Mental Illness and Divorce

By | September 4, 2017

Divorce is often attributed to changing personalities or common human failings. But in many cases, serious mental illness is the main driving factor. And while these illnesses and disorders can be scary for those married to the sufferer, the process of divorcing a person suffering from one of these conditions can be equally taxing.

To be clear — the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness is always best left to psychologists, psychiatrists and other medical professionals. However, family lawyers gain unique experience and perspective dealing with those who suffer from these disorders. In some cases, it is our own clients who suffer from mental illness.


Depending on the type of disorder being dealt with during the divorce process, a family law attorney will adjust the legal strategy accordingly. This instinctively happens even in cases where the attorney has a poor understanding of mental health issues. But it is far more effective when the family law attorney has experience dealing with these issues. Such strategies might include a request that a court-appointed evaluator examine the mental health of the former spouse, or seeking a modification of an existing custody arrangement.

Depending on the former spouse’s behavior during the divorce proceedings, and whether or not they have intentionally obstructed the settlement process, a family lawyer might help a client recover attorney’s fees from the former spouse.

Common Psychological Disorders in Divorce Cases

The following list is a short breakdown of some of the psychologically recognized disorders that can make the divorce process more difficult and how lawyers might approach each. It’s important to remember that each of the following disorders may share symptoms in common behaviors. If you or a loved one is dealing with a mental health crisis, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

This disorder is outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM), a standard resource used by mental health professionals to diagnose patients. According to the DSM, narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, a need for attention, and most unfortunate for those involved with the narcissist, a lack of empathy. We’ve written an entire post on how to divorce your narcissistic spouse to protect your children.

While narcissists can be charming and charismatic, especially at the start of a relationship, they often become emotionally distant due to the fact that they are incredibly self-absorbed. Unable to properly regulate their sense of self worth, their behavior and mood can vacillate wildly and they can become prone to violent outbursts—particularly when they don’t get their way.

During a divorce or custody proceeding, a former spouse, who has been emotionally distant during the marriage, may suddenly show a strong interest in gaining full custody of the children. Such a move often doesn’t stem from a place of love, but rather a sense of entitlement. In other words, the narcissist might view the children as trophies to be won in order to maintain his or her sense of self.

Often, the best strategy for dealing with a narcissist is not to get involved with one in the first place. Treatment options for narcissists are limited, as significant personal change only occurs when a person is able to recognize their own faults.

If you are engaged in a hotly contested divorce with a narcissist, one piece of advice would be to find healthy ways to manage your own emotions and avoid engaging with the narcissist in a manner that could hurt your case. If children are involved and abuse has occurred, it might become necessary to argue to the court that it would not be in the child’s best interest for the narcissistic parent to have primary custody.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

While many folks are familiar with terms like sociopath and psychopath, both of which are used interchangeably with antisocial personality, much confusion remains about what these terms actually mean. But regardless of whether or not you are in the know, if you are unlucky enough to have been married to a person with this personality disorder, clinical jargon is probably the least of your concerns.

Contrary to popular belief, not all antisocial people exhibit behavior on a level with Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy. While those particular serial killers were likely sociopaths themselves, they exhibited the most extreme characteristics associated with this disorder.

A person with antisocial personality disorder exhibits a disregard for the rights of others and a tendency to violate those rights.

Deceit and manipulation are hallmarks of their behavior, and they will do whatever it takes to obtain the things they want. While the term antisocial conjures images of neurotic loners who avoid cocktail parties, the term actually refers to a refusal to adhere to the normal rules established by society, including laws.

There are any number of reasons why a person with antisocial personality would find him or herself being served with divorce papers: infidelity, fraud, financial theft, domestic violence, psychological abuse, etc. When dealing with this type of person during a divorce situation, expect them to use the same tactics they brought to bear in the marriage. This could intimidation and threats to you or your children.

While these folks are capable of turning on the charm, particularly with people who don’t know them well, when this tactic fails to help them achieve their goals, they will switch to deceit, and manipulation. If children are involved, they could be used as pawns. As with narcissistic personality disorder, treatment options are limited for people with antisocial personality disorder.

If you believe your soon-to-be former spouse to be a sociopath, it is recommended that you don’t meet or negotiate with him or her unless your attorney is present.

While the strategy for dealing with an antisocial personality disorder will vary depending on the people involved and the facts of the particular case, it’s important that, just as with narcissists, you don’t allow yourself to respond to the sociopath with inappropriate emotional outbursts. A skilled manipulator with an antisocial personality could provoke emotional responses in a former spouse that could undermine your case.

