Occasionally someone contacts me about divorcing a spouse who is abusing alcohol or drugs. They would like to keep the proceeding “amicable,” but at the same time they are concerned that their spouse might receive inappropriate parenting time, meaning that their child might be left alone with a drug-using or actively-alcoholic spouse. They are concerned that if they make an “issue” of the spouse’s drug or alcohol use, that will make the spouse less likely to cooperate during the divorce process.
In my 20 years of experience as a divorce lawyer, I have learned that there is usually just one way to deal with a spouse who uses drugs, and that is to make an issue of it from the very beginning. There are several reasons for this.
First, its pretty much impossible to negotiate fairly and reasonably with an active drug user or alcoholic. Addicted persons can be manipulative and disingenuous. You might engage in wishful thinking, hoping that “just once” the addicted person can have a moment of clarity and agree that, for example, you should get sole custody of the children and that he or she should get supervised parenting time until they have been through treatment and sobered up. But when it comes to divorce and protecting your children, wishful thinking is not the best approach. It probably has not worked for you before because if it had you would not be getting divorced. There is no reason that it will start working now. Its nothing more than your own form of denial.
But there is another reason to make a spouse’s drug use an issue from the start – your credibility. Its important and its the only thing you can rely on to get you through a difficult divorce proceeding.
Here’s what I mean: If you don’t mention the spouse’s drug use, if you just present pleadings to the court that say that there has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, that you want to get divorced, and that you want sole custody of the children, the court will not understand the underlying problem. Then, if your spouse can “clean up” for a while, he or she will file responsive pleadings stating that he or she wants joint custody, unsupervised parenting time, etc.
If you wait until then to mention the spouse’s drug use, the court might think you are making it up. After all, if it was an important issue, you would have said something about it with your first pleadings. You lose credibility.
And, people who abuse drugs and alcohol are experts at denial. They can look very believable and a judge, who may spend all of 10 minutes interacting with you and your spouse early in the proceeding, might be fooled. By not mentioning the drug use problem you make it easier for your spouse to fool the judge. Lying and denial come very easy to addicts. Many of them do not even know they are doing it because it has become second nature.
Your best defense against this is your own credibility. You keep this by being completely truthful and honest about the situation from the very beginning, and by not wavering in your expression of concern about the welfare of your children when they are in the care of a spouse who is a drug addict or an alcoholic.
I understand that this is not easy. Divorce is a difficult and painful process. Many people experience anxiety and fear when faced with a decision about getting divorced. I cannot help with all of these issues, but I can help with the process of getting divorced and dealing with a spouse who abuses drugs or alcohol.