Fears for Children When Divorcing an Alcoholic

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

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

And one of the saddest truths is that often the alcoholic is not terribly mean or abusive when drunk. But mean or not mean, they cannot be trusted to be alert and in command of all their faculties when it’s their turn to have the children. They cannot be trusted not to drive after drinking, and worse, not to drive with the children in the car after drinking; to make sure the children are fed and put to bed; to not smoke and leave burning cigarettes in the ashtray when they pass out…. And even if divorce is not the option being considered, these same fears are constantly present when living under the same roof, trying to co-parent with an actively drinking alcoholic. These very real, justifiable fears are the ones that churn nonstop throughout the day in a constant worry loop of questions:

“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?”

“What if something happens to me? My children won’t be safe with him. How can I be sure they’re financially taken care of if he gets fired or runs through the insurance money if I should die?”

How do you tell a 3 or 5 year old they are never to drive with daddy and mommy is not "fine."

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

These very real, justifiable fears 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 shared above are those mothers, fathers and family law attorneys have expressed to me over the course of my work as 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. [Research resources are shared below.]

So 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 or Choosing to Live With an Alcoholic Who Continues to Drink

Sadly, I don’t have hard and fast answers or solutions. So I share what I know we need to know in order for all of us — the judges, family law attorneys, treating physicians, spouses, in-laws… — to work together to change our understanding of alcoholism and its impact on families, and thereby fix our broken system.

  1. Clearly understand alcoholism as the brain disease it is. Alcoholism is one of the brain diseases of addiction (these same issues apply to the prescription or illegal drug addict, as well). When we understand the brain disease, we understand the person with the disease will NEVER act in any other manner as long as they continue to drink ANY amount. It is the alcohol (or drug in the case of a drug addict) that sets in motion the myriad of neural networks that have embedded around their brain disease. This means there is no amount of promising that can keep a next time from happening. It also helps you to separate the person from the impacts of their drinking behaviors, the term for which is secondhand drinking. Check out: NIDA’s Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction (please know alcoholism is one of the brain diseases of addiction) and NIDA, NIAAA, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, HBO’s The Addiction Project. Related post: Why Addicts | Alcoholics Lie, Cheat, Steal.
  2. 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 and NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking > What is You’re Drinking Pattern Related video: Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse  Related link:  NIAAA’s Clinician’s Guide to Helping Patients Who Drink Too Much
  3. Clearly understand what effective treatment for alcoholism (or drug addiction) looks like so that if that becomes the solution, it has the best opportunity of being successful. Check out: NIDA’s Principles of Effective Addiction Treatment
  4. Understand that if there is a co-occurring mental illness (ADHD, PTSD, bipolar, depression…) that it must be treated, as well, for that is often the trigger to drink or use. Related post: Effective Dual Diagnosis Treatment | Relapse Prevention
  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. Out of these experiences, I wrote two books to help family members, and though the one refers to loved one in treatment, it can help anyone (the family law attorney, the judge, the treating physician, the in-laws…) better understand what happens to the alcoholic | addict and to the family member | close friend. Check out: If You Loved Me, You’d Stop! and Loved One In Treatment? Now What!

With This Understanding, Questions Still Remain:

Once you are clear about what it is you are dealing with, you’ll then likely need to educate the professionals you’ll want to consult with about how to protect you and your children. Frustratingly, I don’t have easy answers for this, either, and that’s primarily because each situation is different. So I share some of the questions…

  1. How do you, the non-drinking spouse, talk with the alcoholic? What does it mean to set boundaries?  Can you make them get help? Should you involve an addiction’s specialist / therapist to “broker” conversations with your alcoholic spouse or should you proceed with an intervention? What are you supposed to do/can you do to help yourself?
  2. How do you, the non-drinking spouse, legally and financially protect yourself and your children, which may require the alcoholic to participate in creating or signing legal documents when sober. Do you set up a trust to hold the family assets? Do you include a clause in your Will to describe your concerns for your children? Do you spell out instructions for the Executor of your Will to only issue checks for child-related expenses to the payee not to their alcoholic parent to then pay?
  3. How do you talk to your children in simple terms to explain their parent has a disease that makes them unsafe when they drink (or drug)? [And know your children know "something" is wrong [and often think it's them or something they're doing or not doing], so it’s important you talk to them.] How do you help your children understand the disease makes their parent unsafe, period, because their disease makes it so they cannot predictably control if, when or how much they drink or use? How do you set up a safety plan for your child in the event there are times they are alone in the alcohol parent’s custody? Should you get therapy for them? Are their young children’s programs? Check out: Talking to a Child About Secondhand Drinking | a Parent’s Drinking.

Keep all of this in perspective. If you were dealing with a spouse’s cancer, would you not be addressing all of these questions? Of course you would. But we don’t with alcoholism or drug addiction because it’s still so shrouded in secrecy and shame. So remember: disease by its simplest definition is something that changes cells in a negative way. Cancer changes cells in the breast, liver, lungs, for example, which is what changes that organ’s health and/or function. Alcoholism (addiction) changes the way cells in the brain communicate with one another, which is what makes it a brain disease. The brain is the organ that controls everything a person thinks, feels says and does, which is why the complexities of the brain disease of alcoholism makes your spouse behave the way they do.

Bottom Line

It’s complicated. It’s scary. But, it can change. And change starts with understanding that alcoholism is a brain disease. It is not a moral weakness. It is not a shameful lack of willpower. It’s a brain disease that can be treated and from which there can be full recovery, but until treated, this disease will cause your spouse to continue to behave in the manner they behave – that’s the convoluted nature of this brain disease.

