Separated and Holding on for an Answer

Note: Letter edited for clarity

Dear Dr. Deb,

I’ve been reading your columns and I admire how reasonable and non-judgmental your advice seems to be.

My husband and I are currently separated, and I am concerned that this might lead to divorce.

This is my second marriage, and we have two children. Hubby has a history of alcoholism, although he’s been sober over nine months now. 

When our first child was born in February 2016, my husband decided to quit his job of 17 years to stay home with the baby and me while I healed. We were married a few months later, in June 2016.

I returned to work that September, but not my husband. He hasn’t worked a real job – meaning any work situation longer than three months – since the birth of our first child. Our second child was born in May 2019. Then the pandemic hit.

We started living in separate homes in September 2020. I bought a house in December 2021, but he refuses to live with me and my mom. I completely understand that. We are still both in New York, but each living separately with our mothers. The children live with me and visit him every other weekend.

I have no interest in being in another intimate relationship with someone else, but I dislike catering to him as a wife and not getting 100% of the benefits of having a husband. No Social Security is building up in his account. I pay for every date night or family trip. I don’t even have the pleasure or luxury of waking up to hubby’s face in the morning.

My question is: how much longer should I wait for him to get a job? Is our separation leading to divorce?

Separated and Holding On

Dear Separated and Holding On,

While your situation may seem as complex as the boardgame Clue, it’s clear, dear Separated, that you have only one question, not two.

When you ask (I imagine in an exasperated, exhausted voice) how long you should wait for your husband to get a job, it seems you’re really asking me: Should we get divorced now that we’re losing trust and mutual regard for each other?

The choice to stay or leave your husband is very personal with many factors to consider. No one should judge you for staying or leaving, or how long you wait before leaving.

To be clear, there is no “right, one-size-fits-all” way to decide on divorce.

While I cannot determine whether your husband’s irresponsible work history and his emotional and financial dependence on you is the result of his alcohol abuse or emotional issues, there’s no doubt that the biggest issue you two are facing is related to his history of alcoholism.

Recent research has shown that alcoholism is one of the top two causes for divorce. Deciding to divorce your husband is an excruciating choice to make. When you married him, you thought you would spend the rest of your life him, so it’s natural to feel perplexed about what is the right way to proceed.

While I’m happy that your husband has been in recovery for the past nine months, the reality is that alcoholism is a lifelong battle, no matter how long the person has been sober.

If you’re serious about wanting to work on your marriage, acknowledging his history of alcoholism and its impact on your relationship and family life would be a major step for you and your husband to find a way forward.

For one thing, you can both work on a plan to support his sobriety through positive reinforcement. It doesn’t mean that you pretend everything will be 100% fine from now on. Recovering from alcoholism is tricky and unpredictable in nature and you both need to acknowledge and talk about the ripple effects on your relationship and your children. 

In your letter, it’s clear that you already know the toll it’s taken on you and your family. Aside from the financial burden it has caused, you’re an estranged couple lacking emotional and physical intimacy.

That said, kudos to your husband for still playing an active parenting role for your children. Still, this doesn’t give you a fair shake in the relationship because it leaves you with the heaviest load. This is a major sign that there’s been a breakdown in trust and communication, which is an understandable fallout from his journey as a recovering alcoholic.

This may be a difficult conversation to have, but you need to know if you’re on the same page. Since your husband is currently sober, now may be the time for the two of you to start fixing that breakdown with the help of a marriage counselor who has an expertise in addiction.  The counselor can teach you the art of listening to each other respectively and mediate your differences.

Coming back to your most urgent question: Should you divorce your husband?

Nobody can make this decision, except you. While that may not be the answer you were hoping to hear, it’s my professional obligation to tell you that therapists like me can never decide for you. Neither can your parents, best friend, counselor, or your long-lost aunt that you found through 23andMe.

What I can do is give you sound advice and insight to help you think through your situation and come to your own answers by tapping into your best self and, hopefully, regaining your self-esteem. You can’t control what your spouse does or force him to change. You can only control you.

My biggest advice for you at this time: trust yourself to know what you want.  If divorce doesn’t feel right, doesn’t sound right, and you want to make your marriage work, then don’t divorce your husband. Don’t move forward with it if you’re not at peace with that decision.

Living through your husband’s alcoholism and irresponsible behavior can be all-consuming. Make sure that you also check on how you are doing physically and emotionally, and how your children are coping. Reach out to support groups and other excellent resources for spouses of alcoholics.

Dr. Deb

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