Bipolar Disorder

Unlike the previous two disorders, bipolar is classified as a mood disorder. Bipolar disorder is characterized by instability in the sufferer’s mood. This can include a vacillation between extreme depression and manic or hypo-manic episodes.

When a person is manic or hypo-manic, they experience an abnormally elevated or irritable mood. These episodes can be accompanied by an inflated sense of self-esteem or grandiosity. The person might experience a lack of need for sleep and engage in risky behavior.

Unfortunately, during times of stress (such as during a divorce proceeding), a bipolar sufferer’s symptoms may get worse, and their behavior more erratic. The good news is that unlike personality disorders, bipolar disorder is often treatable with medication and other therapy.

While it might be necessary to seek sole custody of the children or obtain a modified custody order while the parent suffering from this affliction gets treatment, there is hope that in time, their condition will improve. In a recent article published on covering the subject of bipolar disorder and divorce, Licensed Professional Counselor Jennifer Coleman explained that it’s important for the other spouse to remain consistent in his or her actions during the divorce.

“Be very consistent in what message is given throughout the divorce process,” Coleman explained. “The bipolar spouse needs to understand that no matter what they do or say, their former partner is unswayed in their decision. Any yo-yoing in intention will make it very hard for the bipolar spouse to accept their changed future.”

Mental Health & Divorce | JS Family Law Attorney

Alcoholism or Drug Addiction

Anyone who has spent any time with an alcoholic won’t have any difficulty realizing why these unfortunate souls frequently get divorced. Whether or not people agree that this is a mental health

Folks who are addicted to alcohol and other substances exhibit a pattern of deception and manipulation in all areas of their life, but especially when it comes to their use of mind-altering substances. They often can’t maintain a job, struggle with the management of finances, and are often in poor health.

Some alcoholics are prone to violent behavior, while others may isolate and become emotionally distant. Frequently, alcoholics find themselves running afoul of the law. This can happen by way of drunk driving arrests, assault charges, disturbing the peace, or any number of other legal violations.

During the divorce process, an alcoholic or addict may exhibit many of the same behaviors listed with the other disorders in this article. They may be prone to bouts of grandiosity and entitlement, which can lead to protracted battles over custody and finances. A resentful alcoholic might even file frivolous complaints in an effort to stall the divorce process. It’s important that you discuss your former spouse’s drinking or drug use with your attorney as this information could be useful when it comes to visitation with the children as well as other aspects of the divorce proceedings.

While those who don’t understand addiction might be prone to dismiss an alcoholic as weak-minded or having low character, the American Medical Association formally declared alcoholism a disease in 1956. Additionally, alcoholism is classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

While convincing a person suffering from alcoholism to seek help can be difficult, particularly for a person who refuses to admit they have a problem, there are support groups available for those who live with or are involved with alcoholics.

Perhaps most famous among these is the international society known as Al-Anon, a group providing support to the families and friends of alcoholics. The organization was cofounded in 1951 by Lois Wilson, the wife of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. The program’s goal is not to stop the drinking of the alcoholic family member, but rather to help the non-alcoholic person find comfort and learn to accept the things in their life that are beyond their control.


Whether your soon-to be-former spouse is an alcoholic, or is suffering from another mental health issue, one of the best things you can do is take care of yourself. Even with the help of an attorney, and other professionals, it will be a challenge, but you can navigate this process successfully. Choose your battles carefully, and try to remain focused on your goals. Your children and your future depend on it.

2 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Divorce

  1. Thoma W Ridgley

    I like your site, I like your way of recognizing the challenges some people have to face in life. I just filled out a simple form and then read on to your in depth analysis of how people, in a marriage, can be come unbalanced. Unfortunately his comes after 45 years of marriage. Initially I asked if she could keep me out of a little house we have empty we jointly own next door to the marital home. It is in imminent foreclosure and she insists on selling both the houses. We jointly managed a non profit charity and since GoodWill came to town it too is near foreclosure. We’re broke, and she has abandoned her part of the business. A real nightmare .. We should have stayed in Santa Barbara where we had a good life in the 80’s Can you comment on her level of control on the small house? Can she keep me out? I can stall foreclosure better if I reside in it. I’m living above the shop now but it is one the market and I will be homeless more or less. Thanks for reading all this, maybe you could give me a bit of advise on my rights.

  2. Administrator Post author

    Hi there. I’m sorry to hear about your situation. I can’t comment and give legal advice on a public website like this, and far more information would be needed to give any advice. I recommend that you contact a lawyer if you have a specific goal in mind that you want to accomplish.

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