Rates of substance abuse are higher among divorced people, according to research. (That’s not entirely surprising: Substance abuse is a common response to stress, and divorce is one of the most stressful life experiences any person can go through.) Add in co-parenting to the mix and you’ve got another stressor that can trigger or exacerbate a drug or alcohol problem.
As an addiction clinician and trauma and relationships therapist, I see this reality firsthand. Many of the people I’ve worked with are divorced parents, and some of them are in rehab after a substance abuse problem severely damaged a relationship with an ex. (Explore treatments for addiction that are helping restore relationships and other aspects of a fulfilling life.)
They’re there because they recognize that getting healthy is often the first key to improving a coparenting relationship and becoming more present to themselves and their children in the years to come.
But how, more specifically, does a drug or alcohol problem create problems in a coparenting relationship— and what skills do people in rehab gain that can help them in a relationship with a custody-sharing ex?
How a Drug or Alcohol Problem Can Strain a Co-Parenting Relationship
Co-parenting with a drug and/or alcohol addiction adds extra weight to an already heavy load of daily stressors. Co-parents may start off using mood-altering substances as a solution for chronic stress. They may believe the substances help take the edge off of a stressful day, boost a low mood, and/or temporarily numb emotions of loneliness, frustration, or hurt.
However, over time and with excessive consumption, substance use can develop into an addiction that causes more problems than it solves.
In fact, addiction can cause many problems in a co-parenting relationship:
- Co-parents with substance use disorders can have trouble with accountability, because the drugs take priority over other responsibilities.
- Mood swings are common during and after intoxication, making communication tense and unpredictable. Anger and irritable emotions often accompany drug use, with the result that small issues can become major conflicts.
- Finances become strained with money going towards drugs and alcohol rather than to child-rearing expenses.
- When substance abuse causes poor job performance or frequent absenteeism, Mom or Dad’s employment and livelihood are also at risk.
- Most importantly, co-parents with an addiction may present a dangerous and unsafe environment for their children.
5 Ways That Rehab Can Improve a Custody-Sharing Relationship
When parents are often so busy solving the everyday problems of life, it can be easy to want to ignore a drug or alcohol problem rather than deal with it head-on. However, taking the time and energy to deal with the addiction directly will actually improve co-parenting relationships and reduce problems in the long run.
One of the best ways to address addictions and their damaging impact on close family relationships is to enter a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.
Here are some of the ways that going to rehab can help improve a co-parenting relationship:
1. Setting Boundaries: Healthy boundaries are important skills in recovery. With drug addictions, co-parents may struggle to assert their needs and may take on more responsibilities than what is fair and balanced. This can lead to unnecessary stress and repressed resentments.
Addicted co-parents may also lack the ability to set boundaries with their children, due to feelings of unworthiness or guilt/shame from using substances. Children with co-parents who have problems setting boundaries may engage in parent splitting or exhibit entitlement issues and/or academic/behavioral problems.
2. Anger Management: A common alcoholic pattern of dealing with conflict is stuffing anger with the bottle until eventually, the addict explodes— either while intoxicated or during withdrawal symptoms such as hangovers, anxiety, and insomnia.
When the alcoholic becomes sober, the recovered co-parent can learn healthy ways to express anger or frustration without using abusive language or gestures. When free of the effects of substances, the co-parent can learn in rehab how to identify signs of escalating anger and manage these feelings through relaxation techniques in order to resolve problems when they’re in a calmer state.
3. Letting go of resentments: Resentments from previous relationship problems prior to co-parenting can get in the way of problem-solving and negotiating rationally (rather than in emotionally charged discussions). Repressed resentments fuel addiction, in the sense that drugs and alcohol dull painful sensations like unresolved hurt, anger or grief.
Rehab helps people identify these resentments and let them go, so they can address co-parenting issues as they arise in the present moment, rather than dragging in baggage from the past.
4. Stop Blaming: Addicts tend to project blame onto others or the world around them to deflect their shame about the damage their substance abuse has caused. In toxic co-parenting relationships, one or both of the coparents may unfairly blame the other for problems with their children.
Recovery is the beginning of a process of taking a moral inventory of character defects and taking responsibility for one’s own “side of the street.”
5. Self-Care: One definition of addiction is the chronic giving up of one’s needs in favor of what others want, demand, or expect. Rehab helps addicted co-parents reflect on what things of value they’ve given up in order to keep the peace or make other people happy. Often these things include favorite hobbies, life goals, or other personal interests.
Once they have identified these interests, recovered co-parents can strategize ways to implement them in their daily lives. This type of self-care fosters greater personal happiness and fulfillment, which positively impacts the family system.
Towards a Balanced and Satisfying Life as a Divorced Parent
Healthy boundaries. Effective anger management. Release of resentments. An end to the blame game. Intentional self-care. These five tools gained in rehab can help a divorced mom or dad struggling with drugs or alcohol get healthy and improve a co-parenting relationship with an ex.
Balance can be elusive in any family or relationship context. In the context of divorce and co-parenting, it might be easy to dismiss rehab as unrealistic— as too much time away from work and parenting.
But calculated in terms of its long-term benefits, rehab is too important not to do: It’s often a gateway towards better health, improved relationships, and greater quality of life. Every divorced person deserves a chance at that.