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May 17, 2024 Podcast

Navigating Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Divorce

Gailor Hunt
Gailor Hunt
Navigating Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Divorce

In this episode, Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, known as The Divorce Doctor, shares her expertise on navigating divorce when substance abuse is a factor. Uncover the unique challenges and crucial insights when divorcing someone with substance use issues. Dr. Cohen combines clinical psychology knowledge with personal experience, offering a compelling guide for those facing a divorce involving a spouse struggling with addiction. Dr. Cohen shares stories from her own divorce, cognitive behavioral techniques that can help cope with the emotional toll of divorce, and navigating the complexities of co-parenting when substance abuse is a factor. If you’re dealing with a challenging divorce or supporting someone through it, this episode provides practical advice and empowering perspectives.

If you or someone you know is struggling with similar issues, we encourage you to seek support from mental health professionals or relevant resources, such as Al-Anon.

Need help from Elizabeth? Contact her by visiting

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Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.

Jaime: Welcome to A Year and a Day. I’m Jamie Davis, board-certified family law attorney at Gailor Hunt. On this show, I talk with lawyers, psychologists, and other experts with the goal of helping you navigate divorce without destruction. In this episode, I’ll be talking with Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, also known as The Divorce Doctor. Dr. Cohen received her PhD in clinical psychology from Boston University. And is widely recognized as one of New York City’s experts in cognitive behavioral therapy theory and techniques. In addition to her clinical work, she is the founder of the Afterglow online course and author of The Light on the Other Side of Divorce. Thanks for joining me, Dr. Cohen. Can you share some insights into your own experience with divorce and how it influenced your journey to becoming the divorce doctor?

Elizabeth: Yes. So as a clinical psychologist, similarly to an attorney, I spent a lot of my time in training, learning how to focus on the client and not necessarily sharing about myself. But I was working with so many clients who had gone through a divorce and were really struggling with how to step into the next phase. And so I felt this real need to share not only my clinical expertise, but also some of my personal story. Means, some ways to say that this can happen to anybody. And also that I was someone who had moved through it, that I was someone who had been in some of the hardest kinds of experiences with of divorce. And that I had moved through it and they could too and in my book I talk about how you’ll meet. Lots of people who will help you along the way including wayshowers. People who show you the way and show you come here? I’m showing you it’ll happen. You can move through this it will get better. And so I really thought that bringing my experience of both a personally very difficult divorce and also my professional experience would really round it out. I think stories are a really beautiful way to help people heal.

Jaime: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, when I am trying to connect with a client in a consultation or a meeting, And I’m telling them the law. Whenever I share with them that I’ve also been through my own divorce and that I’m familiar with how custody schedules work and those sorts of things, it seems to just give it another layer of credibility. And also, it brings comfort to them, I believe.

Elizabeth: I think you’re absolutely right, Jamie. And I think that one of the reasons is because there’s still, unfortunately, so much stigma and shame around divorce that, you know, they walk into your office or my office and they think, well, this person must have it all together. By the way, getting a divorce doesn’t mean you don’t have it together, but that’s a whole other stigma. And so to hear that we also, strong women, have been through something challenging and are standing here having survived and maybe even happier, that’s really a great antidote to the shame and stigma that I think a lot of both your clients and my clients experience.

Jaime: Yeah, that’s a great point. So another issue that comes up a lot, I believe, in divorces is substance abuse. From your perspective, how can substance abuse impact the divorce process? And what advice do you have for individuals going through such a difficult situation? Yeah.

Elizabeth: So you mean substance use and the partner that you’re divorcing?

Jaime: Yeah.

