By Jeremy Frank, PhD, CAC l Source: www.goodtherapy.org:

As a clinical psychologist and certified addictions counselor, I see husbands, wives, and partners in individual or couples therapy on a daily basis grappling with the decision to leave or divorce their spouse or partner. Therapists have long referred to the three “A’s” of divorce as legitimate reasons to consider ending a relationship when the behavior of one’s partner is clearly destructive, abusive, or there is no reason to believe it will improve. Psychologists have suggested that the top three reasons for divorce are abuse, addiction, and affairs.

Researchers have long reported that financial problems are the top area of conflict for most couples, and that communication is the second most-cited reason for marital discord. While that may be true, these problems pale in comparison to the severe and devastating consequences resulting from abuse, addiction, and affairs.

When people ask me whether they should leave their partner or initiate divorce proceedings, very often it is because of one of the above. Any one of these issues, in and of itself, can be severe enough to make the answer to this question simple, yet it is an intensely personal and complex choice and the decision must be made in the context of careful consideration for oneself, one’s family, and the state and federal laws pertaining to the behavior. It is of utmost importance that, when faced with a partner who is engaged in these behaviors, one consults a professional and receives support, education, and counseling.

These are not decisions that should be made in a vacuum—or alone. As the social creatures and pack animals that we are, we have evolved over time to need and rely on social supports to better understand ourselves and the situations in which we find ourselves. Seeking help and support is a necessary, if not sufficient, first step in making the right decision for ourselves when coping with addiction, affairs, or abuse.

Many people do recover. While keeping safety in mind first and foremost, any one instance of the three “A’s” may be something that couples can bounce back from if they receive enough help and support.

One person with whom I worked found that she began to have feelings for a man she met online who was living in another state. She had no physical relationship with this man, but she continued to be connected with him for two years in what she later determined to be an emotional affair. When she and her husband finally entered couples therapy, she was able to confess her feelings for this man and her “emotional infidelity,” and end the affair promptly. She was able to work on what led her to stray from her husband and to articulate the ways in which she felt she was not getting her needs met at home and in their relationship, and they were able to make changes in order to save their marriage.
Another case of forgiving a violation of the three “A’s” involved a couple in which the man was physically abusive. He would block his wife’s exit from a door when she wanted to leave the house, jealously hack into her email, listen to her phone messages, and place restrictions on when she could go out and with whom she could spend time. At one point, he shoved her and she fell, almost bumping her head on a coffee table. While these are considered abusive behaviors in most states and punishable by law, the couple was able to learn about the definition of abuse—physical, sexual, and emotional—and the man fully engaged in individual and group counseling. He found a local therapist who ran groups for men with anger and physical abuse problems, enrolled in that program, and worked hard on himself for two years to save his marriage and family.

Often, couples enter counseling when marriages are on the brink and it becomes clear that one or both partners need individual counseling before the couples work can be successful. This last case is an obvious example where individual therapy would be essential at the start. The husband in this instance began individual therapy and conjoint group therapy, focusing on anger management and coping skills. Most importantly, he was able to identify and stop the abusive behavior, and the couple was able to resume their progress in couples counseling. After significant time and work, they were able to salvage their relationship and the marriage. This involved the wife’s ability to forgive and trust her husband again, of course, but also the husband’s ability to express his anger toward her in a more acceptable, healthy, and helpful way. The wife certainly needed her own individual therapy before she was even close to being willing to begin the couples counseling.

Addiction may be no different from affairs and abuse in this regard. When one’s addiction is severe, it is clearly grounds for ending a relationship or getting a divorce, but by no means is this always the case. When a husband, wife, or partner adequately addresses his or her drug and alcohol issues or other addictive issues, such as shopping addiction, gambling, or love or sex addiction, a couple can recover from the hurt, shame, and consequences of the addictive behaviors.

Many people are familiar with the quote, “We’re not responsible for falling down, but we are responsible for getting back up.” This is a wonderful analogy for the “disease” model of addiction. If you are walking along, don’t see a hole, and you fall in it, it isn’t your fault. It is, however, your responsibility to get up, to get out of the hole or ask for help. An individual with an addiction is not responsible for having the disease. It is sometimes a hereditary illness, a brain disease characterized by chronic relapse with psychosocial, biological, personal, and cultural origins. However, once someone knows that they have an addiction, they are responsible for picking themselves up, getting treatment, avoiding people, places, and things associated with their addiction, and working a program of recovery involving therapy, meetings, and the use of a support network such as a 12-step fellowship.

A few important things to remember: The three “A’s” and the behaviors surrounding them need to cease right away. In some cases this can be a work in progress, but in others it can’t. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse needs to stop immediately. Some of these behaviors are obviously illegal and nonnegotiable. There is no way to continue an affair and work on one’s marriage at the same time. Individuals need a comprehensive assessment and evaluation to determine the appropriate level of care and to engage in the level of treatment and support that will keep them and others safe. After this is determined, if treatment is not working adequately and that level of treatment is deemed insufficient, then the individual will need to step up his or her treatment to a higher level of care.

Often, separation is a good idea as couples learn about the addiction, affairs, or abuse. A healthy separation can enable individuals to focus on their treatment and come together as needed when both are ready. This sort of separation enables both parties and their family to recognize that recovery is an individual’s responsibility and it is also a family affair. Whether children or extended family know explicitly about what is going on, to be sure, they are all affected. So when an individual begins recovery, so too does the family, and each member of the family may need support and/or counseling.

It is a spouse’s or partner’s responsibility to communicate to his or her partner what is acceptable and what is not. It is also incumbent on a spouse or partner to become educated about the law, about the disease of addiction, and to learn as much about the psychological underpinnings of the three “A’s” and these sorts of behaviors as possible. It is a partner’s responsibility to communicate as clearly as possible about what he or she believes is going on and to insist that his or her partner get help.

Rarely is anyone able to work through these sorts of problems without the support of professional help. Finding someone to help you and your spouse these days is very easy, however. GoodTherapy.org’s therapist directory is a great place to start. You can also contact your local city or state psychological society or association. Speak with a physician or friend you know who has been in counseling and ask them or their therapist for a referral. Most local therapists are willing to consult at no charge over the phone to help you determine if they might be a good match for you or your spouse.