Divorce When Substance Abuse Is Involved

When two people enter a marriage, the idea that it might not last isn’t a thought. Unfortunately, a large portion of American marriages end in divorce. Sometimes, the reason cited is irreconcilable differences. Sometimes, one spouse may partake in behaviors that cause the ultimate demise of the union. A prime example is substance abuse. 

The end of a marriage often results in a slew of mixed emotions for all parties. The most common emotions are grief, anger, fear, and anxiety. The best-case scenario is considered an amicable divorce, but when substance abuse is involved, there is sometimes little hope of being able to work through your divorce together.

Divorce is hardest when children are involved, as they risk experiencing various forms of trauma. Luckily, children are resilient and can adjust accordingly. However, in situations of high conflict, mental illness, abuse, or substance use, things can become quite messy. 

How do drug addiction and alcoholism affect divorce?

Substance abuse in any form affects all members of a family. The overall impact varies but may consist of any of the following:

  • Financial hardship
  • Other forms of abuse and violence
  • Unmet developmental needs
  • Emotional distress
  • Legal issues
  • Increased risk for children to develop substance abuse disorders as they grow

Divorces are complicated for families; substance abuse and addiction make them more complex. If children are involved, a divorce also entails a custody agreement. As much as state legal systems try to promote the children's best interest, that may look different depending on substance abuse issues and behaviors. 

Suggested reading: 8 Things to Do if You’re Getting Sober During Your Divorce

How many marriages end in divorce because of alcoholism?

In one study that covered 18 years, drug or alcohol use was cited to be the third highest reason for divorce. The only two reasons ahead of this were infidelity and incompatibility. 

Can you divorce based on alcoholism?

If you live in a “fault” state, then yes, substance abuse is an acceptable ground for divorce. By defining fault, one party’s actions or behaviors are considered the reason for the marriage ending. If you’re thinking of going this route, be sure to adequately research the divorce laws in your state, as some states do not permit “at-fault” divorce. What’s more, divorce can become a dirty, messy ordeal, and who wants to go through more turmoil – especially when children are involved?

But you don't need to live in a "fault" state to get divorced. In no-fault states, you don't need to "prove" your spouse struggles with substance abuse issues to get divorced. The reality is that most marriages that end because of substance abuse just end. There's not usually a  big determination in court; in fact, many times substance abuse stays out of court papers and public record all together.

In most states, you don't need to prove that your spouse struggles with substance abuse issues. In fact, if it's your preference, these issues can largely remain out of the paperwork and public record. 

Should I share substance abuse concerns with the court?

Short answer: yes. 

In an ideal situation, mediation or an amicable split are the “easiest” options for divorce. However, rarely would this be an option if one party had an active substance abuse problem. This opens many doors for potential issues moving forward. If substance abuse poses concerns about the outcome of your divorce, you should not only share this with the court – you may need to prove that substance abuse should be factored into your case’s rulings.

For starters, addiction is a disease, and those affected need help. Perhaps loved ones have already tried to get help for the individual and seemingly failed. The fact remains that until a person with alcoholism acknowledges they have a problem and seeks help, most people will be unable to help them. Addiction is heartbreaking for all members of a family. 

If you live in a fault state or are in a 'no fault' state but want to request orders from the judge that protect you or your children, you will likely need proof of your spouse’s substance abuse problem to deliver to the court system. Here are some options:

  • Records of police reports, tickets, and such
  • Receipts or bank statements showing the purchase of alcohol
  • Pictures of bottles/paraphernalia 
  • Statements from individuals who have witnessed behaviors
  • Pictures or other proof of abuse or property destruction, if these have occurred
  • Your statement and documentation

Ideally, the amicable route or mediation would be best, but these are suggestions should there be a need. Each family situation is different. However, these could be needed when children and custody become a factor. 

How many divorces are caused by addiction?

As many as 40 to 50% of American marriages end in divorce. These rates are even higher when substance abuse and addiction are a factor. Some experts have even suggested that divorce may drive people into substance abuse and addiction and vice versa (although divorce and addiction cannot be the only cause of the other). 

What are the four phases of addiction?

When someone you care about falls into the cycle of addiction, it may be difficult to notice initially, as negative consequences aren’t early occurrences. As the addiction worsens, actions and behaviors intensify, and changes become more noticeable. 

Experts have determined that there are four stages of addiction, as follows:

  1.  Experimentation: This is the stage where people voluntarily try drugs or alcohol
  2.  Regular use: With regular use, individuals often decide whether to remain in a socially accepted use pattern or cross over into addiction. This stage is often not recognized. Behaviors such as drinking and driving may occur here as well.
  3.  High-risk use: During this stage, individuals partake in alcohol despite the consequences. Their cravings might persuade them to do things they usually would not do.
  4.  Addiction: When a substance is consumed so often that the body reacts negatively to its absence, addiction is present. During this stage, an individual shifts into behaviors that make them unrecognizable. The potential for abuse is very high at this stage. Quitting becomes seemingly impossible. 

Addiction is a progressive disease. Treatment and recovery are options, but it can be difficult for someone to recognize that they have a problem and need help. 

If you or someone you know wishes to seek help, please visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health National Hotline (SAMHSA). 

How to help your children

Research shows that approximately 8 million children have experienced life with an adult suffering from substance abuse. These children are at a higher risk of having issues with their own behaviors or emotions in addition to the potential development of a substance abuse disorder later in life. 

If you are going through a divorce with children involved, there are a few things you should prepare for. Divorce can be traumatic for children, as their family structure, routine, and living arrangements may be abruptly uprooted. For children with a parent who struggles with substance abuse, the consequences of divorce can vary drastically.

If a parent has a substance use disorder, custody could be awarded to the other parent. The type and amount of visitation awarded to the parent consuming substances vary depending on the situation. An adult suffering from a substance abuse disorder could still be actively using, placing children at risk. However, someone actively working toward recovery may be awarded supervised visitation or even overnight visits. 

Please be aware that divorce and custody rules vary by state. 

Final thoughts

Substance abuse and addiction can be debilitating for everyone, including those consuming drugs or alcohol. Divorce in this situation is also tricky for everyone involved. Hello Divorce can provide you with countless resources and assistance to help put your mind at ease. If you know someone struggling with addiction, know that help is always available. 


Healthy divorce: How to make your split as smooth as possible. American Psychological Association.
The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice. National Library of Medicine.
DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence and Marital Dissolution: Evidence From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. National Library of Medicine.
Addiction and Divorce.
Understanding the 4 Stages of Addiction. Phoenix House Florida.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.
The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice. National Library of Medicine.

Health Content Specialist
Communication, Relationships, Mental Health, Physical Health
Krystle Maynard is the creator of Innovative RN Solutions and has been a nurse for over a decade. She has specialized in medical-surgical and critical care nursing, in addition to having a long-standing history of being an adjunct faculty member for a college of nursing. Innovative RN Solutions focuses on healthcare content writing (such as blogs, E-books, emails, academic coursework, and educational content for healthcare personnel and patients). Krystle also offers tutoring and mentor services for undergraduate and graduate nurses. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and children. If you would like to connect, you can reach her on LinkedIn or visit her website at Innovative RN Solutions.