because of their proximity to their spouse. This can make it difficult for them to accept help from others, including spouses or partners trying to help them quit drinking. If you decide to divorce a high-functioning alcoholic, you may need to be prepared for them to push away your attempts to help and resist getting help from professionals.

Third, divorcing a high-functioning alcoholic can be complicated and messy. There may be financial issues involved, as well as custody issues if there are children involved. It is essential to consult with an attorney before making any decisions about divorce so that you know what changes to prepare for and can work to make the transition from married to single as smooth as possible.

When to Divorce an Alcoholic

Choosing to end any marriage is a tough decision, and one that you want to think through carefully before moving forward. We’ve got a full video on how to know when to leave your marriage, but even with tools and strategies like these to help you get some peace of mind in your decision, it can still be scary to rip the Band-Aid off. Whatever stage of decision-making you’re at, asking yourself the following questions might help you gain some clarity in your thought process:

  • Acknowledge the Impact on Your Well-being
    • Living with an alcoholic spouse can take a toll on your emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Assess the effects of this strain on your life, both within and beyond your relationship. If you find yourself constantly stressed, anxious, or depressed due to the consequences of your partner’s alcohol abuse, it’s crucial to acknowledge the impact on your health. Your well-being matters, and taking care of yourself is a valid reason to contemplate the possibility of divorce.
  • Assess the Safety of Your Environment
    • Alcoholism often goes hand in hand with unpredictable behavior, and in some cases, it can escalate to violence. If you or your children are in an unsafe environment due to your spouse’s actions, it’s imperative to prioritize your safety. This may involve seeking legal advice or reaching out to local support services for guidance on protective measures. If you feel that you or a loved one may be in immediate danger, please seek out emergency services as appropriate.
  • Evaluate the Impact on Children
    • If you have children in your household, their well-being should always be a top priority and consideration. Growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent can have lasting effects on a child’s development and be nerve-wracking to deal with as a nonalcoholic parent. Consider the emotional and psychological impact on your children and weigh the potential benefits of a stable, alcohol-free environment against the challenges they may face in a household where addiction persists.
  • Explore Treatment Options
    • You may have already been down this route, and it’s okay to feel exhausted at the prospect. Still, it is often a good idea to explore the possibility of your spouse seeking professional help for their alcoholism. Treatment programs, counseling, and support groups can be effective in helping individuals overcome addiction. However, it’s essential to be realistic about the likelihood of change and the commitment required for a successful recovery.
  • Reflect on Your Boundaries
    • Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is crucial in any relationship, especially when dealing with addiction. If you’ve communicated your concerns and set boundaries, and your spouse continues to engage in destructive behavior, it may indicate that the marriage is no longer sustainable.
  • Seek Professional Guidance

Deciding when to divorce an alcoholic spouse is a complex decision that can benefit from professional guidance. Consider consulting with therapists, counselors, or support groups that specialize in addiction and relationships. These professionals can provide insights tailored to your specific situation and help you navigate the emotional challenges associated with divorce. Just like your spouse may need to seek support, it can help you, too. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a High Conflict Relationship Coach or trusted Family Law Attorney to ask questions and talk through what you’ve been struggling with.

Deciding to divorce an alcoholic spouse is never an easy choice, and it often involves a mix of emotions, guilt, and uncertainty. It’s important to prioritize your well-being, safety, and the welfare of any children involved. Seek support from professionals, friends, and family as you navigate this challenging decision, and remember that you deserve a life filled with happiness, peace, and stability.

How to End a Marriage with an Alcoholic

Divorcing a high-functioning alcoholic may have some differences in the minutia of the process but will likely still follow the path that most other divorces take. This process can become complicated if there are assets or children involved. You will want to consult with a knowledgeable divorce attorney about how to proceed. Divorce laws differ in every state, so if you’re in Massachusetts, you will want to look for an experienced Worcester County divorce attorney or Plymouth County family law firm.

Once you have filed for divorce, your lawyer will walk you through the steps that you should take next concerning custody arrangements, assets, and rebuilding various aspects of your life. A certified high-conflict relationship coach like Stacey Beale can help you through the emotional difficulties that you encounter. At the same time, one of our many experienced family law attorneys will expertly navigate the legal process with you.

The Effects of Alcoholism on the Family

When someone in the family is struggling with alcoholism, it can have a ripple effect on everyone else in the household. Here are some of the ways that alcoholism can impact the family:

1. Relationship problems. If you’ve come to this article, you already know how devastating addiction can be to your partner’s relationships. Alcoholism can cause arguments and conflict within relationships. This is because alcohol can make people act in ways that they usually wouldn’t, such as being more aggressive or emotional. Over time, this can break down the bond within the relationship and cause trust issues and distance between partners.

2. Financial problems. Alcoholism can also put a strain on finances, as money is often spent on alcohol instead of other essentials. This can cause financial hardship for the family and lead to arguments about money.

3. Parenting difficulties. Alcoholism can make it difficult for parents to fulfill their role in the family. This is because alcohol can impair judgment and make it hard to think clearly or make decisions. As a result, parents may struggle to provide care and support for their children.

4. Health problems. Alcoholism can cause physical and mental health problems for both the person struggling with alcoholism and other members of the family. For example, someone with alcoholism may suffer from liver damage or mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Additionally, living with someone with alcoholism can be stressful, which can also impact mental health.

How to Help Someone With Alcoholism

If you are worried about someone you love who may be struggling with alcoholism, there are some things you can do to help. Firstly, and only if it is safe to do so, try to have a conversation with the person about your concerns. It is essential to be respectful and non-judgmental in this conversation. If the person is open to talking about their drinking, then you can offer your support and encouragement of having an open dialogue. Listen to why they feel so drawn to alcohol and provide paths for moving forward through therapy or rehabilitation programs. If the person is unwilling to talk about their drinking, then you can still offer your support by staying in touch and being available if they ever want to talk. You can also look for support groups or counseling services that can help both you and the person struggling with alcoholism.


Having a high-functioning alcoholic spouse can be challenging, and divorcing them often requires special care. With patience, diligence, and the right resources, you can divorce your spouse with minimal emotional or financial damage to yourself. By understanding the risks involved in dealing with an alcoholic partner, seeking out legal help from experienced professionals, and getting support from friends and family members throughout this process, you are making sure that it is as painless for both parties as possible.

Divorce does not have to be an agonizing experience; rather, it can be part of a healing journey for both you and your soon-to-be-ex partner when appropriately handled.

For more resources, check out the national helpline linked below: