Read This Before Divorcing Your Mentally Ill Partner

It's important to know the whole story before calling it quits.

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The heartbreaking realities of divorce include the high split rate for people with mental illnesses. And, often, spouses don't quite understand how to deal with a mentally ill partner without first considering divorce or a breakup.

While you can do so, before divorcing a mentally ill spouse, there are a few things to keep in mind that may help you better understand the actions and feelings of your partner. However, if you say to yourself out loud "my wife is mentally unstable" or "my husband is mentally unstable" and you don't feel comfortable with saying or accepting that, divorce may be a better option.


A multinational study of mental disorders, marriage, and divorce, published in 2011, found that a sample of 18 mental disorders all increased the likelihood of divorce — ranging from a 20 percent increase to an 80 percent increase in the divorce rate.

Addictions and major depression and anxiety were the highest factors, with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) also significant.

Elsewhere, researchers have shown a strong link between personality disorders and elevated divorce rates, with antisocial personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder having the highest rates. The authors accepted that there was insufficient research on narcissistic personality disorder to quantify its effect on divorce, although anecdotal evidence strongly suggests a link.


With the reported increase in narcissistic traits in the U.S., we are likely to see this as an increasing category. From my observation, I would estimate that 80 percent of the people in my divorce recovery classes suffer from a mental illness or disorder, or have dealt with a partner with a mental health problem.

The challenges of being married to a person with a mental illness or disorder are often made considerably worse during the divorce process, and an individual with a mental health challenge will see their symptoms worsen during a divorce.

RELATED: 10 Ways To Beautifully Support Your Spouse Through A Mental Illness

What are the common mental health issues seen in marriages?

Many people, due to mental health concerns, have additional barriers to achieving intimacy and have trouble consistently engaging in behaviors that support marriage.


1. Depression or Bipolar Disorder

Studies report major depression and addictions as the top two mental health conditions that contribute to divorce. In addition, bipolar disorder seems to relate to divorce by virtue of how long and how severe the depressive episodes are, and the amount of life stress associated with a manic episode (for example, debt incurred or a partner betrayed by cheating).

Depression seems to affect the divorce rate by virtue of lack of engagement in the relationship, as well as not being able to fulfill family or work expectations.

Men sometimes show depression through anger, and many women have said how difficult it is to live with constant irritability, hostility, and angry outbursts. The spouse of a depressed person may take on additional responsibilities in the family and finances, which leads to resentment and burnout.

Because of a depressed spouse, some partners have had to take on family responsibilities in addition to already demanding jobs, while feeling powerless to make changes.


When you're married to a person who has bipolar disorder, it can be hard dealing with their symptoms.

People with bipolar disorder can have their lows of becoming volatile and unreliable, which can lead to arguments with their spouse over trivial things, and they will have little regard for their partner's feelings. The other low can be the depression that comes with bipolar disorder, leading them to withdraw emotionally and avoid spending time with their spouse.

If your spouse has bipolar disorder and you are considering divorce, the unpredictability of their symptoms is often the cause. Their moods may vacillate between debilitating depression, and frantic energy. For some, this strain of unpredictability and mental illness may affect the marriage and result in a divorce.

2. Anxiety

Anxiety is another mental health condition that can severely affect a relationship.


Someone with chronic anxiety tends to seek a high amount of emotional support from a spouse, and I have seen an increase in impatience from the non-anxious spouse.

Some anxious clients also seem to experience an increase in their personal stress levels just by being in a relationship, and some decide to end the relationship themselves to relieve that tension.

3. Borderline Personality Disorder

If your spouse has borderline personality disorder, they have five or more of the following symptoms

1. Desperate efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment

2. Patterns of being unstable in the relationship

3. Switching from extremes of admiration and hatred


4. Unstable self-image

5. Impulsivity in spending money, sex, substance abuse

6. Reckless driving or binge-eating

7. Repeated suicidal behavior

8. Erratic mood swings

9. Chronic feelings of emptiness

10. Intense anger

11. Paranoid ideation or dissociative symptoms

When filing for divorce from a spouse with borderline personality disorder, it's likely they are more reactive than usual; they may insult you, threaten you or make unfair accusations towards you.

A person with BPD has difficulty seeing others' perspectives and lashes out to seek attention. They may not or never find the skills to appropriately respond or have the insight on divorce and how to move forward with it.


