Addictions in Family Law

Addictions of any sort, whether drugs or alcohol or high risk behaviors that produce endorphin highs, have no greater impact than on the family. Every person who has an addiction has a family – a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling. The impact of addiction goes beyond the person struggling with the addiction, it greatly impacts those people around the addict. Inevitably, the issues of addiction follow through to family law cases, where legal action intersects with the addiction.

The immediate problem is defining what is an addiction. Some people are very sensitive to the use of any kinds of drug or alcohol, so that a glass of wine with dinner three times a week is “regular drinking” that would constitute addiction. For others, if you are not incapacitated, and the impact on yourself or others around you is minimal, no matter how heavy the misuse of a substance it, you are not an addict. Probably the simplest definition is that if the use of a substance or risky behavior is affecting your ability to function in day to day life and affects your relationships around you, you have an addiction.

However, the secondary problem is how people around the addict react to the addiction. There is usually a great deal of stigma attached to being addicted, the addict is seen as a defective person. There is shame associated with the misuse of a substance. When addiction causes behaviors that affect the person’s ability to function and their relationships, there are consequences, such as losing your job, a professional license, or relationships. People lose trust in the person, with justification, and that trust is difficult rebuild, especially if the addiction is not being treated. The problem is not just the substance use. The problem is the inability to cope with existing problems. Substance use hides, at least temporarily, the extent that the person is unable to cope with the underlying problems.

There are also barriers to treatment. Treatment needs can often be extensive. In order to have the best possibility of not returning to use, in-patient treatment may be necessary, which is very expensive, and not always accessible, particularly if the person does not have medical insurance. Going into treatment also means not being able to work, or letting people know that you are going into treatment which affects employment. Being unemployed creates more stress, which in turn makes it more likely that the person would return to use.

Education and knowledge about resources that are available are key to getting help for an addiction. is a great resource with information about drug abuse and addiction, as well as how to find resources to deal with addiction. It is also helpful to the person who is affected by someone else’s addiction, such as a spouse or a child.

Here are some links for more information.

I want to be clear that having compassion for someone with an addiction is very different than enabling the person with the addiction. If your children are affected because of your spouse’s addiction, you need to take steps to protect your children, even if that means that the relationship has to be restricted. If you are impacted because of your spouse’s addiction, and you need to take steps to protect yourself, whether it be through obtaining a restraining order, or filing for divorce, or even just setting clear boundaries that you will not pretend the problem doesn’t exist and you will not allow it to harm you, then that’s what you need to do. You can have compassion for the person with the addiction, be as supportive of them getting help, while still recognizing that you ultimately do not have control over when someone else wants to deal with their addiction.

If addiction is a problem in your family, get educated. Learn about ways to get help for the addiction, either your own, or a spouse. Remember, your family law attorney – that would be my office – is always available as a resource for you, to make a difference when addiction and family law intersect.