Elizabeth: So that was my experience. My ex-husband struggled from substance use disorder. And I think there’s a few really important tools to look at, pieces of the puzzle to look at, actually. I think really, really need to highlight. So the first is, and I’m sure you see this also in your practice, when people come and they’re ready to have a divorce, there have been years before of trying to avoid having a divorce, trying to make things work. And especially with substance use, both the person with substance use disorder and the partner have probably tried really, really hard to quit whatever the substance was or to save the marriage. Most people want things to work and they try really hard. They just very often can’t do it on their own or at that time or in the relationship. And so I think it’s really important to know that there’s a long tail of experience, like an animal tail, a long tail of experience by the time they get to our office. Or if you’re someone going through a divorce, it’s been a long process of hope and then dreams shattered. I’m going to get sober. Now I relapsed. I’m going to do it for the kids. Now I can’t. I’m kicking them out. They’re never coming back. I take them back. Then I say, this is the last time. So much of that back and forth. I would say that that is actually, the most disruptive to a person’s psyche, then even sometimes the active substance use, the in or out, the yes, the no, that back and forth, I think can be really, really challenging because you’re coming into the divorce with that kind of hopes dashed feeling. And again, talking about shame and stigma, there’s a feeling of if you loved me enough, you would stop using. And if I loved you enough, you would stop using. That’s somehow love was going to end it. So there’s not a lot of enough information about substance use disorder in general to realize that it really doesn’t have anything to do with the other person causing it. I would say that a big concern for divorcing someone with substance use is the unpredictability of what might happen with visitation, with custody. I know for me, that was a really, really big concern. A lot of people stay with partners who have substance use disorder when you have children because at least they’re in the same house and you can watch what’s going on. If you separate and they end up in custody, you don’t know, right? And so even though there’s breathalyzers, there’s lots of ways to work around that. So that kind of terror of a parent is unlike anything else. So I think those are some things that we really need to consider.

Jaime: So given your expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy, how do CBT techniques play a role in helping individuals cope with the challenges of divorce, particularly when substance abuse is involved?

Elizabeth: Yeah, really good question. So the C in CBT is the cognitive piece. Very often we will help clients identify the beliefs and the assumptions that they’re making that are impacting how they feel. So for example, someone comes into your office and their partner has been substance using for years. They finally decided to leave. And they most often in my office would say, I regret staying for so long. I should have left sooner. Anytime we hear a should statement, that’s perfect because there’s no such thing as should, right? So we stop right there and we say, let’s look at this. Let’s look at this thought of I should have left earlier. Let’s talk about why did you stay? What was motivating you? Love, loyalty, dedication to your kids. What did you, were you able to understand and learn more about substance use by staying? So we kind of just, we pick away at that, what we would call a cognitive distortion, and we help the person see that there’s some other ways to look at that. And then if you carry that feeling, I should have left sooner, that’s going to impact. I’m sure you can see this as an attorney, all your decisions. Because you’re not going to necessarily be empowered and say, I did the best I could. You know, we help people say, I did the best I could with the information I had. I was only ready to leave until I was ready to leave. Now I can really leave. Maybe I would have gone back if I had left, if I had made that decision too early. So we really help empower people to see that their thoughts are really impacting how they feel, which also impact their actions, which can have lifelong repercussions. I mean, I’ve worked with clients who, you know, feel so guilty that they left, that they don’t ask for anything in the settlement. And 15 years later, they don’t have that guilt anymore, but they also don’t have anything from the settlement. Yeah.

Jaime: Yeah, we see that frequently. I mean, I like to call it buyer’s remorse. And, you know, we typically see it in cases where maybe, there’s been a longstanding affair, and so the person who has been unfaithful feels a tremendous amount of guilt, and they just want to give everything to the other spouse to make it right. Well, two, three years down the road, maybe they’ve met somebody else. They’re ready to move on, but they can’t afford their new life because they’re giving all of their money to their ex-spouse.

