Mental illness may have no visible symptoms, but someone who’s drowning in the depths of their own mind may suffer damaging effects just as acutely as if there were bruises and broken bones. Spouses are often left feeling emotionally battered.
Divorce is incredibly common among those with mental illnesses, and legal proceedings are often impacted by one’s history, as well as ongoing struggles.
“Society has made strides in terms of increasing awareness and reducing stigma, but there’s still no denying the profound effect that poor mental health can have on a marriage,” Divorce Lawyer Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder said. “When relationships unravel with mental illness as a factor, there can be a myriad of unique complications and considerations.”
Additionally, when the bond is irretrievably broken, taking the time to plan and prepare ahead of a divorce filing can go a long way toward mitigating some of the most common difficulties. That assumes, of course, that it’s safe to do so (i.e., there is no threat or risk of domestic violence).
Snapshot of U.S. Mental Illness Statistics
Mental health is the foundation for thinking, communication, emotion, learning, self-esteem, and resilience. It’s key to one’s personal and emotional well-being – and central in relationships.
Most people have occasional lows, but as explained by the American Psychiatric Association, mental illnesses are health conditions that involve changes in emotion, thinking or behavior – or some combination of the three. They’re strongly associated with distress and problems functioning in social, work and family activities.
It’s estimated, at any given time, that nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences some form of mental illness. One in 24 has a condition that could be characterized as a “serious” mental illness constraining major life functions.
Some examples of common mental illness diagnoses:
- Anxiety disorders (these include obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and a range of phobias).
- Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders.
- Eating disorders.
- Personality disorders.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia.
Conditions can range from mild to severe, with no discrimination along lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, or nationality.
The current pandemic hasn’t helped. An analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School say COVID-19 created a “mental health crisis” for lots of Americans, frontline workers especially. We may well see the ripple effects of this long after the danger of the virus itself has passed.
The good news is most mental illnesses are treatable, and with proper care, most people not only function, but thrive. Still, sometimes relationships damaged in the wake of mental illness aren’t always salvageable.
Mental Illness as a Factor in Divorce
There’s little doubt that divorce and mental illness are strongly correlated. One longitudinal study published in the journal BMC Public Health indicated the risk of divorce was “significantly” higher when at least one party was “mentally distressed.” In another fairly recent multinational study, researchers analyzed marriage and divorce rates of those with a mix of 18 different mental health conditions. Every single one – within a range of 20 to 80 percent – was associated with increased likelihood of divorce.
Among those conditions most strongly associated with divorce:
- Major depression and anxiety. Spouses who are depressed often fail to engage in the relationship. They’re not able to fill work obligations, leading to financial woes. Their spouses may become burned out and resentful. Someone with high anxiety may also need a high degree of spousal support that becomes cumbersome over time.
- PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). This can be paralyzing for the person directly affected, but spouses often absorb the brunt of it – expressed in anger, irritability, hostility, paranoia or even violence.
- Personality disorders (namely, antisocial personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder; although there was insufficient evidence to quantify the impact of narcissistic personality disorder on divorce, anecdotal evidence indicates a strong correlation). People with these conditions can be unstable, impulsive, reckless, erratic, or even paranoid – all of which can destroy a relationship.
Libido and physical ability to engage in intimacy can also be impacted by mental illness or medications prescribed to treat those conditions. This prompts some people to stop taking their meds altogether, even though conditions like depression, mania, and psychosis tend to do far worse long-term damage than a temporarily stalled sex drive.
“Marriage is already so rife with challenges – even under the best of circumstances,” Rozin Golinder explains. “Mix in mental illness, and some of these issues become insurmountable – especially when you’re with someone who doesn’t seem to want to help themselves.”
Even when one has a good handle on their mental health, divorce can easily tip the scales, triggering a spiral with rippling effects during the proceedings and beyond.
Can I Cite Mental Illness as the Cause of the Divorce?
It may be possible in some states to file for divorce on the fault-based grounds of a spouse’s mental illness. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.