But One More Thing… What About the Addict | Alcoholic in Recovery?

There is a flip side to all of this and it has to do with what happens to the addict | alcoholic in recovery going through a divorce. If you do not understand the disease of addiction, it’s unlikely you understand secondhand drinking and therefore the contribution of the non-addict | alcoholic spouse to the “muck of it all.” If the person on “that side” of this family disease does not treat the secondhand drinking impacts they’ve experienced, it’s doubtful they’ll ever be able to appreciate that addiction recovery is real, it works and it can be trusted (or if not trusted, then addressed through stipulations for outcomes if relapse occurs). This post explains, “Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics | Addicts.”

For further information and help, check out this section on the website, Help for Families, and this category on the blog, Secondhand Drinking | Help for Families. You may also email me at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com or call my office (PST), 650-362-3026.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author Speaker Consultant Owner at BreakingTheCycles.com
Author of nine books and hundreds of articles, Lisa Frederiksen is a national keynote speaker, consultant and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more then a decade researching, writing, speaking and consulting on substance abuse prevention, mental illness, addiction as a brain disease, dual diagnosis, secondhand drinking | drugging, help for the family and related subjects – all centered around 21st century brain and addiction-related research. Her clients (some as far as Kenya, Slovenia and Mexico), include: individuals, families, military troops and personnel, U.S. Forest Service districts and regions, medical school students, businesses, social workers, parent and student groups, family law attorneys, treatment providers and the like. Visit www.BreakingTheCycles.com for details. Please feel free to call Lisa at 650-362-3026 or email her at lisaf@breakingthecycles.com.
Lisa Frederiksen

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  1. Once again, you have hit home for me. Thank you!

    I was that one. My Jeremy & Stephanie were only 3 & 5. I was married to a bi-polar/alcoholic man. He was such a wonderful husband, step-father & friend. That is, until the “manic” came out….then the alcohol….then the guns. He held shotguns to my head, shot up our home (on a military base), and held myself & my children hostage. It did not matter that there was a full military SWAT team outside each time.

    I just knew I had to find a way to get away to save my children & myself. But how could I do that? They adored him! And, I so wanted to “fix” him. How could I do that, if I wasn’t with him?

    If I had known then that I & my children needed counseling….would it have kept me from turning to drugs? Would it have kept me from becoming an addict? Would it have spared my daughter from becoming an addict? I will never know for sure….but I can’t help but think our lives would have been much better.

    Thank God he had over 25 years sober, prior to his death. He got to become that adoring husband (to another) & father. Sadly, the wreckage of his past (Hep C) caught up with him & took him out.

    Thank God, today both my daughter & I are both in recovery! Today I get to be there for her, as she fights this battle called cancer.

    I would love to see all this information made available at the fingertips of every Al-Anon & Nar-Anon group world-wide. That’s how important I think it is.

    So once again, I need you to know how grateful I am for the work you do on a daily basis. Though it will never be enough, all I can say is Thank You Lisa!

    • Oh Sandi… my heart breaks reading your story and what you endured and now what you and your daughter are going through. You are incredibly courageous to have gotten your own help to break this cycle, as is your daughter. And I know your sharing will help others – it’s through our stories that we can see how others managed, survived and now thrive, so thank you. And lastly, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your daughter as she battles her cancer.

      and one more thing, I so appreciate your heartfelt thanks for my work – it means a great deal, so THANK YOU!

  2. Just to underline that this is something that affects both sexes,
    10 years ago I left my wife because of her drinking, taking the children (3 girls – 14, 12 and 10) with me.
    It is never an easy decision but I realised the person I was living with was nothing like the person I had married. There were a few attempts to get help on my wife’s part, as well as countless ones by me, but in the end she always went back to the drink. The children (and I) needed to get away.
    We were lucky. All three are fine, happy adults. Their mother finally drank herself to death three years ago. We were all of us sad but, as the girls said to me, ‘we really lost her a long time ago’.

    I quite agree that this is indeed an illness and one that needs treatment. But sometimes separation is needed to maintain security for other vulnerable individuals.

    If advice such as that found here had been around when I needed it (or if I had found it) things would have been a whole lot easier. Keep up the good work.

    • You are absolutely right, Christopher – it definitely affects both sexes and sometimes separation and divorce are the only answer to protect one’s children and self. Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your experiences with this, and I’m so happy for you and your daughters that you are now able to enjoy happy, thriving lives.

  3. Wow Lisa it looks like you have really hit the nail on the head for a lot of people. Such a terrible bind, and your information, so nicely written is such a huge help. I will definitely be sharing this one for all to see. Thanks so much for all you do.

  4. Yet another bit of subject matter thoroughly covered. You always do such a fine job, and your compassion for your work – and clients – always comes through. Have always admired that about you. As a divorced father of two (5 and 2 y.o old at the time), I am witness as to how deeply hurtful the whole divorce trip is to them – and their parents. And I can’t image how much more hurt would be on the scene were one of the parents substance abusing/dependent. Damn! As bad as it was anyway, this recovering alcoholic is thankful he was well into his recovery when it was time to part company. Thank you, Lisa, for this relevant and helpful material. I know many will print the article for daily reference…
    Bill
    Bill White, Licensed Counselor recently posted…An Anxious Brain Can Physically Heal! And Here’s ProofMy Profile