Elizabeth: Exactly, exactly. And just to tell you about the behavioral pieces, some behavioral pieces that we might identify for someone struggling with a partner who has substance use disorder might be, they’re usually small, so it might be something like, you usually respond very quickly when you get, let’s say, a drunk text or you hear that the person is drunk on the phone. Can you wait 30 minutes before you respond to the text? Can you put some space between what you used to do and what you’re going to do now? Just changing behaviors just a little bit. All of that opens you up, the person, up to different possibilities of acting. And then, of course, the other person might react differently. But nobody can get another person sober. Like that isn’t one person’s job. Like to be totally clear, you know, all the guilt, all the responsibility. You know, I remember I talk about in my book, having this moment where I was, this is when I really realized that something that I needed to work on myself. I mean, a big piece for me was that, of course, my ex-husband was a really ill substance use disorder client, but I was, if the sound was off and you were watching us in a movie, like I looked just as ill as him. You know, at one point I was on the floor, you know, begging him to not drink for the night because we were trying to sleep train my child. I remember looking at the wooden floorboards and thinking, and this is, I’m saying this myself. I thought this, like, I’m crazy. Like I have lost it. Like what is going on here? I am begging a, I’m an adult begging an adult to do something differently. Like what’s going on with me? And so that was really a moment for me where I realized I need to look at. Why I, in a loving and gentle way, why I, how did I find myself on this floor? And that’s the process that we do in therapy.

Jaime: And so many people are in that same situation. I mean, we see it all the time, especially in custody cases where, the non-using spouse is trying to normalize the behavior of the using spouse. And I guess because maybe they think it’s some sort of reflection or judgment on them about their parenting or the fact that they did stay so long in the marriage. And I feel like a lot of times we have to ask them some very tough questions about, you know, would you be comfortable if your kids were with any other person who was acting this way, but who wasn’t their dad or their mom? And so then they’re like, oh, wow, like, no, I absolutely would not leave my kids with the neighbor if the neighbor was acting this way.

Elizabeth: Exactly. It is such a… It is an excruciatingly challenging moment to acknowledge and step out of denial. Denial is what keeps substance use disorder in families. And it is really difficult to come out of that. And it takes the time it takes. I mean, in a lot of ways, I was fortunate in that my ex-husband’s substance use disorder was so severe that he really couldn’t function. So when I asked him to leave, it was because he was non-functional. I’m really, I’m grateful for that because I think it would have been much harder if he was someone who, when the kids went to bed, you know, smoked pot all night and didn’t ever connect with me or, you know, something that was a substance use disorder, but looked, I really don’t like this word, but like more functional. And I say to people who, anyone who’s listening, who’s wondering like, is my partner’s substance use a problem? You know what I always ask, what are your kids learning about how to handle stress, how to handle tension? If they’re learning that the thing to soothe is a drug or alcohol, that’s a problem, right? I mean, that’s ultimately what someone is doing is finding a soothing mechanism through some through an outlet. Yeah.

Jaime: Yeah, I agree with you. It is much more difficult when the behavior is more subtle. Like if the person is able to keep it together during the day, they go to work, you know, it doesn’t interfere with their career. Maybe they’ve not gotten pulled over for a DWI. It’s not a public behavior. It’s just at home, at night. Nobody else sees it. I think it’s much more difficult in those cases for the non-using spouse to get to that point either where they’re ready to leave or if they have left to have those issues addressed through the court system. Because we’re only as good as the evidence we have, right? And so if there is no evidence other than the non-using spouse’s testimony, it can sometimes be really hard to prove.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. And I think I feel for you in those situations. And I think that there’s this invisible impact, I think, on children. You know, children, people in general, we need to be seen and heard and witnessed. We don’t, good news, we don’t have to do that with our kids all the time. In fact, research says we can do it 30% of the time. Like people think it’s going to be 80%. It’s actually 30%. It’s not all the time. We make mistakes all the time and we can repair. Like it’s not all the time, but we need to be seen and heard. And when you are high, you are not seeing or hearing someone. And if you are high every night and your kid wakes up with a fever and you are high, that is having an impact on your child, even though it’s not a DUI. And we had a client, I worked with a client who would smoke weed every night. And once the kids went to bed, and the wife would be downstairs and he would go upstairs. And they kept referring to that person as a functional user. But there was no relationship between the parents, right? And so how is that functional? I mean, they’re both in therapy, like it’s not actually working. And so, and I think it’s going to be, and I’m sure you’re dealing with this now. I think it’s going to be a bigger and a bigger issue with marijuana being legal. I just think that, and, and normalized similarly to how alcohol was, you know, well, my parents only have three drinks, you know, three drinks at dinner or something like that. And again, there are plenty of people who use and substances don’t become addicted and doesn’t interfere with their lives. I’m not saying everyone does, but we have to be thoughtful of the impact on everyone around them.

