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Addiction and Divorce in the UK

Rehab Recovery offer drug and alcohol rehab treatment across the UK. Here they share more on the connection between addiction and divorce.

Addiction and divorce in the UK

Addiction can be defined as ‘a state of dependence produced either by the habitual taking of drugs or by regularly engaging in certain behaviours’.

In 2021-22, there were 289,215 adults in treatment for a drug or alcohol use disorder in the UK. This does not include individuals who were suffering in silence, and therefore flying under the radar of substance use treatment centres in the UK.

The two principal types of addiction, which are both covered by the Oxford Dictionary definition, are substance addictions and behavioural addictions. While the stimuli differ for each of these variants, the common causes overlap.

Most people with addiction have experienced some form of trauma, which may include divorce. However, many other factors can be at play when an individual begins to depend on a substance or behaviour, from peer pressure to genetics.

Is there a link between addiction and divorce?

As much as we like to advertise that marriages can survive addiction issues, we cannot deny that there is a strong link between addiction and divorce.

A 2011 study into drug abuse and divorce found that divorce in the UK is associated with higher scores on the CAGE alcohol screening instrument – a tool used to diagnose substance abuse.

Substance addiction is not the only type of addiction linked to divorce. In recent years there have been an increase in divorces that cite gambling or social media as a reason for marriage breakdown.

Evidently, it is much harder to maintain a healthy relationship with one’s spouse when addiction is a part of the dynamic. There are many different reasons for this, including:

  • People with addiction may prioritise their substance/behaviour over their spouse
  • Partners of people with addiction may have to take on more responsibility, which can lead to resentment
  • Addiction can cause a range of mental and physical health conditions, which can put strain on a marriage
  • Financial issues, which are a common reason for divorce, are strongly associated with addiction
  • Many people with addiction become secretive, which can lead to trust issues
  • Personality changes often occur in people with severe addiction issues

Just as addiction contributes to rising divorce rates in the UK, divorce can be a trigger for the development of an addiction.

There is less evidence for this, as it is difficult to isolate divorce from the other potential causes of addiction, such as mental health struggles, social isolation, and genetics.

However, people who are recently divorced have a higher risk of developing an addiction. Even if the divorce isn’t particularly complicated, marriage breakdown is a traumatic event for most people, and it is often a source of high stress, burnout, and hopelessness.

Unfortunately, these are all triggers for addiction. When people are in a challenging situation, and they cannot easily see a way out, they may turn to addiction to temporarily escape their problems.

How does addiction impact marriage?

Many people view addiction as a moral failure. This means that when their partner is struggling with addiction, they treat it as a path that has been chosen deliberately; much like having an affair, or abandoning one’s family.

However, as stated by the Mental Health Act 2007, ‘dependence on alcohol and drugs is regarded as a mental disorder’ (7). Just like depression, anxiety, and any other illness affecting the mind, the person with the condition does not choose to suffer.

Nevertheless, the impact on the partner of someone with addiction must not be downplayed simply because addiction is classed as a disease of the mind. The victim of addiction does not need to have malicious intent to be able to harm their spouse; the symptoms of addiction affect not just the victim, but everyone around them.

When someone has a substance addiction, the physical symptoms of their illness can interfere with their marriage.

Drug users can go from having a great social life, plenty of exercise and good sleep, to being unable to get out of bed most days. Often, this burdens their spouse, who may have to take care of them, manage the household, and make excuses for the substance user’s absence from work or social events.

Most people with a severe addiction will not let anything be an obstacle in the way of their substance abuse. Unfortunately, this often leads to couples becoming distant, as the non-drug-user partner feels as though they are no longer a priority in their spouse’s life.

Trust holds marriages together, and when someone is caught up in substance abuse, there is often a lack of trust lurking in the background.

It is extremely hard to trust someone when they are deceiving you about their drug use, especially as this often leads to other lies e.g., a drug user claiming they are not in contact with certain friends, or pretending they are still working after having their job taken away.

Behavioural addictions affect marriage in a similar way, though the lack of physical symptoms means that physical illness is not a factor.

People with addiction often experience significant emotional turmoil, whether they had already had problems with their mental health or not. It is incredibly difficult to maintain a solid marriage when one member of the couple is struggling with regulating their emotions, finding motivation, and holding onto a sense of hope.

Sometimes, co-dependency issues can arise as a result of this. The spouse of the person with addiction may feel responsible for the problem, which can cause them to enable the addictive behaviour, e.g., making excuses or covering up deceit.

The sense of security provided by co-dependency is a farce, as we cannot control the feelings and behaviours of our spouse. Consequently, co-dependents can experience burnout when trying to fix an addiction, and in many cases, divorce becomes a desired option.

On the other hand, some people deal with their partner’s addiction in a completely different way. They blame their spouse entirely, and withhold love and affection from them as a form of punishment.

