Dealing with a spouse who has a mental illness can be an extremely difficult undertaking. Many couples wind up filing for divorce due to mental health problems when a spouse can no longer tolerate the blowback caused by mental illness, such as abuse, infidelity, impulsivity, substance abuse, or financial mismanagement. Read on to learn more about mental illness in divorce cases.
Diagnosing A Mental Illness
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 19.1% or 47.6 million U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2018. The first step to treating a mental illness is to diagnose it. The Mayo Clinic outlines the following ways to receive a diagnosis for mental illness:
- Physical examination – A medical doctor can rule out physical conditions that may explain the symptoms your spouse is experiencing.
- Lab tests – The doctor may order a variety of tests to rule out substance abuse issues or other physical conditions.
- A psychological evaluation – A doctor or mental health professional talks to your spouse about their symptoms, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Your spouse may also fill out questionnaires or be given tests to help identify the particular type of mental illness.
Some ways that you can help your spouse through this process include:
- Show support for your spouse during this time
- Encourage your spouse to seek a diagnosis
- Learn more about the mental illness your spouse has once he or she is diagnosed
- Do not attempt to become your spouse’s counselor; let the professionals do their job
- Seek your own counseling to help you deal with the situation
My Spouse Has A Mental Illness
According to Mental Illness Policy Org., about 50% of people with severe psychiatric disorders are not being treated for their mental illness. This includes people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness but who are not following a treatment plan or actively seeing a mental health professional for help with their condition.
Many people have undiagnosed mental illnesses but hesitate to seek assistance for a number of reasons, such as:
- They do not admit there is a problem
- There is a negative stigma attached to mental health problems
- They may not be able to afford professional help
- They prioritize other responsibilities over seeking help
- They do not believe that counseling or other forms of treatment will be effective
It is important to encourage your spouse to overcome their fears and seek out treatment of their mental illness.
My Spouse Develops A Mental Illness
Given the large percentage of people who struggle with mental illness, it is likely that many people will develop a mental illness during their marriages. The Mayo Clinic reports that there are several genetic and environmental factors that can lead to mental illness, including:
- Genetics – Mental illness is more common in people whose relatives also have a mental illness.
- Environmental exposures prior to birth – If your spouse’s mother was exposed to certain environmental stressors, toxins, alcohol, or drugs during her pregnancy, your spouse may be at greater risk of developing a mental illness.
- Brain chemistry – Neural networks that carry messages from neurotransmitters may be impaired, which may lead to mental health problems.
- Life situations – A person may have risk factors for mental illness and then a life situation, such as trauma, financial problems, a loved one’s death, divorce, or a history of childhood abuse may trigger the mental illness.
Should I Get A Divorce Because Of Their Mental Illness?
It can be extremely difficult to live with a spouse who has mental illness. Mental illness can cause your spouse to make impulsive decisions that negatively affect your life, such as cheating on you, quitting a job, gambling away your money, or turning to drugs and alcohol. Mental illness can also cause intimacy problems in your marriage or lead to codependent behaviors.
Dealing with a spouse with mental illness and divorce is certainly no easy undertaking. However, in some cases, this may be the best way for you to protect yourself and your children.
Feelings Of Guilt Or Shame
One of the problems associated with mental illness and divorce is the accompanying feelings of guilt or shame about divorcing someone with a mental illness. However, it is important for you to keep things in perspective. Many spouses of mentally ill individuals have gone through the ringer before they make the difficult decision to get a divorce. They may have been physically, mentally, or emotionally abused. They may have waited up countless nights while their spouse was on binges or cheating. They may have become the primary breadwinner and had to maintain some sense of financial stability because their spouse was unable to. In some cases, when dealing with a husband with mental illness, divorce is the best solution. Consider how much you have tried to make it work with your mentally ill husband. Divorce may be the relief you need after going through so much trauma yourself.
Common Problems Associated with Divorcing a Spouse with Mental Illness
Some of the common problems spouses may experience when dealing with mental illness in divorce cases include:
My Spouse Can’t Work
Mental illness may prevent a spouse from working due to problems concentrating, getting along with others, not being able to deal with minor conflicts in a positive manner, or other neurological or interpersonal problems. This can put a strain on your marriage and may also create some issues concerning support issues after divorce.