Jaime: Right. I mean, it’s just another exit from the marriage. Just like you can use your job as an exit or working out as an exit. I mean, if you’re sneaking downstairs to smoke pot, there’s your exit from your relationship.

Elizabeth: Exactly. Exactly. And I think it’s also, you’re making a really good point, Jamie, because I think in a fair, you know, those are like big betrayals and you know that’s a problem. And this is a more, again, this like more invisible, subtle impact that really does have an impact on the relationship and their relationship with their kids.

Jaime: So in your experience, what are some common signs of substance abuse that individuals might overlook in the context of a relationship?

Elizabeth: I think, so one thing, one of the things that this question really makes me think about is empowering people to trust their intuition. But if you feel like something’s a little fishy, you’re probably right. Like for example, if they said that they just stopped by the bar to pick up something they left there the night before or something. Or they weren’t going to go, but then a bunch of friends convinced them to go. And that, if you notice that there might be, that you feel that there’s some untruth happening, you’re probably right. A big part of substance use is shame about substance use. That’s what’s so painful about it for people who use substances is that there’s so much shame and desire to stop, but an inability for many people because of dependency. And so they do try to hide it. So if you feel that your partner might be trying to hide something, trust that instinct. You’re probably right. So that’s one thing. I would also say, it’s interesting because we were just talking earlier about functional, and I thought of this when you said this, that people never think about, okay, this person, they drink a bottle of wine at night, pass out, they fall asleep on the couch in front of the TV. This is kind of how you hear it. They watch TV and they fall asleep, and then they go to work and they’re fine. Are they really fine at work? Like, are they participating in meetings? Are they getting the promotion? Right. So that kind of like, I would also look for stagnation. If you’re using substances, your life might not be destroyed if you have an ability to hold it together, which is just kind of a genetic predisposition. Some people do, some people don’t. There’s no shame with that. What’s the quality of the person’s life? Like, what’s the quality of the time when they’re with the kids on the weekend? Are they super irritable? Are they joyful and relaxed? Are they looking for opportunities outside of work to volunteer, right? Like, is there this kind of limited life? That would be another thing I would look for. Those are more, these are like more subtle things besides the obvious, you know, drunk, not showing up for things, DUIs, that kind of thing.

Jaime: Right. And once the folks get to a divorce lawyer, if they have some of the financial documents, one of the things we look for is unexplained spending. Are there a lot of cash withdrawals? Are there a lot of ABC store charges? I mean, we’ve had cases where we make spreadsheets of alcohol purchases and the person is going to buy liquor at least twice a week and spending over $100 each time. So those sorts of things could be good clues too, especially if you share a joint bank account with your spouse.

Elizabeth: That’s a great point. When my ex-husband… I’m trying to remember how this happened. I think he was fired or he was on unemployment. And back in the day, he had some sort of unemployment debit card or something like that. I don’t think he was on disability. Anyway, I remember finding the statement. And it was like, liquor store, liquor store, liquor store, liquor store, liquor store, liquor store. And at the time, I was glad I had the evidence. Because also, just because I knew he was drinking, I didn’t know he was drinking all that time and all that much. That was the other thing. I never knew it was that much. And I remember one day looking out the window. We live in New York City, so you can kind of see where the trash is outside. And he was getting something in the trash. And I thought, what is that? It was like six months later that I realized that he was hiding empty bottles in all the trashes all around the whole block so that I wouldn’t see it in our trash or something. And so, things like that again, but like, I happened to see it, but I was like, oh, maybe that isn’t it. So I love that idea of the statements. And I would also just say, tell me what you think, because you’ve done that work more than me. My sense is, people want to hide that kind of stuff, but they’re not very good at it because they’re also using substances.

Jaime Right.

Elizabeth: So they’re not that good, right? So, if you wanted to buy a lot of booze, you could take out cash instead of your credit, but you do it there because it’s so impulsive, right?

