The dilemma of a parent divorcing an alcoholic

By | Published On: November 1, 2018

Every parent is instinctively programmed to protect their children. But how does a parent married to an alcoholic best do that? To stay married is to model a dysfunctional marriage for your children, and perhaps to be an enabler. But to divorce them is to lessen your ability to intervene if your spouse is being inappropriate or neglectful when alone with the children. This can be very scary, particularly if the children are young.

Cheryl faced this dilemma. Her kids were ages 4 and 7, but the 7-year-old had special needs which meant that she was less independent than most children her age. Cheryl’s husband, Tom, was a closet drinker, mostly in the evening and unobserved by others. When he drank, he became more and more withdrawn, eventually falling into a deep sleep from which he was impossible to rouse. He would have great difficulty waking even the next morning. However, Tom insisted that he only drank at a moderate level, and vehemently denied that his drinking had an impact on his ability to be a good parent.

As Cheryl moved forward with her plans to separate, she felt that it was essential she find a way to safeguard her children while recognizing that they did need to have a relationship with their father. She looked for a divorce attorney who had experience in handling custody cases where a parent had alcohol issues. This attorney helped Cheryl think about the issues in her situation, as follows:

  1. Whether to proceed with a contested court process or to pursue a mutually agreed private process using an expert to conduct an evaluation and make recommendations.
  2. How to gather objective evidence to document the extent of Tom’s drinking, such as credit card bills and the statements of neutral witnesses.
  3. How to find tools that could monitor Tom’s drinking without the need for her to be present, such as a breathalyzer or other tests, to ensure that Tom didn’t drink when the children were in his care.
  4. Protocols to be put in place to specify the consequences if Tom tested positive for alcohol when the children were with him.
  5. Support groups or other resources that could help Cheryl with her own issues which often bedevil the spouse or partner of an alcoholic.

Relying on the framework provided by this analysis of the issues in her situation and utilizing a careful, step-by-step process, Cheryl was able to move forward with effectuating a separation while staying focused on the safety and welfare of her children.

Katherine O’Rourke is a family law attorney and partner at Tucker PLLC. If you’re in a relationship with substance misuse and would like to discuss your situation, contact Katherine at or call our firm  at 202-936-3636 to schedule a consultation.

Learn more about the Tucker Family Law Team