Alcoholism and addiction touch a majority of American families—more than two-thirds, according to a 2004 study by the group Faces and Voices of Recovery—and are a significant predictor of divorce, which is almost as common in this country.
Take the more commonly studied problem of alcoholism in marriage, for example. Studies link it with higher rates of divorce than divorce rates among the general population. Experts say excess alcohol use by one spouse interferes with daily functions and increases conflict, thus increasing the prospects of divorce.
But if untreated substance-related conflict and dysfunction were the cause of a marital break-up, the same unhappy dynamics can continue to disrupt your life and make you miserable long after a divorce has been finalized. This is especially true when children are involved and there are custody issues to consider.
In this context, an ex-spouse’s decision to enter rehab may introduce some temporary, short-term challenges that could have big payoffs in the long-term. These include a more amicable co-parenting arrangement, greater peace of mind about your kids’ safety and the opportunity for your children to have a healthier relationship with Mom or Dad.
However, supporting an ex-spouse’s decision to go to rehab when it involves assuming custody can be a complicated and stressful ordeal. It is simultaneously both a sacrifice and a gamble at recovery, after all. If your ex is an addict who’s finally seeking help, you might feel a wide range of emotions— from surprise to resentment to relief. Meanwhile, you’ll need to be the primary caregiver while your ex is away at treatment.
Use these tips to prepare when your ex is going to rehab.
Take a Long-Term Perspective
When you’re the sole caregiver, it can be tempting to push for a quick fix in the interests of convenience and expediency: a week in detox, for example, with the expectation that after that your ex will be sober and fully recovered. In actuality, detox alone rarely helps people find successful long-term recovery from addiction. In the words of a doctor I work with, “detox alone and discharge [without rehab] is almost 100 percent failure.”
On the other hand, research shows that the longer the rehab, the better the likelihood of successful long-term recovery. Clients who commit to 90-plus days of rehab (detox followed by residential inpatient and outpatient treatment) achieve the best outcomes — namely, lower rates of relapse, which are highest during the first year of recovery. Even after discharge from a program of long-term treatment, clients in early recovery often require additional outpatient and aftercare supports, such as ongoing therapy, a sober living environment, and a regular peer support group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
If your ex is finally going to treatment, it’s critical that they do it right by maximizing their prospects of a successful recovery. The more you can support them in this effort, the better able they will be to stick with a program of long-term treatment that ultimately is best for everybody (not just the kids but both of you).
I’ve found from experience that clients who don’t have this support from loved ones are more likely to drop out of treatment prematurely, thereby endangering their recovery. Do what you can to accommodate at least 90 days of inpatient rehab and the likelihood that your ex will need additional supports after rehab to maintain their sobriety. This requires both patience and a long-term perspective but is well worth it in the end.
Build Your Support System
Now is the time to build your support system and lean into it whenever you need to.
- Join a 12-step group for family members in recovery. The emotional support, advice, and encouragement that you’ll get from people who have been in the very same place will be indispensable.
- Consider finding a good therapist whom you can consult on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, either in person or online via a service like Talkspace.
- Plan how you’ll handle the additional childcare responsibilities with your sanity intact, recognizing that while the next three to six months will inevitably be difficult, they shouldn’t kill you. This may mean asking for help from friends or family members who live in the area so that you have a list of childcare contacts whom you can all in an emergency or for occasional breaks. You may also need to negotiate additional financial support from your ex to help with higher childcare expenses.
- Scale back on what you can. This is not the time to take on new responsibilities at work. In fact, depending on your job and financial situation, you may be able to schedule some time off or request an emergency leave of absence. Simplify wherever you can. If you’re used to preparing a home-cooked meal every night, consider ordering meals through a food delivery service or outfitting your freezer with frozen dinners. You can also cut down on trips to the grocery store by purchasing items online or buying in bulk. Take an inventory of all of the ways you can streamline responsibilities over the next three to six months so that you can focus on what’s most important right now: staying sane and caring for your children as you support your ex’s decision to go to rehab.
Cultivate Open Lines of Communication
Open communication with your ex as they prepare for rehab will help to ease the transition greatly— but also, and more importantly, be open and honest with your kids about the situation. Talk to your kids about what’s going on and be open about your feelings. Invite them to share what they are thinking and feeling about the situation.
If your kids express sadness and confusion about not being able to see their mom or dad, validate these feelings from a place of love, connection, warmth, and affection. Explain to them that Mom or Dad has a disease that requires treatment and that the longer they are in rehab, the better their chances of getting better.
Your kids may ask when they can see Mom or Dad again. Here, too, be honest, even if it means saying “I don’t know.” Most treatment programs encourage inpatient clients to keep interactions with family to a minimum so that clients can concentrate on the work of recovery but you may be able to arrange a weekly phone call with Mom or Dad. Some kids may find it therapeutic to send cards or letters to Mom or Dad letting them know how much they miss them and want them to get better.
Finally, do your best to stay positive and take a hopeful approach to the future. Remember that as challenging as the days ahead could be, they are also an opportunity to learn and grow by building resilience and forging a closer, more meaningful relationship with your children.
Anna Ciulla is the Chief Clinical Officer at Beach House Center for Recovery where she oversees the supervision and delivery of client care. She also developed and facilitates the monthly Two-Day Intensive Family Workshop, which through therapy and education equips clients and their families for the work of long-term recovery. Anna has an extensive background in psychotherapy and clinical management, including more than 20 years of experience helping individuals and families affected by addiction and co-occurring disorders find recovery.