Jaime: Well, that too, and I don’t know why people think this because nine times out of 10, they get caught, but they just seem to think that their spouse is just not going to notice, that they’re just never going to look at those statements and see, you know, these charges. Or it’s just being lazy, right? Like it takes a little bit of effort to go to the bank and get out cash to buy the thing.

Elizabeth: Yeah, possibly. And I also think that, you know, a lot of us, and I can say this for myself, you know, I ignored a lot. So I could understand if my partner, ex-partner was like, she’s never going to say a thing because I was so afraid to blow up my family. I was so afraid to just change everything. I had a one-year-old and I was pregnant. And when I first found out he was drinking so much and then, you know, and then I had a baby and a two-year-old when I finally asked him to leave. I mean, I was going to do this by myself. So, I think a lot of people know that the partner is also really afraid. The other thing, which I’m sure you see a lot too, which is the substance use becomes the number one, like you said, the affair, the number one priority. People used to say to me, but doesn’t he know he’s got a kid? And what about his family? And I would just say the number one thing is his alcohol. How to get it and how to procure it and how to ingest it. And that’s because that is what soothes his anxiety. Like there’s no question that is the number one thing. It actually isn’t even personal. And so to get that number one thing you need, you’ll go to all odds. You’ll break the law, you’ll do anything, including telling the person in front of you that it’s their fault. Including becoming defensive and blaming the person who you’re hurting. So we have to remember that a lot of partners of substance users have been raked over the coals for causing the person to drink. I remember my ex said that to me a lot. Being the reason for the drinking, causing so much stress in the house. The kids are, you know, just kind of defending it. Again, more and more pushing them away from the responsibility.

Jaime: And I think that too goes back to the point you made earlier about like, what is the quality of life? Like, what is the stagnation? I mean, if the person is just cruising through the day and the only thing they’re thinking about is, how and when am I going to get that next drink? There’s certainly no quality of life there.

Elizabeth: Exactly. Really good point.

Jaime: So, having been the director of the CBD program at Bellevue’s Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic, can you discuss specific cognitive behavioral strategies that can be effective in addressing the emotional toll of divorce?

Elizabeth: Yes, yes, yes, yes. So one of the ones I love doing is a cognitive tool where I really have people talk about, how they describe to people at a dinner party about their marriage or about their divorce or their relationship status. And very often people will say, my marriage failed or my kids now come from a broken home. So I’ll notice these statements that people will use, right? It’s so sad. And I’ll stop them and say, like I talked about earlier, can we challenge that statement that you said? Can we try on a different statement? For example, how about this? My marriage came to its perfect conclusion. We both got exactly what we needed from the relationship and let it go when it was time to let it go. We were a really good partnership until we weren’t. There were other forces that impacted the longevity of our relationship. Like you see how all of these are just much more like reality-based, not blaming kind of, we can move again. Remember my whole premise of this work is to be able to move on. It’s not something we have to carry with us. It’s not something terrible about us. So that’s a really fun cognitive strategy. And one of the, there’s two big emotional tools that I offer in my book. One is about really allowing people to connect to their righteous anger. To really, you know, we are a culture in general that doesn’t like anger. God forbid if you’re, you know, female assigned or identify as a female. And so we really can have so much anger, especially in these substance use disorder cases. So much anger at our partner. And, you know, are told, of course, not to express it because that’s inappropriate. Of course, doesn’t help you in court. But what do we do with that anger? And very often it comes out sideways. Either we, and I always have a whole thing about like not talking smack about your, you know, acts to your kids. So like, don’t do that. So what do you do? And so I actually encourage people to do some. Somatic or body therapy, one of the therapy techniques I suggest is to put on a really angry song. There are many. And now that we have Spotify, you can just put an angry song. And mine is favorite is Rage Against the Machine, Killing in the Name. So I love that song. And you just put it on and you let your body move in the way that it wants to. And you’ll be surprised that your body, maybe you’ll feel a little embarrassed at first, but your body will be like, thank you, ma’am. Let me get this going. And you’ll notice every time I do it, I always notice it’s my arms. It’s like my arms that want to push back. I don’t know what that’s about. Except, I mean, I do know as a therapist that there are places in our body where we hold our emotions and they do need to really come out and be released. So that’s one thing. You can punch a pillow. You can do some what we call progressive muscle relaxation where you tighten muscles and release them. But really letting yourself feel the anger so it doesn’t come out sideways. And then the last technique that I think, I have a lot in my book, but these are kind of the highlights. The last one that I think is really important that people talk about is to address grief. That I tell a story in my book about, I think this was now maybe three or four years ago with COVID. I can’t remember if it was any time, but I think it was three or four years ago. My ex-husband, who is remarried and has a child with his now ex-wife, came up to visit us at our country house. I’m remarried for many, many, many years. And our kids were all in the pool. And I was sitting by the pool. And I had this moment and I have no interest in being remarried to my ex-husband who is now sober. I just had this moment of grief as I thought, oh. This is what… This is what I thought it was going to be. Like, this is the dream and the fantasy that I had when I was 26 and got married. And so I went up to the house and my husband and told him and cried to him and let the grief out. And it was really great because it had nothing to do with loving him or wanting him. It was just this, right? It was just this moment that I had, we all wanted that at some point. It’s okay to touch that. And if we don’t, again, it’s going to come out sideways. So letting go of the story, I have an exercise in the book where people kind of write it on a special piece of paper, their fantasy of what they thought was going to happen and then roll it up and, you know, bury it or burn it and kind of let it go. And so I think we do need to do grief work and we don’t usually do that. We either get stuck in anger and move on to someone else and we don’t go into the grief. So that’s another piece that I apply.