4. Addiction

Addictions are also often associated with a lack of personal responsibility, and they frequently propel the other spouse into over-responsibility. A person with an active addiction has a hard time being intimate, as their priority becomes fulfilling the addictive desire.

Another behavior associated with addicted people is the tendency to blame the world and other people for their problems; this does not make for a healthy marriage.

Every day, those who experience mental health illnesses or disorders have spouses that must deal with insecurity, fear, shame, and blame.

RELATED: I'm Truly Terrified Of Telling My Partner About My Mental Health Issues


What are the emotional challenges of divorcing a mentally ill partner?

Renowned relationship expert John Gottman has convincingly argued that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are the "four horsemen of relationships" that lead to divorce. In marriages where one or both partners are living with a mental health issue, the four horsemen appear considerably more frequently.

The emotional challenges in divorcing a spouse who is mentally ill are the hardest because even with external help from a mental health professional, emotional difficulties are internal battles come with different feelings, including guilt, loss, and worry.

1. Guilt

Guilt comes easily in a divorce with a spouse who has a mental illness because you might know how much harder it's going to be for your partner afterwards. You may feel guilty for not properly helping them or not knowing how to handle your spouse's symptoms and problems.

The guilt can also come from not wanting to deal with the situation anymore and giving up on your partner because their illness is causing stress and anger; however, you know their struggle isn't their fault.


Whatever the case, it's not good to feel guilt, especially if it's regarding something you did for your own mental health. At the end of the day, you have to put yourself and your feelings first.

2. Loss

You may be dealing with feelings of loss, even if the relationship was toxic. You can miss certain moments and romanticize them, might be asking "what if" questions, or wonder if you might have made your spouse's condition worse by leaving.

Feelings of loss are normal, but instead of focusing on things you might have lost, find a way to focus on what happened and recall why you wanted the divorce to begin with. Remembering why you got divorced and why you were unhappy reminds you that you were right to leave.

3. Worry

This is probably the most frequent emotion you feel during a divorce process with a mentally ill spouse, as you might be worried about their mental health and safety.


You might wonder if you made things worse for them or if their symptoms have intensified after the divorce. You also may worry that their condition worsened and won't get any better.

If you're genuinely concerned for their mental health and believe you need to put a support system in place for them, it might be best to do so, especially if they might harm themselves in any way.

When considering a divorce with mental illness as a factor, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is the mental health condition treatable, and is the individual willing to receive treatment?

2. How much harm is each family member experiencing?

3. Are you willing to remain in the relationship even if nothing changed?


4. Is the condition stable, or is it likely to get worse over time?

5. What kind of support network is available?

6. What are your values when it comes to divorce?

From my experience, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to divorce decision-making when you include mental illness. Most people have a long list of conflicting "shoulds" that they have inherited from friends, family, and their community, and this complicates the decision.

In order to deal with the added stress of divorcing when either person has a mental illness, the decision-maker has to make sure that the decision is truly their own.

What are the legal considerations when divorcing a mentally ill spouse?

The United States legally recognizes that divorce has no-fault grounds, which means you don't have to prove yourself when seeking a divorce. You can have those reasons in your head for wanting a divorce, but legally that's not necessary.


For divorces with spouses who have mental health illnesses, you can file for a fault-based divorce. In the case of an extreme and violent mentally ill spouse, you could be entitled to a larger share of marital assets and a higher level of a spousal support award.

The two aspects that can be affected by the presence of mental health in a marriage are spousal support considerations and child custody considerations.

Spousal support considerations deal with alimony payments, which mean either you'll have to pay more or your mentally ill spouse will. It all depends on if they were treated or untreated as mentally ill.

Child custody considerations in family law will take into account each parent's ability to take care of the child. If an allegation of mental health was made, your mentally ill spouse will have to be evaluated by a licensed mental health provider.


According to divorce lawyers, it's best to document everything if you want to come out on top in a divorce, especially if your mentally ill spouse was ever violent or treated you poorly. It's best also to keep all negotiations civil and productive.

RELATED: 10 Important Things To Know When Dating Someone Who Has A Mental Illness

Teresa Atkin is a Master Certified Life Coach and has been coaching individuals, couples and groups for 15 years.