Again, divorce is a likely consequence of this, as both partners can feel as though they are being misunderstood, and deprived of love.

Seeking help for addiction

There are many paths to recovery for people who are battling addiction in the UK.

The option that has seen the most success is private treatment at inpatient drug and alcohol rehabs. The treatment programmes at these clinics tend to involve intensive therapy, detoxing, and aftercare.

There is often the option to complete the programme as a rehab resident, or as an outpatient, though sometimes the treatment centre is only designed for one of these options.

To enrol onto a private rehab programme, you can get in touch with a local clinic and make a referral for yourself – there is no need to contact your GP to do this.

You can also use a referral service like Rehab Recovery, which is often the fastest route to addiction treatment.

There are also intensive outpatient programmes for addiction, that do not provide accommodation as part of the package. The availability of these programmes differs depending on your location, but it is usually very easy to find a private outpatient clinic willing to welcome you.

Again, you can either request a referral yourself, or reach out to a referral company to do this for you.

In terms of free addiction treatment, NHS funding is occasionally provided for residential rehab, but it is not something you should rely on, due to the low availability.

Self-help groups are free services that can help people to recover from addiction by providing regular sessions with one qualified therapist, and a group of likeminded people in recovery.

There are groups for every situation, from people in recovery from gambling (Gambler’s Anonymous) to people whose loved ones are battling alcoholism (Al-Anon).

For people with a physical dependency on drugs, there are many options for detoxing in the UK. Drug and alcohol detox is available at private rehabs, outpatient clinics, and as part of home detoxing courses with private treatment providers.

Finally, though most people in the UK choose to stay here to recover, you are not limited to the resources in this country when it comes to addiction recovery.

There are private rehab clinics abroad that cater to people from any country, and you may find that their style of treatment is better suited to you.

What can you do?

Ultimately, it is clear that addiction very often leads to marriage breakdown. This is due to a range of factors, from spouses misunderstanding the way addiction works, to people with addiction struggling to get sober, which prolongs the damage that is inflicted on the marriage.

Often, there is a combination of factors affecting divorce, so addiction is not the sole cause. However, recovering from addiction decreases the likelihood of divorce, as it can reduce other contributing factors, such as financial issues, problems with emotional intimacy, and trust issues.

If you are considering divorce as a result of your loved one’s addiction, you could first explore the various treatment options in the UK, as living with an active drug user is not always representative of life with someone who is recovering from addiction.

On the other hand, if your spouse is refusing to get professional help for their addiction, or if you have already decided that you want to get a divorce, speak to solicitor about the best way to proceed with this. They will be able to advise you on helpful questions to ask in the court room, such as child custody queries relating to your partner’s addiction.

FAQs about addiction and divorce in the UK

Below, we provide some frequently asked questions about addiction and divorce in the UK:

Does my spouse need to agree to a divorce due to the harm caused by their addiction?

When you file for divorce, there is no requirement for your spouse to demonstrate approval. However, if they do not respond to the form, it can delay your application.

Furthermore, there is no reason for your spouse to agree to divorce on the grounds of their addiction, as there is no longer an obligation to identify the behaviour that led to the marriage breakdown.

Do I have to do a drugs test if I am accused of drug dependency in court?

No, you do not have to do drug or alcohol testing, even if it is requested by the court. However, it is recommended to speak to a solicitor about this, as it may work in your favour to do this testing.

Does the divorce process change if my spouse has a dual diagnosis?

Dual diagnosis refers to patients who have both serious mental illness and problematic drug and/or alcohol usage.

As there is no need to go into detail about your spouse’s unreasonable behaviour, it makes no difference to the court whether they have just one mental health condition, or multiple.

The only time that being dual diagnosid would impact the divorce is if your spouse refuses to comply with the court, or is guilty of an act of litigation misconduct, which may be more likely with certain mental health diagnoses.

Yet, people with no history of mental illness are capable of this, so ultimately, dual diagnosis rarely impacts divorce proceedings in the UK.

Can I dissolve my civil partnership due to addiction?

Civil partnerships can be dissolved by applying for permission from the court, which involves stating that the relationship has broken down irretrievably.

Just as it is no longer necessary to cite grounds for divorce, there is no reason to discuss addiction as a reason for the dissolution of your civil partnership.

Will behavioural addiction be taken less seriously than substance addiction by the court?

When it comes to dividing assets and arranging custody, if addiction is relevant to the divorce proceedings, the type of addiction should not make a difference.

However, certain types of addiction may have stronger links to non-compliance, or the dissipation of assets. This does not mean that the court deems one addiction more severe than another, as they only look at the end result (non-compliance or dissipation of assets), as opposed to judging the addiction itself.

Rehab Recovery provide a range of inclusive evidence-based treatment for people struggling with alcohol and drug addition. Visit their website to find out more or get in touch. 

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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