My Spouse Is Abusive
A spouse with mental health issues may be physically or emotionally abusive. If you are in danger, you can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1-800-799-7233. You may be able to obtain a restraining order, order of protection, or similar tool that instructs your spouse not to contact you or come near you. Court clerks, domestic violence shelter employees, and police officers are often trained to help domestic violence victims obtain relief. Make a plan to stay safe since leaving an abusive relationship is often one of the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship.
My Spouse Cheats On Me
Adultery and mental illness may also go hand in hand. Some states may allow you to file for divorce on the grounds of adultery. If your spouse has been using marital funds to support an affair partner, this may impact your divorce and the distribution of your marital assets.
My Spouse Relies On Me
In many situations, a spouse with a mental illness may come to rely heavily on their spouse for emotional support, companionship, and social connection. This can put a strain on the marriage and make the well spouse feel overwhelmed. It is important that you receive the emotional support that you need while divorcing a spouse with mental illness.
Can My Spouse’s Illness Prevent Me From Getting A Divorce?
One of the most commonly asked questions regarding mental illness and divorce is “Can you divorce someone who is mentally ill?” Generally, yes, you can. Some states allow you to divorce a spouse on the grounds of a mental illness. In any event, mental illness and marriage laws do not require that your spouse “allow” you to get divorced. If you want a divorce, you can seek a divorce, even if your spouse does not want the divorce or cooperate. You cannot be forced to remain married against your will. If your spouse is considered incapacitated, the court may appoint a person to look out for their interests during the proceeding.
How to Divorce Someone with Mental Illness
The process to divorce a person with mental illness follows the same process as divorcing a spouse for other reasons and usually involves the following steps:
- Prepare a divorce complaint that sets out your reasons for wanting a divorce and the relief you want, such as to be awarded a divorce, child custody, and child support
- File the complaint with the appropriate court and pay the filing fee.
- Have your spouse legally served with the complaint and a summons that notifies them of the legal filing and the time limit they have to respond to avoid a default judgment.
- Attend the hearing, testify to the court, and get the divorce decree signed.
Potential Legal Issues in Cases Involving Divorce Due to Mental Health Problems
Some legal issues that may emerge in a divorce with a mentally ill person include:
Divorce, mental illness, and child custody can be a complicated combination. When family courts make decisions regarding child custody and visitation, they consider what is in the child’s best interest. They reach this determination by considering a number of factors. Many states specify that they may consider the physical and mental health of each parent. Even when this factor is not specifically enumerated, the courts generally have a catchall provision that they will consider “any other relevant factor.” Therefore, you should expect that the court will consider your spouse’s mental illness and how it may impact your child.
Having a mental illness should not immediately disqualify a parent from obtaining child custody or visitation. However, the court can consider whether the mental illness negatively affects your child and your spouse’s relationship with them, such as if it:
- Interferes with your spouse’s ability to provide a safe living environment for your child
- Places your child’s safety in danger
- Causes your spouse to be abusive toward your child
- Affects their ability to make proper life decisions
- Makes your spouse prone to outbursts or violence
- Causes your spouse to be frequently hospitalized
If your spouse’s condition is managed well with medication or other therapies, the mental illness may not have as significant of an impact if your spouse can show that he or she is adhering to treatment.
If a decision regarding child custody was already entered in the case but your spouse has recently been diagnosed with a mental health issue, you may be able to seek a modification in the custody order on these grounds.
Child Support & Alimony
If your spouse’s mental health issues impact their ability to get or keep a job, this may impact child support and alimony. A primary consideration in alimony cases is whether the spouse seeking support needs it and the other spouse is able to provide it. If your spouse is frequently out of work or receives disability benefits, he or she may not have sufficient income to pay support. (As an aside, SSDI income can be considered when awarding alimony but SSI income cannot). Furthermore, you may be asked to pay spousal support for your spouse with a mental illness. The court will usually consider many factors when determining whether spousal support should be ordered, in what amount, and for what duration, including the length of the marriage, the mental and physical health of each spouse, the spouses’ earning capacities, and the contributions they made during the marriage.
Regarding child support, state law usually finds that it is the responsibility of both parents to provide financial support for their children. If a court finds that your spouse is intentionally unemployed or underemployed, it can impute income to your spouse to calculate child support. However, if the court finds that your spouse is not intentionally unemployed, it may be difficult to enforce a child support order against him or her.
Dealing with mental illness and divorce can be difficult. Reach out for support to help you through this challenging time.