Is Your Co-Parent a Recovering Addict? Why a Custody Battle May Not Be The Answer

Living with a partner who has been fighting an addiction can be an emotional rollercoaster. If you’ve decided to end the relationship and are wondering what is the best course of action in terms of your children, your first concern will be their safety and well-being. As a parent, you're probably feeling exhausted, let down, and hurt by issues caused by your partner's addiction as well as the breakdown of your relationship. While you may feel the urge to rush ahead with a full-scale custody battle, the turmoil involved in doing so might be a lot for yourself and your kids to deal with right now. For that reason, you may want to consider some of the other ways to settle your case without getting into a full on battle.

Parent and child hold hands

Custody battles can damage children

High conflict custody battles have the potential to have a serious psychological impact on children. When parents go through high conflict court hearings, the children are at risk experiencing the same emotional health problems as those who have been neglected or abused. Research conducted by the Massachusetts General Hospital shows that children in this situation are at risk of experiencing the same emotional health problems as those who have been neglected or abused. Of the children studied, 65% had clinical anxiety, 44% became physically violent, 31% developed a sleep disorder and 27% became clinically depressed. The study also showed that there can be long-term consequences with children in the aftermath of a custody battle struggling to form friendships. Attachment disorders are common due to the loss of security in both parents or the loss of a central relationship with the non-resident parent and the fear of losing future relationships. Fighting parents cannot be there for their children. 

Forced arrangements rarely provide satisfactory solutions

Parents who have their visitation and custody arrangements decided by court action are rarely satisfied in the long-term. Those who create custody arrangements together may feel more satisfied with it because it is more likely to suit the unique needs of their family. Lack of satisfaction in the outcome means that you are more likely to have to go through repeat court hearings, which are not only expensive and stressful but also run the risk of creating more animosity between co-parents. Drawn-out court battles can make it difficult to be civil to each other and increase the conflict that damages children. While you are no longer in an intimate relationship, you and your co-parent should still try to nurture a friendship or, at least, an amicable relationship based on respect and cooperation. This will help make the act of parenting together easier for both of you to manage. 

Losing custody could create feelings of social stigma that could limit one's ability to parent

If your addicted ex-partner is female and you go to court to obtain sole custody, she may face a social stigma that is not encountered by a non-resident father. As you are divorcing, you may think how your co-parent feels is not your concern, but it is always important to consider each other’s feelings. A non-resident mother can be stigmatized by family, friends and work colleagues and be on the receiving end of harsh comments due to not being able to live with their children and for failing to live up to society expectations of what a mother is.

In a 1998 study of attitudes towards various groups of parents, non-custodial mothers were the most negatively evaluated parents. Due to these perceptions and self-blame, some non-custodial mothers separate themselves from family, friends and even their children. Around 15% of non-custodial mothers are no longer involved in the upbringing of their children.

Depending on their environment and upbringing, some little girls are socially conditioned for traditional motherhood from birth, so they may find it harder to adapt to losing custody of their children and face the emotional turmoil after their children are moved. Some women turn to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism which may cause a relapse in someone who is going through recovery. A high conflict custody battle may hinder an addict’s chances to get clean and stay clean, and hamper their ability to parent their children. These issues should be considered when considering litigation. 

If you feel your children are at immediate risk of abuse or neglect by the other parent, then seeking sole custody is an appropriate course of action. Otherwise, respectful negotiation and co-parenting is usually the better option.

Amicable communication

While your ex is going through recovery, you may be solely responsible for the physical, day-to-day care of the children, but you can still encourage a strong co-parenting relationship by staying positive about the efforts that the other parent makes for the children. If your co-parent becomes and remains sober, encourage them to have more contact with the children and to spend quality time playing and interacting with them. You could discuss increasing contact as your co-parent gets better or a shared parenting arrangement upon complete recovery. This gives them great motivation to succeed. Don’t be critical of your co-parent's efforts at self-care. Having ‘me’ time–provided it isn’t centred around the addiction–is important. Also, consider attending family therapy. Even if you’re divorcing, family therapy can help you deal with issues of divorce, addiction and how to re-structure your family set-up and raise your children separately but together. Attending group counselling could reduce the chance of future litigation and give your children the chance to speak their emotions.

Written by: Helen Young



NOTE: Many state and federal laws use terms like ‘custody’ when referring to arrangements regarding parenting time and decision-making for a child. While this has been the case for many years, these are not the only terms currently used to refer to these topics.

Today, many family law practitioners and even laws within certain states use terms such as ‘parenting arrangements’ or ‘parenting responsibility,’ among others, when referring to matters surrounding legal and physical child custody. You will find these terms as well as custody used on the OurFamilyWizard website.