Jaime: Yeah, I find all of that to be so interesting. I love the concept of the righteous anger and finding a way to get rid of that because, you know, it’s true. You have a right to be angry. And with the grieving, you know, you’re experiencing a loss. It’s the death of that dream and hope that you had for your marriage. And so I try to talk about that in consultations with my clients, that, you know, you’re going to go through these stages of grieving throughout this process. And how you choose to handle those stages may impact your legal case. And so I always encourage them, every single person that walks through the door, I say, do you have a therapist? If not, you need to go find one because this is going to be one of the most emotionally challenging processes that you’ve ever had to deal with.

Elizabeth: Oh, they’re so lucky to have you, Jamie. I wish all divorce attorneys would say that because it’s so true. And I’m sure you say that because you see how the unprocessed emotion deeply impacts their ability to get what they deserve. I mean, it’s so powerful. And it elongates the whole process.

Jaime: Yeah, I mean, they tend to get stuck or they’re spinning and they can’t make good decisions. And so I try to explain to them that I need them to be mentally healthy so that they can help make the decisions that I can’t make for them, right? Like, I can’t tell them what custody schedule is best for their children. I can’t tell them whether or not they’re going to accept a settlement proposal. Like, there are certain decisions that I need them to make. And so I need them to be healthy so they can make those decisions for themselves.

Elizabeth: Yes, absolutely. And Jamie, I bet this would also be something I teach in the book too, a cognitive behavioral strategy would be really helpful for your clients is really working through the resentment towards your ex. Again, you can have righteous anger because some stuff happened that really wasn’t fair and stinks and you need to let that go, let that be and let it move through you. And then there’s resentment and we’ve got to process the resentment. I have exercises in my book where we, you know, I’m not going to say you’re going to have to fully forgive or be in compassion, but a little bit, a little bit of work because resentment is a killer in court. Resentment is a finite, I mean, basically more resentment, you have more money you spend on your divorce case, right? It’s like, if you want to save money, work on your resentment. So I have a lot of tools in the book about that too.

Jaime: Well, and it’s so funny, you said the word, fair. You know, in the divorce world, we call fair the F word because it is never, never going to be fair or feel fair.

Elizabeth: I know. I know. And, you know, one of the things I say to my clients all the time, I’m sure you do too, you know, they’ll say, I want the judge to see what he did to me or how, you know, and they’re like, they’re never going to see. They don’t care. They’re never going to see that. You have to know. You have to see it. Your ex is not going to see it either. Can you know your truth? And move on. Like, it’s really about believing yourself and your truth and not needing everyone to validate it.

