Can a Psychiatric Diagnosis Hurt You in a Divorce?
Taking Care of Yourself, Your Spouse, and Your Children
In any given year, about one of every four American adults is diagnosed with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Not surprisingly, many couples who are considering divorce may have a mental health issue that plays a role in the decision to divorce. A diagnosis can also have a major effect on the divorce itself.
If you are considering divorce or in the process of one, and there is a question about your or your spouse's mental health, it can affect how your divorce proceeds, the way your children relate to both of you, and the kind of settlement that the judge may award. Learn more about what you should know if you're considering raising mental health issues in a divorce case.
What Do YOU Think?
How often do you think mental illness is a factor leading to divorce?
How Mental Illness Affects Divorce Proceedings
Mental illness is a tricky factor when it comes to divorce equations. Some people are seriously mentally ill with conditions like borderline personality disorder (BPD) or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), conditions that very likely contributed to ongoing problems that have led to divorce, but they may never have been diagnosed.
Meanwhile, some people have an illness that is treatable, but aren't diagnosed or they don't comply with their doctors' recommendations. Yet other people have been diagnosed and are compliant with their treatment, but they're not getting the "right" treatment or have received an inaccurate and contestable diagnosis.
And then there's a whole different scenario - people who self-diagnose a partner as having a mental illness when that person is actually emotionally stable. Often, the accusers are undiagnosed narcissists or borderline personalities, but the nature of their illness makes it unlikely they will ever be diagnosed.
Some states offer no-fault divorces, while others require grounds for a divorce - and mental illness is considered to be a valid reason.
In the courtroom, hostile estranged spouses may bandy about accusations of mental instability, especially when children are involved. Judges may order psychiatric evaluations to consider which parent can provide their children the healthiest environment in which to grow. Accusations of mental illness can incur delays, extra expenses, and lingering resentments that may never heal.
Mental Illness and Children in Divorce Proceedings
When mental health plays a role in divorce, it can stigmatize a parent and affect how his or her children perceive their caretaker. Even if a parent has been an adequate and loving parent, the moment they're labelled with even a common diagnosis like depression or anxiety, it begins to affect the children's relationship with their mom or dad.
Suddenly, their parent may become "less" in their eyes. Less capable. Less worthy. Less deserving of love. Children are already under stress because of the divorce proceedings. Introducing mental health issues can aggravate that stress and lead to acting out behaviors, depression, anxiety, and more adjustment problems for children.
If a parent's mental illness affects their ability to provide for their child's basic needs so much that they shouldn't have unsupervised time with your children, it may be necessary to document their condition thoroughly and introduce the evidence in your proceedings. However, if the truth is more akin to the parent simply holding different values that you dislike, consider finding a different way to persuade them if you truly love your children, because your kids still need both of you.
How Your Divorce Settlement Can Be Affected by Mental Illness
Angry partners may pledge that their soon-to-be-ex will pay the price when they get to court because of a mental illness, but they're often wrong.
In fact, the opposite may happen. Courts may require the healthy parent to provide spousal support (what used to be called alimony) or family support - and may not change custody as long as the diagnosis doesn't interfere with the patient's ability to parent.
When Should Mental Health be an Issue in Divorce?
By the time a couple files for divorce, the effects of any mental illness are evident even when there hasn't been an official diagnosis. Bringing it up in the courtroom can cause more problems than necessary, or claims might be ignored altogether.
However, there are times when it's better to raise the issue of mental illness:
- When there is a high risk of violence toward you or your children.
- When your children are at a moderate to high risk of neglect or abuse.
- When you anticipate that your partner will try to get spousal support due to their diagnosis.
In all three of these circumstances, be prepared to defend against an unwanted outcome. Keep journals that report threats and injuries, including the dates, locations, and events that took place. Take photographs of suspicious bruises or injuries. See a doctor to get third party, objective documentation of abuse. Ask the court to issue a temporary restraining order if the risk is immediate. Use e-mail, witness statements, photographs, work histories, and recreation information if it can prove that your spouse's behavior is unstable or that they're healthy enough that you shouldn't need to provide for them financially.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
My soon to be ex has undiagnosed bipolar along with NPD & BPD. She has literally gone off the end with her actions, and now we are in a nasty custody battle for our 9yr old. Your article hit the center of what our shattered family is going through. Mental health is a serious topic that needs to brought to the forefront in all aspects of life. I am in desperate need for legal advice in mental health and divorce proceedings. Do you have any guidance?
I'm sorry that you're going through this. As you might guess, it would be illegal for me to offer legal advice since I'm not an attorney. What I *can* tell you is that the legal system does have some tools that can help, and I have some personal experience I'm happy to share with you that might be helpful. When I was dealing with a significant custody battle (by battle I basically mean an all-out war!), I learned that you could request an attorney to be devoted to your children's best interests. This person is called a "guardian ad litem" and has to loyalty to you or your soon-to-be-ex. They are strictly serving to protect your children by gathering information and forming recommendations about custody. In my case, the GAL interviewed teachers, friends, and other family members in addition to having several conversations with the daughter we wanted to protect.
I discovered through the process that attorneys never would build my case, though. It was entirely up to me to put together evidence that the attorneys could use. I maintained careful logs of dates and contents of every interaction that involved coercion, insults, criticism, false threats, slander, libel, accusations of any type, and violations of the law. I recorded the date, time, and facts that happened, including direct quotes, but I did not try to attach meanings or values to those events, because the judge would have to make that decision. So when she failed to show up to let the young lady come for her visitation, I didn't say, "She kept (her) from visiting us." I said, "I waited three hours and walked to the parking lot approximately every 15 minutes but did not see (NAME) at any time."Helpful 3
My husband has been gaslighting me for many years, and I am now fairly fragile. I am trying to get my emotional strength up to separate, but I am afraid he will succeed in telling others I am “crazy." Could this affect the divorce and how can I prove any of it?
It might affect your divorce if you have a psychiatric diagnosis that could influence matters, but in general, many people make threats about what the judge will do, when the truth is, they have no idea what a judge will do! "She's crazy" is unlikely to influence a judge, but "She broke into my house and fed my infant a bottle filled with beer" might. In other words, if you do crazy things, then it could impact the outcome, but if your husband's gaslighting, it probably won't.Helpful 9
My husband has bipolar mania. Would I qualify for a divorce?
I don't know of any states where it is necessary to "qualify" for divorce.Helpful 4
What can my son do to protect himself against his psychotic wife, who he is divorcing and who now threatens to hurt or kill him?
The most important thing is to get a temporary order of protection, I would think. It's also important to figure out how serious the threat may be. If she has a history of violence, access to him, access to a weapon, and so on, then the threat is greater than someone who says such things but has none of these indicators.Helpful 1
How will a dependent child who suffers from mental health problems be treated in eyes of their parents divorcing? Things like agoraphobia with the chance of having to sell their house.
Do you mean how they'll be treated by their parents? Hopefully with sensitivity and love. I think that a child who is diagnosed with a mental illness might require some special attention and effort during trying times. Everyone can survive these traumas if they have a good support network filled with people who genuinely care.