Divorce is a complete lifestyle transformation. It’s hard enough on its own, but if you’re also on the path toward sobriety you’re conquering two major life changes at once.
On good days (or hours) you might feel a bit giddy with excitement about the possibility of whole-life wellness and reinventing yourself. But mostly, there’s likely a ton of uneasiness. And as distracted as you are with your efforts to live in sobriety, you might occasionally feel panicked. What will life look like sober and single? How often will I see my kids?
I have seen thousands of brave clients in my 16 years as a divorce lawyer—who have, even in the layers of sadness and uncertainty, found a way to show up every day—and ultimately live a life that is full, true, and wildly beautiful.
Your most important goal right now is to show up for yourself while you’re in recovery—just as you are. Each step you take (forward, backward, sideways, and all) is a step toward a better future. These are my best tips as you work through your divorce and sobriety.
1. Don’t rush but don’t procrastinate either.
Living in transition is hard. And you might not trust your decision-making capacity right now. Heck, you might not feel well enough to negotiate out of the relationship. But try not to delay it for too long. Recognize that your spouse deserves closure and the opportunity to move on—and so do you.
I’ve seen too many people punish themselves by ignoring the fact that the divorce is happening and/or letting their spouse dictate all the terms of their divorce. If you need a helping hand, get it. But don’t just roll over and hope that it’ll all work out as it should.
2. Don’t deny your substance use issues.
Be honest. Hiding things rarely works in your favor. One way to ensure your divorce is never-ending and costs a fortune is to adamantly deny that the breakdown of your marriage had anything to do with you. It may have. It might also be that you and your spouse were just never meant to be.
At this point, it doesn’t matter. You are not a failure. Your marriage ended but that doesn’t mean there weren’t incredible moments and memories. If you can exit in integrity you will not only be giving your spouse peace but you’ll be saving yourself from spending months or years fighting about whether you are currently or have a history of using.
Now is the time to develop trust—which could be at an all-time low. If the court has enough evidence that you might have substance abuse issues—even anecdotal—they will likely institute random testing or some sort of way to monitor you if kids are involved. If you test positive, expect the result the court imparts to be extreme and with little mercy.
The goal of the judge is to provide continuing and frequent contact with both parents. But they won’t do it unless they know kids will be safe. And once they’ve lost trust in you, it’s a long, uphill, painful process ahead.
3. Consider a co-parenting plan that ramps up timeshare when you hit milestones.
Now is the time for you to take care of yourself. It might not make sense for you to have the kids 50% of the time. Negotiating a co-parenting plan outside of court means that all of this stuff doesn’t get hashed out and into public record which could affect lots of things in your life from work to family relationships.
Milestones could include supervised visits and phone calls after 10 days sober, public park visits after 30 days sober, and so on. It might feel punitive but it will give everyone confidence that you are serious about your sobriety and the safety (emotional and physical) of your kids. It will begin to rebuild trust with your ex and shift the narrative so that you can ultimately have a healthy co-parenting relationship.
4. Get help to avoid conflict.
What if you can’t agree on custody or divorce-related terms? You aren’t alone. This is hard! Conflict is inevitable in divorce but think twice before you lawyer up and battle it out.
There are lots of people who can help you sort out issues and get to a fair resolution. Consider a mediator, therapist, certified divorce financial analyst, or a co-parenting counselor to help resolve conflict. Have a lawyer review your final agreement if you’d like—just to make sure it says what you think it says and is enforceable.
5. Leave parenting orders modifiable.
As times go by and circumstances change, you may want to review your agreement and make changes. Your kids need and want stability so I wouldn’t expect to make massive changes overnight—especially during the school year or in your first year of sobriety. But that doesn’t mean you can’t increase your timeshare as time goes by.
6. Stay connected to your kids.
Think about other ways to stay connected to your kids and build trust. Try video chat and attend events where other people can also be there (i.e. school plays or sports, grandparent birthdays). Keep up to date on school events and projects, doctor/dentist visits, holidays, and vacation schedules.
Remind your kids often how much you love them and how proud you are of them. If they push you away or want to know why they are not with you as often, let them know they are in wonderful hands with your ex (even if you have your complaints or doubts).
Your kids are one-half your ex, after all. If they sense that you think that something is wrong with their other parent they internalize that. You want them to have as much stability as possible. That probably means living with their other parent primarily now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t see you at all. Time with you is special and life will adjust.
7. Use apps and other parenting tools.
Consider a co-parenting app like Onward, TalkingParents, or Fayr to keep up to date on what is happening with your kids and offer support to your co-parent. You can also use it to track expenses and child support. Apps like these are great to keep things focused on your kids and with a clear trail of communication.
8. Do what helps you.
Most importantly, find what works for you. A support system is key. The more you work on yourself, the better your relationships will be with your kids, colleagues, friends, and others. You’re still part of a family—it’s just reorganized. And always remember, you’re not starting over. You’re starting from experience.