Jaime: Right. And, you know, the judge in a case, I mean, unfortunately, there is just not enough time for them to get every single detail that they would need about you, your spouse, your marriage, your children.

Elizabeth: Right.

Jaime: For them to, you know, “get it”. I mean, they’re doing the best they can with the limited time and resources that they have. And so to the extent that you can. You know, be healthy and try to resolve your case outside of court, you certainly have more control over those things.

Elizabeth: Yeah. I mean, I don’t, we don’t have to get into this, but as a therapist, I have to say, I just, this just popped into my head that very often people have this kind of like, they put this parental figure projection onto the judge. And it makes me think of course of like siblings, like whatever your family history was with like going to the parent and being like, I’m right. I, I, aren’t I right now, you know, wanting this approval. And, and you realize these judges are not, because that happens in couples therapy too, you know, like whose side do you believe? And it’s like, that’s not what I’m even here to do.

Jaime: There’s his side, her side, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Elizabeth: Exactly. And the judge is really just trying to implement the law and be equal. I mean, it’s such a hard situation.

Jaime: So we’ve talked a lot about, you know, separation and divorce and substance use. What advice do you have for co-parents navigating the complexities of divorce when substance use is a factor?

Elizabeth: You know, I think it really depends on the age of the kids, because I think, you know, when I couldn’t be sure, my ex-husband was out of the kid’s life, really psychiatrically ill with substance use disorder for about a year and a half or two. And then he got sober and wanted to come back in. And this is actually a way that I really appreciated the courts because the courts helped me get supervised visits. That would, I don’t know the word is, but that they would like the intensity [inaudible] Exactly. Phase in and then phase out. And so, you know, it was meeting at Barnes and Noble with the social worker and the kids for 30 minutes. And then it was an hour. And then I was, you know, and that was really protective. I think that people, this is interesting, I think people also who’ve been through the experience of being married with someone who has substance use disorder and has felt so much responsibility to keep everything together, that’s very often who’s married to someone like that. Very together person might have trouble asking for help. But you’re going to need help if you’re co-parenting with a substance use disordered person. You’re going to need, which might mean people are there during the visits. You might need breath a lot. I think you’re going to need a lot of extra help. And I just, it occurred to me, I think that would be very, could be very hard for someone, think about it, who’s coming out of a relationship where they were trying to control the chaos. Because you have to admit there’s chaos and find other people to come in. And then if they’re older, you know, I always err on the side of honesty because denial is an incredibly… It’s a cesspool for substance use. And to say that, you know, dad has a disorder. And if you ever notice that he, you feel uncomfortable, he’s slurring his words, this is what you do. Like you have a plan. It’s really hard to have those kinds of conversations. And I know as a parent, I used to think, I can’t believe I did this to my kids. Like I had my kids with this person and now they have to deal with this. Like I felt so guilty about it. And then I would just bring myself back to the moment and say, well, that’s the truth. That’s where we are. I think one of the things about substance use disorder, and maybe you see this in your work, is fantasy. It’s like, oh, maybe they’ll, you know, maybe they’ll miraculously get better, or maybe I’m wrong. You know, a lot of maybe kind of hopefulness. I think we really need to be in reality. If this person’s struggling, everyone needs to know. I mean, it always needs to be a plan B, always.

Jaime: Yeah, and I think you raised a great point about people not wanting to ask for help. Because in order to get the help of the supervised visit or the breathalyzer before the visit or whatever it is that you need for your children to be safe. You have to admit that it was that bad. And I think that’s where people have a problem, that they don’t want to admit that it was ever really that bad.

Elizabeth: I think you’re absolutely right. Because I think, again, there’s still this stigma that if it was that bad, I couldn’t fix it. There’s some reason, right? Because if it was only about the other person, they could say, okay, they have really bad diabetes or really bad cancer. You don’t feel responsible for diabetes or cancer, but somehow you feel responsible for substance use in a partner.

