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Will a divorce protect your child from your alcoholic spouse?

BY IN Custody

February 11-17 is Children of Alcoholics week.  During this week, we and the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NCADD) would like to bring awareness to the hidden problem of alcoholism and the support available to those families.

When one parent abuses alcohol or other substances, it will take a toll on the relationship between the parents, and eventually on the children.  A 2014 study showed that nearly half of the study participants who in the past or present struggled with alcohol abuse got divorced at some point in their lives.

Counselors will tell you that alcoholism, or any addiction, is a brain disease.  An alcoholic will not change his or her behavior as long as he or she is consuming alcohol.  They may promise the world, but they cannot keep those promises, and you may find that they instead will hide their alcoholism for a while. But eventually, they cannot keep up the charade, and the alcoholism becomes evident again.

Some alcoholics abuse alcohol as a form of self-medication to deal with depression or another form of mental illness. The alcoholism will not resolve until the underlying cause of mental illness is addressed.

As family law attorneys, we’ve seen parents react several ways.  The patterns that we often see are: 1) begging and nagging for change but staying in the relationship; 2) staying in the relationship fearing that court ordered unsupervised parenting time may put the child at risk; and 3) filing for divorce to protect the child. This begs the question: what should you do?

Does nagging work?

No.  Although nagging seems to be a natural reaction to the detrimental behavior associated with alcoholism, studies show that nagging will have an adverse effect on alcoholism.  The alcoholic partner feels down about your nagging and when your partner feels down, he or she only has one learned response: drink again.  When the alcoholic consumes alcohol again, you’ll nag again. This pattern forms a negative feedback loop.  If you have addressed the alcohol abuse with your partner without successful sobriety (i.e., your partner started counseling, attending AA, etc.), go see a counselor to get consistent advice about how to approach your partner regarding sobriety and how to address this issue with your children.

Will staying in the relationship better protect your child?

Parents usually have a legitimate fear that if they file for divorce, their alcoholic spouse will receive unsupervised parenting time with the child and during such a weekend he or she may neglect the child, hurt the child, or drink and drive.  This scenario comes with its drawbacks; however, the negative effects are just not as quickly discernible.  For example, several studies indicate that children of alcoholics are more likely to become alcoholics as well.  Other studies have shown that children are at a significant risk of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems when raised by an alcoholic parent.

Staying in the relationship may be a good decision when the alcoholic parent acknowledges his or her addiction and is actively engaged in sobriety, attends counseling and support groups, such as AA.

If the alcoholic parent is not acknowledging the problem and seeking help, the negative effects on the children will accumulate and likely create lasting damage.

What happens if you file for divorce?

Nearly all divorce or custody cases start with the entry of a temporary order.  This order provides for the parties and the children while the case is pending.  The order usually includes provisions regarding custody, parenting time and financial support, such as spousal and child support or the payment of bills.  The temporary order may include financial safeguards to protect the marital assets.  If necessary, the court can also order one party to leave the home.

Customarily, the temporary order is entered shortly after the case is filed.  In instances where a parent’s alcoholism is endangering the other parent or the child, we advise and assist our clients to obtain an emergency (ex parte) order to provide immediate safety for the child and parent.

Additionally, judges can and will order supervised parenting time; sometimes with a family member providing supervision or the judge may prohibit a parent to transport the child.  Of course, you may wonder if the alcoholic parent will disobey such an order, but again, an experienced family law attorney can obtain orders ensuring compliance.  One such example is an order for alcohol monitoring prior to and during the parenting time.

One undeniable major negative of a divorce filing is the broken relationship. This will affect the child, but hopefully not as significantly as the daily contact with the alcoholic parent.

When a parent is in the beginning stages of alcoholism, we’ve witnessed on repeated occasions that the divorce filing can be the ‘wake up’ call that starts the sobriety journey allowing for reunification.  Sometimes, the damage caused by alcoholism is irreversible and the relationship still ends. But of course, a relationship between parent and child can be restored.

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If you are wondering if you or your spouse abuses alcohol, you can take an anonymous and free test online which can be found here.

To start your journey towards sobriety, find an AA meeting near you.

To learn how alcoholism affects your child, visit the NACoA website.