If Your Spouse Has A Mental Health Issue

If your spouse has bipolar disorder (aka manic depression), ADD/ADHD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (“NPD”), a “spectrum” disorder like Asperger's or autism, an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, or any number of other psychological/mental “disorders,” these can make divorce, custody, and other family legal disputes all the more challenging.

Whether there has been a formal diagnosis or if you just suspect one (or more) of these may be at play, it is not likely to make the process easier for you. Why? Because, quite simply, the system is set up to address the “easy middle” and the “lowest common denominator” cases. Not the outliers. So, often you have to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole. In good news, though, these are issues we have dealt with before and can work with you to address here. Following are some pointers that we hope will help you start thinking about how these things do – and don't – affect the process.  

The upshot of all this is that it's important to take care of the real-world life concerns at issue and then the legal issues, not vice versa.

1. Get away from danger

Is there a mental health issue at play that is has some chance of resulting in physical threats to someone else, suicide, bodily harm, or long-term injury of some kind? With many mental health disorders this is not at all the case, at least in the physical sense. However, sometimes one spouse may be in denial about (or unaware of the full extent of) the other's level of mental disorder.  

If upon reflection you realize there is a chance of actual danger, don't wait – take action. Call 911, leave/ get out of the situation, get yourself some help, or check yourself in to an appropriate facility (domestic abuse shelter, hospital, etc.). Don't wait for your spouse to come and rescue or save you. You need to do this on your own. Get to safety

2. Assess the reality of the condition

If the situation is not as dire or once you (and your children) are out of harm's way, take some time to identify – as best you can – what the condition is, and how it affects the family.  

Does it mean that the person acts abusive and entitled, or disengaged and aloof, or hyperactive and disorganized? If the affected person hasn't been formally diagnosed this may be somewhat of a challenge, but there are still ways to make an educated guess about it. Once you know what the condition is, try to learn as much as you can about what is “normal” for people with conditions like that. You may have thought that s/he has intentionally been lazy when in actuality there is something at play in their brain chemistry that makes it so that most people of that diagnosis are usually called lazy.

Learning about the condition and understanding what all it entails does not mean that you have to tolerate behaviors that you find intolerable. It doesn't mean you should “stay” if you've already decided to “go” – or vice versa. Allow yourself to have understanding toward the condition, even if you can't stand the person.

3. Envision “Life Beyond"

Sometimes it's hard to envision what life might be like outside the presence of someone with a significant mental health issue. Even if you have not decided to create a life apart from that person yet, or even if you have decided not to leave, it is still important to go through this exercise. However, if you are in the process of taking steps to form a separate life, it is possibly even more important to do so.

Take some time just to think about it. Where will you live? Will you still have your same job? When the internet breaks or company comes over for dinner or finances need to be managed (or whatever else your spouse usually handles but you don't), how will those things be dealt with? What will you feel in that state that you haven't been able to feel while living with your spouse as it has been? Is it quieter and more peaceful, or is it more fun and exuberant? What will you do or work toward that you don't feel you've been able to do while in the midst of this relationship?

4. Take Steps Toward Your Vision

Don't let your vision be just a daydream. If your decision is to part ways from your spouse, then you can use this as building blocks for what comes next. The vision has to come before the action, so that you know where you are headed.  

At New Leaf Family we have built resources to help you through each of these stages. We know that dealing with mental health issues is a challenge – to say the least. But we are here for you, to work with you to be the best version of yourself that you can be so that you not only get through this… but thrive.