Jaime: Yeah, that can definitely make things much more complicated for sure. Shame and guilt all over the place. Well, are there any specific community resources or support networks that you would recommend for individuals dealing with divorce and substance use issues?

Elizabeth: Absolutely. So if you have a partner who is struggling with a substance use disorder, please check out the 12-step program, Al-Anon, which is terribly named because you don’t know what it is, but it’s for partners of people who struggle with substance use. I love the story of Al-Anon. AA was started with someone named Bill W. I don’t even know, in the 30s, maybe at 40s. And he, of course, had a DUI, so couldn’t drive himself to meetings. So his wife would drive, and all the wives would drive these men to these AA meetings where they were working on their sobriety. And they would be in the kitchen. I don’t know, having coffee while the men were working on their sobriety. And they started telling stories and they were like, oh, I do that too. And I do that too. And it came from the wives of seeing that, oh, we also struggle, that there’s a personality style that we have too and how we can help ourselves. And it wasn’t about how to get the person sober, it was how to help ourselves. So that’s, and it’s free. Now with Zoom, I mean, now after COVID, it is international. You can try lots of different meetings, see how they go. You don’t have to share. You can just listen. Some resources also, codependent work. Melody Beattie has a beautiful book called Codependent No More. That’s really great for what it’s like to be the partner of a substance use, someone struggling with substance use. There’s a program called CRAFT, C-R-A-F-T, which is a therapeutic program for partners of people who are struggling with substance use to help them use compassion and love to see if you can work together to come to some sort of agreement of sobriety. So those are some areas for that. I have a program called Afterglow. I have an online program. I also have a membership program. There are a ton of, I mean, I have a lot of resources on my website. Now, since I’ve written the book, not because I’ve written the book, but since I’ve written the book and in the last few years, there’s a number of really qualified divorce coaches who have lots of great podcasts. My colleague, Susan Guthrie, has an amazing podcast. I’ve been on it many times. I have a podcast called The Divorce Doctor Podcast where people share stories of what it was like for them to go through it. So, again, I really think stories are important. So you can hear why people got divorced, how they handled it, what they’re doing now? That can be really helpful. So I would say community and connection. You know, substance use disorder is all about isolation. So the healing has to be in connection. That’s why 12 Steps or so have been so successful. You don’t have to believe in God. You don’t have to do any of that. It’s, I mean, whether it’s the tools, it’s just the community. It’s having other people.

Jaime: Well, those are a lot of wonderful resources. Thank you for sharing.

Elizabeth: Of course.

Jaime: If you could only offer one piece of advice to someone going through a divorce, what would it be?

Elizabeth: I think I would say just believe in yourself. Just know that you can trust yourself. That you are strong. That you are unimaginably brave. I call the people in my program super women. They happen to be women because going through a divorce is requires so much strength, but to trust yourself and know you’re brave. That’s what I would say.

Jaime: That’s wonderful advice. Thank you, Dr. Cohen, for joining us.

Elizabeth: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Jaime.

Jaime: Thank you for listening. If you liked this episode, be sure to follow the show wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one. While the information presented is intended to provide you with general information to navigate divorce without destruction, this podcast is not legal advice. This information is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have any questions before taking action, consult an attorney who is licensed in your state. If you are in need of assistance in North Carolina, contact us at Gailor Hunt by visiting I’m Jamie Davis, and I’ll talk with you next time on A Year and A Day.


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A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction' is a law podcast produced by Gailor Hunt Davis Taylor & Gibbs, PLLC partner Jaime Davis. You can learn more about Jaime's experience and expertise on her bio page. If you have a question about the podcast, you can email Jaime at Please note, the purpose of this podcast is not to give legal advice. This podcast is for general, informational purposes only and should not be used as legal advice. The information discussed in this podcast is specific to the laws in North Carolina. Before you take any legal action you should consult with a lawyer who is licensed in your state.
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I've been where you are right now. Long before I went through my own divorce, I set out on a career as a clinical psychologist and have now practiced for over 15 years. Some therapists keep their personal life stories out of the room when they're in their professional role. I'm not one of those therapists.

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