Laws vary from state-to-state, but all 50 states have recognized no-fault divorce since 2010. No fault divorce is a type of legal proceeding in which the filing spouse need not prove fault on the part of the other. They simply check the “irreconcilable differences” box.
Among those states that still allow fault-based divorce, mental illness may or may not be on the list. Even so, the requirements are pretty stringent.
For example, in New Jersey where Rozin-Golinder practices, N.J. Rev. Stat. 2A:34-2 allows New Jersey divorcees to file on the fault basis of institutionalization for mental illness – for a period of at least two years preceding the complaint. In Maryland, Md. Code, Family Law § 7-103 allows fault-based divorce on grounds of insanity if the mentally ill spouse has been confined to a mental institution or hospital for at least 3 years and the court hears testimony from at least two psychiatrists attesting the insanity is incurable with no hope of recovery. Connecticut, on the other hand, offers divorce on grounds of mental illness, but only if the spouse has been confined to a mental institution for five years within the six-year period preceding the date of the divorce complaint.
“In rare situations, there can be advantages to filing for a fault-based divorce on grounds of mental illness, but most people are advised to simply cite irreconcilable differences,” Rozin Golinder adds. “Mental illness can, and usually does, still have an impact on other facets of the case, but it’s typically not necessary to prove it as a basis for the split.”
Other Ways Mental Illness Can Shape Divorce
Major decisions on issues like alimony, child custody, parenting time/visitation, and division of property can be affected by one’s history or ongoing struggles with mental illness.
For example, in child custody and parenting time cases, the top priority will always be the best interests of the child. If one of the parents is clearly struggling with mental illness, there will be questions about whether a child in that parent’s care will have:
- A livable residence.
- Safety and appropriate supervision.
- Adequate food.
- Reliable transportation.
Bear in mind: A diagnosis alone probably isn’t going to jeopardize anyone’s parenting time There needs to be just cause.
Child support is going to be based on a number of factors as well, with different states having their own guidelines. One’s mental condition has an undeniable impact on a person’s ability to pay, now and in the future. Same goes for alimony/spousal support and equitable distribution.
One may argue salary and earning capacity is significantly diminished by ongoing mental health struggles.
As for equitable distribution (the legal means by which courts in most states divvy up marital property between two divorcing spouses), courts may award a spouse who is mentally ill a larger share of the marital estate if they find mental illness impedes one spouse’s ability to work and earn income on their own.
On the flip side, courts may doubt the credibility of a spouse who is mentally ill. If the court determines the individual is unable to make rational decisions, they may appoint a guardian. If there is any indication one’s condition puts assets at risk of dissipation, the court may freeze certain accounts or limit access to funds. Similarly, if there is evidence of past dissipation of assets, the courts may award a larger share to the spouse who was disadvantaged.
Planning for Divorce Involving Mental Illness
Tempering the impact of any divorce requires careful planning and preparation. Proper documentation is especially important in cases where mental illness is involved.
Rozin-Golinder recommends being sure to take careful note of the following:
- Any instance in which you feel threatened and/or your spouse was a danger to themselves or others. Mental illness can leave some individuals prone to instability or even violence. Gather as much evidence as possible of any instance in which you felt endangered. This information may be especially pertinent in matters of child custody and/or if you intend to seek a protective order.
- Any instance in which your child has been impacted by the parent’s mental illness. Examples would be any issues with neglect, abuse, or simply not having the capacity to provide for their basic physical needs and emotional well-being.
- Any interactions wherein your spouse’s grasp on reality is clearly impacted. Certain mental illnesses can cause warped perceptions of reality. Document every time this occurs, as it may impact credibility with the court.
If you are the spouse who’s been diagnosed with a mental illness, you may need to be especially meticulous in establishing how it does (and does not) impact your daily life.
Attorney Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder has dedicated her career to the exclusive practice of matrimonial and family law. She has worked with a dynamic set of clients ranging from the indigent to the high profile and high net worth. She understands the hardships her clients face when they turn to her for help. www.rgfamilylaw.com