For the Family & Loved Ones

Fears for Children When Divorcing an Alcoholic

This article originally appeared on https://www.breakingthecycles.com/blog/2021/12/08/fears-for-children-when-divorcing-an-alcoholic/ and was written by Lisa Frederiksen.

The thought of divorcing an alcoholic * is terrifying for so many reasons, but when one has children, it can be paralyzing.

Time and again I receive phone calls and emails from spouses expressing fears like these:

“I am terrified to divorce because my children aren’t safe with him/her they drink.” 

“He drinks and drives all the time. How can I protect myself and my children financially – should I have a separate insurance policy?”

“How do I tell my 3 and 5 year old they’re not to drive with daddy – ever?”

“I’m having an impossible time trying to ‘do it all’ – work full time, drop off and pick up the kids, never leave them alone with her – but if I don’t stay with my kids 24/7 when they’re not in school, I’m afraid she might get drunk and think she’s safe to drive or start her crazy talk, which they don’t understand and then she gets mad at them for that. What do I do?”

Divorcing an Alcoholic? How do you tell your 3 or 5 year old they are never to drive with daddy and mommy is not “fine.”

[Please know the information in this post applies equally to divorcing an addict,* and please scroll to the end for a more thorough explanation of the terms, alcoholic / addict. And even if you’re not considering divorce but are trying to protect your children, this information can help.]

The Catch-22 of Divorcing an Alcoholic

The very real, justifiable fears shared above turn the non-alcoholic spouses into shrill, fear-filled, anxious, frantic people.

They become persons they were never like before the insanity and were certainly never meant to be. They become the other half of this family disease and are often as equally confusing for their children to understand, because like the alcoholic, they are not “there;” they are not consistently approachable, calm, warm and loving, with consistent reactions and actions that make sense to their children.

Instead, they, too, are in their own world — a world that takes on a life of its own as they try day in and day out to control the uncontrollable — namely, the brain of an alcoholic who is actively drinking. I mean, really, how do you tell a 3 or 5 year old they are never to drive with daddy, or the real reason mommy is not “fine” even though that’s her pat answer when they ask, “Mommy, are you okay?” “Mommy what’s wrong?”

The concerns and fears shared above are those mothers, fathers and family law attorneys have expressed to me over the course of my work as author, speaker, consultant and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. There was a time when they were my concerns, as well. They are a big part of why I do the work I do, for when my daughters were young, I lived in constant fear of dying and leaving them to fend for themselves, and I lived in constant fear of staying. My repeated prayer was, “Please let me live until they’ve graduated high school and are enrolled in college.” So in fear, I dug in and tried harder to control the uncontrollable. It was the ultimate Catch-22.

And why are we here in this Catch-22?

Because most people still view alcoholism as a shameful lack of willpower; most people are not aware of the 21st century brain and addiction related research that proves alcoholism to be one of the brain diseases of addiction, which is defined as a chronic, often relapsing brain disease.

And Let Me Be Clear

This post is NOT to bash alcoholics, many of whom I know to be kind, loving people when sober (or drunk, for that matter). And trust me, I’ve never met an alcoholic who is proud of what they’ve done while in their untreated disease.

Nor is it to bash parents like myself.

Rather it is to shed light on the disease of alcoholism and how it hijacks families. It’s to help the alcoholic, the non-alcoholic, the judges, the family law attorneys, the doctor treating the non-drinker for depression instead of the “real” problem, the in-laws…; it’s to help all of us better understand we have a very BROKEN system.

This post is written for the sake of children, who are the innocent victims of our combined ignorance. And — who knows — perhaps in this process of getting to a better understanding, we can collectively help with fixing families along the way.

What to Understand for Children’s Sake If Divorcing an Alcoholic

This section applies equally to situations where one is choosing to stay with an actively drinking alcoholic.

  1. Clearly understand alcoholism as the brain disease it is. Check out: NIDA’s Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.  And understand what it takes to effectively treat it. Check out: NIDA’s Principles of Effective Addiction Treatment
  2. Review the The U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. This was issued November 17, 2016, and goes a long way to debunking common myths about addiction, treatment, and recovery.
  3. Visit the American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM) website. There you can find a medical professional with an addiction specialization who can provide a medical evaluation as to the person’s current medical status in terms of their addiction recovery. Quoting from the website: “The American Board of Addiction Medicine provides assurance to the American public that Addiction Medicine physicians have the knowledge and skills to prevent, recognize and treat addiction.”
  4. Know there are simple, anonymous assessments you can use to determine your spouse’s drinking pattern and thus what it is you are dealing with – alcohol abuse vs alcoholism. Check out WHO’s Alcohol Use Disorders Test (copy and paste this link in your browser if it doesn’t open here, http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/67205/1/WHO_MSD_MSB_01.6a.pdf).
  5. Understand the non drinking spouse is deeply affected and needs to get their own help. For me, this was three years of therapy (mostly cognitive behavior therapy – CBT) with an addictions specialist (it is imperative it be a therapist who understands what happens to family members of addicts | alcoholics). I also attended Al-Anon for several years and then immersed myself in the research that’s become the basis of my blog, books and presentations.
  6. I urge you to read my latest book published in 2019 10th Anniversary Edition If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!! (2019) — not so I can sell books but so you can learn about the huge scientific advances that explains all of this in layman’s terms. Helps answer questions if divorcing an alcoholic OR wanting to stay in the relationship.The first half covers alcohol use disorders (drinking problems) – how they’re developed and treated and what long-term recovery requires. In the case of alcohol abuse, for example, it’s possible to learn to “re-drink,” but in the case of alcoholism, it must be total abstinence from alcohol, yet in both cases, there are other brain healing aspects necessary in order to address “why” a person finds themselves drinking to these extents in the first place (e.g., trauma, anxiety, depression, social environment…). As importantly for readers of this post, it explains why addicts/alcoholics lie, cheat, steal.
    The second half explains what happens to family members and friends and what they can do to help their loved ones, as well as what they can do to take back control of their physical and emotional health and the quality of their lives.